My Mother Wasn’t Beautiful
I grew up knowing that I had limitless potential.
I knew I could do or be absolutely anything I wanted. I knew I was loved. I knew I was talented. I knew, for sure, that I was special. I was (and still am) about 50/50 on whether or not I actually had magical powers. I also happened to know that I was really pretty, but that was neither here nor there.
I didn’t see “being pretty” the same way other girls did. It was never a destination, or a trophy. I felt sure that people liked how I looked only because I was confident and happy. I spent most of my childhood encoding and decoding, hearing “what a beautiful little girl!” and translating it into “wow she’s so lively and bright!”
That’s kind of a weird perspective for a little girl to have, I know. But it’s also the perspective upon which all my work here at Remodel Fitness is based, and it’s because of how I was raised. Both of my parents were on board for the raise-limitless-children game, reinforcing my inherent value and focusing on the importance of character rather than appearance.
But the truth is, it was by watching my mom that I learned how to see beauty.
My mom was (and is!) passionate, fierce, hilarious, and full of joy. She revered nature over everything else, often bringing me to admire a beautiful spider or lizard in her garden, relishing the natural beauty of pregnancy and birthing, and eventually going on to become a midwife. When my brothers and I were little, she encouraged us to listen to the natural wisdom of our bodies, and always made our experiences feel valid and important. When we asked her what happens to us when we die, she answered in the same voice many other parents would use to describe heaven, as if this was the coolest shit ever. “Our bodies will decompose and become earth, so that the plants and animals can recycle us and continue the cycle of life!”
Ladies and gentlemen, my amazing mother
My mom is fucking awesome.
But I would never had described her as beautiful.
Just to be clear, that’s not to say that my mother wasn’t, or isn’t, beautiful. It’s just that while growing up, I never thought of her that way.
The things is, in terms of importance, being physically attractive lagged WAY behind being funny, smart, hard-working, brave, creative, and about a thousand other qualities in my book. I actually regarded “beautiful” as a pretty lousy compliment, almost a back-handed insult. It seemed to me that you would only compliment someone’s appearance if they didn’t have many inner riches, and my mother was clearly bursting at the seams with inner riches. I could have complimented my mom all day, and “beautiful” never would have come up. There were simply too many other, more important, things to compliment.
Out of fairness to my multi-dimensional mother, I should mention here that she didn’t wear makeup or put effort into her appearance when I was a kid, because she was a stay-at-home mom in a hippie town and that’s just what happened. She wasn’t trying to make some grand statement about appearances, so a lot of what I learned about beauty was almost incidental. Looking back, she says it’s not like she chose to look so wild, there just wasn’t time for primping with 2 babies at home! To me, that’s just further proof of the message’s validity.
I love this photo: my mom with me and my brothers when we were little, all uncharacteristically dressed up!
As a kid, I always assumed my mom wanted to look exactly how she looked. She never seemed to stress about her appearance, or feel bad that she didn’t look different. I don’t remember once hearing her bash her body or complain about the way she looked. I was so sure she looked exactly right in fact, that when I was around 8 years old I saw her tweezing her eyebrows, and felt very confused. I asked her why she tweezed them, and she replied “so it looks less out of control.”
This made zero sense to me.
I remember clearly thinking Ok. Mom doesn’t want to look out of control. So then, does she want to look IN control? That’s ridiculous! One of the best things about my mom was that she was kind of wild. Her crazy 80’s curls, her big eyebrows, her full-body laugh, her playful spontaneity. Other moms were controlled, and stiff. Other moms had couches covered in plastic, went on diets, and had sensible hairdos. Why would my mom want to look like that?
I concluded that my mom must be trying to look more like the other moms, as a disguise. This made sense. Not everyone has as many inner riches as she did, and she probably didn’t want the other, boring, “normal” moms to feel bad. This was not at all the lesson she was trying to teach that day, but I remember learning it:
Sometimes, confidence comes from fitting in.
I now work with a lot of women who struggle with body-image. Very often, these women can trace their distorted relationships with their bodies back to their mothers. Many mothers would shame their daughters for being too big, comment on their eating habits, or grant them praise only when they were pretty and happy and thin.
I’m certain that one of the reasons I’m able to do this kind of work so effectively is that I grew up with a mother who truly believes bodies are for so much more than being looked at. She taught me how to listen to, trust, and rely on my body’s natural wisdom. She would ask me insightful questions about where in my body I felt sensations and emotions, and actually listen to my answers. She empowered me to trust myself, dig deeper, get comfortable with my own inherent power, and let myself feel everything, good or bad. To me, having a body was obviously about tapping into your personal hotline to nature’s ancient wisdom and power, not about looking attractive or pleasing others.
