This is what happens when you live your life compared to your beautiful mother
In her incredible memoir Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher wrote this about her mother, Debbie Reynolds: “I think it was when I was ten that I realized with profound certainty that I would not be, and was in no way now, the beauty that my mother was. […] I decided then that I’d better develop something else – if I wasn’t going to be pretty, maybe I could be funny or smart.”
I was eight when I realized I would never be as beautiful as my mom. Unlike Carrie, I didn’t decide to be funny or smart, though. I just decided to be angry – at myself, at the world, and especially at my mother.
When I was eight, looks were just starting to be a thing in my life. Previously, you distinguished yourself by how fast you could run, how well you could draw, or how many Oreos you could fit in your mouth at one time (five).
Then one day, once we had stopped taking naps at school and could be more or less trusted to make it through the day without wetting ourselves, everyone started noticing who was attractive and who wasn’t. I didn’t fully understand what was happening (my nap time had been taken away, so I was a little groggy), but I knew it was bad.
My large stature and my ability to recreate fart noises by blowing wetly into the crook of my arm had been huge assets on the playground, but I was starting to suspect they might be hindrances moving forward.
Confused and anxious, I turned to my mother for answers.
Given that I didn’t even know what questions I had yet, I didn’t ask her anything as much as I watched her, hoping to pick up clues — little scraps of wisdom that I could someday piece together into a map of how to be beautiful, how to be a woman.
I watched her put her makeup on in the morning, her confident, practiced hands painting her eyes black and her lips crimson. I watched her dress in richly-colored clothes, zippers gliding smoothly along her hips, buttons cinching in her silhouette, ruby toes sliding into vertiginous heels. I watched her exercise in our TV room, sweat pouring down her face as she pumped her arms and legs energetically on our old Nordic Trak. Her talk, her laugh, her food, her drink – I watched it all, analyzing, memorizing, searching.
I watched her and watched her and watched her, and then I shuffled back into my room and stared at myself.
I stared at my muddy brown hair, my deep-set eyes, my pointy chin, my chubby cheeks, and my doughy belly. I was as similar to my mother as a Bulldog is to a Borzoi – technically in the same family, but totally different breeds.
Don’t panic, I thought to myself, maybe no one will notice.
“Your mom is so beautiful,” family friends would say, “You look just like your dad, of course.”
“If your mom’s pretty, why aren’t you?” kids at school would demand.
“Your mother is very beautiful,” a hairdresser told me once, “I mean, you’re beautiful too, but not like her.”
People seemed frustrated with me, like I had brought this on myself. Like, maybe before I was born, I had been presented with a selection of physical traits from both of my parents, and after walking up and down the rows and carefully considering each item, I looked up and said: “Yes, I see my mother’s straight nose and high cheekbones over there, but I’ll take my father’s heavy brow and broad shoulders instead, thanks.”
I panicked. I cried. And then I got angry. This was all my mom’s fault.
If only she didn’t insist on being vexingly and persistently beautiful, then I wouldn’t have to listen to renditions of “Stacy’s Mom” six times day. If she would just gain a bunch of weight, get a bad perm, and wear some ill-fitting jorts, then people might not criticize me as much. They’d say “Sure, Madeleine’s no prize, but have you seen her mom? Give the girl a break; she’s doing the best she can.”
My teenage years hit our family like a renegade freight train. I was high-strung, insecure, and angry — and my mother bore the brunt of my rage. Our fights were loud, tearful affairs that covered a variety of topics ranging from my curfew, to my clothes, to the towels that lived permanently on my bathroom floor — but I never brought up the one thing they were really about, the truth too horrible to speak. I never said: “Your beauty makes me feel like a failure.”
Years later, I was on a road trip with a friend who noted: “I’ve never known a woman who didn’t have a complicated relationship with her mother.”
They mystify us, our mothers. We don’t know what we want from them.
They are small, hazy glimpses into our own futures. We’re afraid that we’ll become them, and we’re afraid that we won’t. We want them to protect us and keep us whole, and we want them to let us make mistakes and shatter and rebuild ourselves in our own image.
I thought about my own mother as we drove: my beautiful, smart, viciously funny, flawed, vulnerable mother.
In the years since our disparate appearances were brought to my attention, I had realized:
a) How supremely FUCKED UP it is that all these people felt comfortable telling a little girl she wasn’t as pretty as her mom
b) How supremely FUCKED UP it is that society tells women they have to look a certain way to be worthy of love and success
c) That my mom is a super cool broad. She’s got the sharpest jokes, the best insights, and yes, a killer shoe collection.
Over time, she became more than my mom — she became my friend.
I’m still watching her, though. I always will.