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In Your Mother's Image
By Christine Stoddard
I'm an avid reader of XOJane.com, as much for the comments as for the actual articles. (No, that was not an intentional riff off the old joke, “I read Playboy for the articles.”) I especially enjoy watching the conversations about personal identity and feminism unfold. The community that forms over essays like “It Happened to Me: I'm 34 Years Old, and I Just Found Out I'm Not a Woman, But I'm Actually a Man” and “The Myth of the Teenage Temptress: Or Why a Young Girl Can Not Consent to Sex with an Adult Man” gets the ol' gears turning and usually leaves me feeling empowered. It's because of this community that I have yet one more reason to count my lucky stars that I was born in the Age of the Internet.
In devouring as many XOJane comments sections as I have, I cannot help but notice some reoccurring ideas. One thought that has been echoed over and over again is the belief that a mother projects her feelings about her physical appearance onto her daughter—whether that means positive or negative body acceptance. Many XOJane commenters have agreed that this rings especially true if a daughter closely resembles her mother. The mother's feelings will influence her daughter and her self-esteem. If she likes her hips and her daughter has inherited the same hips, the daughter will like her hips. If she hates her hips and her daughter has inherited the same hips, the daughter will hate her hips. Time after time, XOJane commenters have mourned over how their mothers' negative body perception has forced a lifetime of self-loathing upon them. While some have directly blamed their mothers, others have acknowledged that their mothers are just as much victims of societal expectations as they are.
When I look at ads in Vogue, Town & Country, and other national fashion and lifestyle magazines, I sometimes wonder what the models think of themselves. These young, tall, and almost impossibly skinny models are our society's ideal beauties. But do the models look in the mirror and feel pretty? What did their mothers tell them growing up? Did they tell them they were beautiful? Or were their mothers too focused on complaining about their “ugliest” features to remind their daughters that they were beautiful?
A couple of years ago, ABC News put out an article called “Fashion Models: By the Numbers.” I was shocked to learn that the average professional model only makes $42,560 a year or $20.46 an hour. That's about the same as the average professional journalist and we're all aware that journalism is one of the poorest paid career paths. But once I considered the fact that fashion is a glamour industry (duh), I realized that most models are so hungry (no pun intended) to be a part of it, that they'll settle for low pay.
I remember watching the documentary, “Girl Model,” and being astounded by how desperate these tall, skinny Russian girls were to become models in Japan. Why did these girls crave that lifestyle so badly? Why weren't they aspiring for careers in other fields as a different means for escaping poverty? Was it because they needed to be told they were beautiful? Because their mothers forgot to remind them? Or because they misinterpreted their mother's self-loathing as their mother's low opinion of their looks?
When I was eleven or twelve years old, I was reading an issue of American Girl Magazine, one of my most beloved publications at the time, when I came across this survey. One of the survey questions was something like, “If you had a choice, would you rather be famous or brilliant?” The survey annoyed me. I reasoned that it would be best to be famous for being brilliant and also being rich enough to use the money to help others. I quickly flipped to the page to move on to the next story.
Looking back on that episode, I know that I appreciated American Girl for not stressing beauty the way other girls' magazines did and continue to do. But I also know that there are many little girls who would've chosen “famous” over “brilliant,” especially if that meant “being famous for being beautiful.” It's because society has conditioned them to place their value first and foremost in their looks. That's what society conditioned their mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers to do, too.
Earlier this year, there was a post on LatinaFatale.com (a website that seems to have expired) called “How to Talk to Little Girls.” The writer said that her initial instinct when meeting a little girl is to tell her how pretty she/her dress is. But it dawned on her that she had to break this habit because such words condition a little girl to seek out and prioritize compliments about her looks. Now she asks a little girl she has recently met what book she's currently reading.
As mothers, daughters, and sisters, we should all adopt a similar habit. Let's imagine a world where every woman feels beautiful and aspires to live a well-rounded life. Let's ask little girls what they're reading, what they're thinking, and what they love to do. Do it for all your female ancestors who wore corsets.