On the left is my mom at 18. On the right is me at 18
In fairness, as I became a teenager and developed F cup breasts, I suddenly got TONS of attention for how I looked, a fact about which I felt pride, confusion, and resentment. It took many painful years to reconcile the fact that my body is visually attractive, and that most people don’t look at me and see my inner riches. As a teenager, I often delighted in the power I felt over someone who was attracted to me, but it also seemed misguided and sad that boys only saw the outer stuff. It felt, and still sometimes feels, inherently disrespectful to praise my appearance.
For the same reason I wouldn’t have called my mother “beautiful,” I don’t think of myself as “hot” or “sexy.” There is just so much more important stuff about me worth noticing and praising.
Anyway. After much work and growth, I can now get down with the fact that my face and body are visually beautiful (at least to me) and that this fact in no way detracts from my inner riches. But honestly, I still kind of consider “beautiful” to be a lousy compliment. I mean, sunsets are beautiful. Flowers are beautiful.
But a person is so much more than beautiful.
A person is brave, compassionate, and generous. A person has integrity, authenticity, and autonomy. A person can be so loved, and so loving, that light seems to shine out through her eyes and skin, so that being near her feels like being bathed in sunshine.
A person’s spirit and energy can literally light her up so much that when you look at her you have a sense of feeling her rather than seeing her.
For lack of more accurate language, to me, this experience of feeling someone is what makes them “beautiful.” Inner riches shining through will transform someone’s face and body and make her extraordinarily beautiful, and this is particularly true of my mom. (Note: I’m including photos so you can get a sense, but naturally, photos don’t do her justice because you can’t feel her. She feels like sunshine.)
This is mom and her husband Scott at their wedding- on the top of a mountain!
While I accept that praising someone’s appearance is related to praising their energy, spirit, and personality, it still seems inaccurate. It would be far more accurate to describe someone as… compelling. Or magnetic. Or magic. People use these clumsy compliments about appearances to express something that should be more tactile than visual. More felt than seen.
I’m sure you can see how when it comes to cultivating self-love, body acceptance, and positive thinking, the way you experience “beauty” is an important part of the puzzle. Instead of focusing solely on visual appearances, I encourage you to soften and widen your gaze. Take each person in as a whole-dimensional being, and use more senses than just your eyeballs.
Try feeling people rather than just seeing them. Notice how it feels to be near someone, and put your attention on who they are, rather than how they look.
Do this for yourself too! I’m super down to admire your face and body (#radicalvanity) but don’t stop with just the visual or aesthetic aspect.
Allow your rich, complex inner life to inform what you see when you look at yourself.
You’re a whole person with a wealth of unique gifts, emotions, fears, thoughts, dreams, accomplishments, quirks, hurts, and love. When you really take a moment to let that sink in, it seems a bit insane (and insulting!) that people habitually focus only on your appearance, no?
If you’re not sure what I mean, let me ask you this: when someone praises your appearance, are they really praising YOU? Are they really even seeing the real you?
Thanks to the way I was brought up, I saw beauty as a whole-dimensional experience, and as such I’ve been (mostly) spared the life-shrinking obsession over my visual appearance. You don’t need to have been raised this way to start shifting your experiences of beauty, however. With practice, patience, and an accumulation of small insights and revelations, you can expand the way you experience people. I’ve seen it with clients over and over; it is so much easier to accept and love your body when you see it as a vessel for the wealth of unique riches inside.
I’m incredibly grateful for the woman who fostered my unique perspective on beauty, and for my ability to now share that perspective with others. When I look at my mom, I see passion, courage, a love of learning, and pure delight in the little things in life. She doesn’t dress like a hippie anymore, and nowadays she wears makeup and tries to tame her hair, despite the fact that there is really no taming it. (I have her hair; I assure you it just does what it wants.)
Me and my mom at my nephew’s baptism!
Sometimes when my mom puts on eyeliner and heeled boots to go out to dinner or something, I’ll suddenly see for a moment that she really is visually beautiful. Stunning, in fact. But then I imagine again that she’s just wearing a disguise to fit in, so the rest of the world doesn’t feel bad about how exceptionally rich and beautiful she is inside.
If you’ve made it this far, I have a challenge for you: Try giving people compliments without ever commenting on their appearance, for a whole week. It’s harder than it sounds. If you’re feeling bold, practice some #radicalvanity by asking three people to give YOU compliments without mentioning how you look. Let me know how it goes in the comments!
I am passionate about helping women learn to love their bodies, but loving your body as a woman in our culture isn’t easy, as you know.
That’s why I created the Body Image Alchemy Blueprint:
to help women explore and address the actual blocks that get in the way of truly loving and accepting yourself. If you want to love and accept your body no matter how it looks, but don’t know where to start, this course is for you.
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