As I waited for my ride home from an after-school newspaper meeting back in 2005, I heard my English teacher ask "Who is that?" in a shocked tone of voice. I already knew the answer to his question, even though I hadn't yet turned in the direction he was facing. "That'll be my mother," I said. "Hola mami," he replied.
The next day, the teacher (an ageing hippie who prided himself on having been to Woodstock when most people in town of a comparable age would've likely spent that 1969 weekend at mass) was quick to tell me he'd never seen such a beautiful woman. "I’m not easily tempted," he mused. "I've been with my wife almost 40 years. For your mother, though, I'd leave it all behind."
At 14 years old, I didn’t really know how to react to such a remark. I'm pretty sure I laughed, walked to my desk feeling awkward and proceeded to contemplate just how many times this was going to happen. Who else was going to fall for my mum? How many of them would joke that I — fat, tall, broad-shouldered and frizzy-haired — had missed out on the "good genes"?
That same school year, my track coach had already made similar remarks — visibly trying to flirt with my mum in front of my peers despite being married and having a stepdaughter on the team. A few months before that, the male director at the eating disorder clinic I attended for treatment for anorexia had likewise been charmed. "Your mother is gorgeous," he said during an early therapy session. "I can see why you might feel… inadequate." Even my best friend (a girl I loved very much without conceptualising it as such because I'd grown up in a devoutly Catholic home) frequently reminded me that my mum was her own "girl crush".
For as long as I can remember, my mother has been the kind of beautiful that stops people in their tracks. She's packed countless careers and lives into her sixty-something years (a feat I've long admired), and one of her first jobs was as a beautician in Colombia, where she was born. She has always been talented with makeup and hairbrushes; when she gets dolled up, she evokes a kind of glamour that isn't typical of the small New Jersey town she raised me in.
Both in the States and in the UK, where I live now, she's also heavily exoticised. Her differences only seem to draw more people in, though, and many can't wait to tell her that her accent makes her sound "romantic", "passionate" or "mysterious". On more than one occasion, she's got out of a speeding ticket (after being stopped by a male police officer) for having such a lovely voice. Ironically, she has very little interest in long-term romantic relationships or brief holiday rendezvous. If that suddenly changed, I know the suitors would be lining up.
What my mother looks like is not her doing any more than what I look like is my own, of course. Still, growing up with a parent fawned over for her beauty when I felt anything but proved to be challenging. Regardless of how many diets, jazzercise classes and disordered eating behaviours I adopted, my body never fit into the sizes at the lower end of the single-digit spectrum. For years, I never even realised I had curly hair. Before discovering styling products, I simply assumed my mane was destined to look like a victim of severe humidity until the end of time. I didn't have my mother's charisma, either. Where she was the prototypical extroverted, bubbly, warm Latina, I was shy, quiet and perpetually riddled with social anxiety. I hated parties, I didn't know how to woo anyone and I wasn't especially interested in cosmetics that I couldn't purchase at the local mall's goth shop.
Observing other mothers, it was obvious to me that a lot of them seemed to consider their daughters their "trophies" of sorts. There were mums who wanted their girls to be identical extensions of themselves. There were others who projected their own hopes and dreams onto their girls, especially if they felt they'd had to sacrifice those hopes and dreams for motherhood. There were others still who seemed to show off their "princesses" like someone else might show off a new handbag: a thing they invited others to talk about, compliment, dissect and even "constructively" criticise.
Because of the way I looked, I felt like my mother's failure. I wasn’t a perfectly packaged Michael Kors tote with mass appeal but an esoteric, chunky bumbag from the early '90s. Sure, some individuals might appreciate me as unconventional or quirky but most would be quick to suggest an alternative.
Fast-forwarding the clock 15 years, I now look at my own daughters — only 3 and 2 years old — and it physically pains me to think that they might one day feel ugly or worthless or unloveable. At the moment, they are so wholly fearless. They wear what they want to wear, strip off their clothes without giving it a second thought, lovingly pat their tummies and sincerely dance like nobody's watching. To imagine them losing the ease with which they exist in their bodies (as so many of us do as we grow up in this world) breaks my heart.
That heartbreak, however, fuels me (and my partner, for that matter) to make a commitment toward ensuring we create a household in which beauty is never correlated to worth. I want to build a home in which they learn that, actually, there are as many types of beauty in this world as there are people; a home in which the principal expectation they feel coming from their caretakers is simply that they be kind, empathetic and open-minded. I want them to know that they aren't my trophies. They aren't just parts of my body and, by default, extensions of me but their own separate, full entities.
These might seem like big, abstract lessons which have taken some of us years of cultural unlearning to reach. Still, I know that once I stopped trying to be beautiful like my mum, I realised I could be beautiful like me. Embracing this idea brought all the more beauty to my life in the form of meaningful friendships, romantic partners, career prospects and the utter joy that comes with existing peacefully within one's body. It's a joy I see in my own children and which I imagine I, too, must have had as a young child, when I lived in a body that no one had yet told me was flawed.