Why My Looks Matter to Me

My mother was a beautiful woman. Blonde, blue-eyed, shapely, and petite, she was, according to my grandmother, the prettiest girl in Nahant. The Allisons are a good looking family, and that was clearly important to my grandmother. As a result, my mother was conditioned to put a high premium on her looks. And mine.

At nine, I spent my summer hanging out with friends, reading and reenacting Harriet the Spy, and enjoying tuna subs from Tony Lena’s, blissfully unaware of my appearance. Until the day my mother decided I had gained too much weight and needed a diet.

The next problem was my complexion. At 10, I started sprouting facial acne. Although it didn’t concern me that much, it bothered Mom. So she made me wash with rinses and weird, sticky topical creams I hated the feeling of on my face. She forced this fruitless ritual on me for two years before I decided I did now care about my skin, and asked to see a dermatologist.

Dr. Lewis, though entirely lacking in bedside manner, was a miracle-worker. In less than a year, I had the nicest and clearest skin in eighth grade and, also having grown a body much like my mother’s, suddenly had boys staring at me.

You might think all was well, now, everything was resolved and hunky-dory and I had inherited the key to happiness, right?

Wrong. Although I was probably never clinically overweight in my teenage years, if I gained even five pounds over what Mom deemed desirable, she let me know it, which inevitably resulted in fighting. And more dieting. We continued this pattern throughout her short life. She died when I was 23.

I had an uncle, as well (my mother’s brother), who told me I had a “tendency to gain weight,” and even called me “fat.” After subsequent verbal abuse, I no longer speak to him, nor do I consider him family.

Mom did tell me she had been anorexic as a teen, but I’m not sure if that was true or just her perception, as she was mentally ill and prone to hypochondria. What happened, I believe, was that my mother projected her obsession with her own, fractured body image onto me.

Because I was extraordinarily socially awkward and periodically suffered from depression, I didn’t date much in high school or college. Being perpetually single, I felt pressured to stay thin, because, in my head, thin meant attractive. I was successful on this campaign until I met my now-husband, junior year at University of New Hampshire.

In my first, long-term relationship, I felt relaxed, became complacent, as people do about certain things when they’re in relationships. And I’ve been up and down the scale since then.

Also, my mother has been gone now for 20 years. You may think the pressure to always be skinny was now finally off, right?

Uh uh. I’ve continued in my mother’s tradition, exerting pressure on myself, as well as shame and self-loathing whenever I’m not right where I want to be on the scale.

Further, in the last 10 years, since the births of my children, I have found myself reconnected with an aunt (one of my mother’s sisters, who floated in and out of my life while I was growing up). She is nearly as bad as my mother, making comments such as “You’re beautiful, but you’d be even prettier if you lost weight.” Or: “You’d be a knockout if you lost 10 pounds.”

“I AM a knockout!” I feel like screaming.

But I don’t say it. Because deep down I agree. Smaller is better for me.

Please note, I don’t hold others to such rigid standards, just myself. I see beauty everywhere, regardless of shape or size. I just don’t usually see my own.

I think what the Allisons taught me at a very young age was that I wasn’t enough as I was. That something about me required continuous improvement.

So, just in case you were thinking I was shallow at the beginning of this post because I said my looks matter to me, now you know that’s not true.

Nope, I’m just royally fucked up by my family…like most everyone in some way or other, I suppose.

There does come a point where you have to stop blaming your past and take ownership of your hang-ups, and I recognize that. And, actually, I’ve worked very hard on self-acceptance throughout my adult life with years of therapy.

Still, my bottomless need remains an undercurrent, threatening to suck me down. Most girls want to be a lawyer, or a teacher, or an actress, or a doctor when they grow up. Me? I just wanted to be pretty.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that people age, and beauty eventually dries up, anyway. I’m still an attractive woman, or so saith Magic 8-Ball, but it won’t last forever. Then what?

I guess I will need to turn my attention to other pursuits. Practicing becoming a better writer. Because you can always be a better writer, there’s no ceiling on that, I don’t care who you are. Working. Parenting. Grandparenting (yikes!). Developing my spirituality. I might look into Eastern religion. I find it far more comforting than my native Catholicism.

Seeing my true self, somehow, eventually.

Parasailing? Probably not.

Being in the moment. Right now I’m waiting for the moment, which may or may not come. Hoping I can make it come.

This superficial topic has taken a turn for the deep.

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