I need to tell you something.
I need to tell you that my mother isn’t ugly.
I was always told that she was. Nobody said it out loud. No one threw fruit, broke mirrors, or howled at the moon when she passed. The u-word was never spoken directly to her face or mine. But when people spoke about her, it was obvious. They talked about her hair, her skin, her size, her face as though they were all somehow wrong. The things she was born with—the hair from her scalp, the color of her skin, the size of her thighs and stomach, her tiny smile—these were all deficiencies. They were lazy, unkempt, unwanted, even when she took good care of them.
Nobody ever spoke to my mother softly. Nobody asked her if she was alright. Nobody made sure she was safe. Nobody went with her to the store late at night or plumped her pillows when she returned. Nobody treated her like she was precious. I never saw anyone take care of my mother. I never heard anyone call my mother “pretty.” But I did hear people tell me that I looked just like her.
I was about 13, and my father and his mother found an old picture of my mother. We don’t have many. My mother grew up poor and has always hated taking pictures. This is the only picture I remember of my mother before she was my mother, when she was a teenager, before she even knew she wanted to be a mother, before she realized she didn’t want to be one after it was already too late. It’s her senior picture, and in it she has a short afro, a close-lipped smile and a hopeful face. She’s in three-quarter profile to the camera, and you can see the regularity of her features, the mediumness of them. I inherited this. Our noses, lips, and eyes are not big but not small. Her hair is kinky. (Mine is, too.) Her eyelashes are short. (Mine are not.) Her skin is clear and brown and she looks, at 17, much the same way that she did at 25 and 38 and even at 52—the last time we spoke. I also have changed very little over the years between becoming an adult and maintaining adulthood. In the picture, my mother is a girl on the cusp of a very onerous womanhood. My father and his own mother looked at the picture, the sole happy memory of my mother’s girlhood displayed proudly on the fridge after being sent from an aunt back East, and said, “Well, at least she got a little better with age.”
The picture disappeared soon after. I think my mother overheard.
I don’t remember my reaction. Maybe I gasped, maybe I laughed, maybe just shifted uncomfortably where I sat at the kitchen table doing homework while they decided my mother’s whole value with their eyes. I must have done something to draw notice to myself because my dad looked over and suddenly said, “Whew, you look just like your mother when you make that face.”
The backhanded compliments were constant, not only from family but from friends, church members, and colleagues. There was always the implication that if my mother fixed herself up or did something about herself she would suddenly become more acceptable, more presentable, more lovable. It was clear that if she just tried harder to destroy herself, she would be beautiful at last.
So, she tried. She tried hard, but it was never quite right. She straightened her hair, curled it, burned it all off, wore wigs, wore braids. She spent money on Mary Kay, Fashion Fair, Black Opal. She painted her face on when she went out and washed it off in the sink every night, tired. She stretched her eye makeup too far past the expiration date and got a stye over her eye that none of her children said anything about for a week, scared of drawing her temper. When I finally mentioned it, she snarled at me for not loving her enough to notice, but she went to the doctor the next day. She dieted obsessively, worked out in her office gym, subjected us all to fad health foods and strange ingredients. I once saw her cry and pray for forgiveness over a yogurt that she’d decided to eat after a three-day fast. It was the only thing she’d eaten for days, and she’d just been on the phone with someone crowing over how “victorious” she felt, how “triumphant” she was over the enemy who prowled and attacked in the form of fat and salt and sugar. I sat at the table, doing my homework, and she stood over the sink, looking at a tiny pot of Dannon like it was the apple Eve ate. I said nothing to her as I watched. She spoke only to God, then bound Satan as he tempted her in the form of a strawberry yogurt before she ate him up. She stayed fat. There was nothing wrong with her fat body. It bore and raised five children. It’s still out there somewhere now, existing healthily on its way into its 6th decade.
I can see the question forming in all of you reading this. So, did you struggle with your looks? Did you try hard not to look like your mother? Were you ashamed of being seen with her? Were you scarred by the comparisons?
No. I never thought my mother was ugly. I never minded looking like her. My mother isn’t ugly. She’s just Black, and a woman.
She has the unambiguous skin, eyes, and hair of a Black woman. There was nothing abnormal about her body (and even if there was, so what?). She just didn’t naturally perform beauty in a way that was culturally comfortable. As a result, her beauty was not obligatory, purchasable, or immediate. My mother is beautiful in a way that cannot be acquired, and therefore is not often recognized. She suffered for it, but I never agreed with those who tried to steal it from her with their words.
I never agreed with the sideways things my father’s family said about her. I never agreed with the way people “encouraged” her to wear more makeup, diet more, and wear red. (My mother looks good in red. The people lining up to call her unattractive were the same ones who said that red was a strong color, and women should be careful wearing it lest too many people look at them. But she was ugly, right? Nobody would look, or they were wrong.)
I never thought my mother was ugly. I had eyes. I had a sense of aesthetics. I had my own opinions and thoughts. I thought my mother was beautiful, and I was happy to look like her.
So, when I was forced to process my hair and wear frilly clothes as a child to head off my inherited looks at the pass, I didn’t resent my mother for it. I resented the people who refused to really look at us. When I was simultaneously told to eat something because it didn’t matter what the boys thought and not to eat too much so that I didn’t get too big for the boys to like, I kept my mouth shut and let people think I was developing a complex because the discussion of that person’s cooking was potentially a much more hurtful thing. They didn’t know they couldn’t cook, but I knew I wasn’t ugly.
I also learned, from watching my mother and her well-meaning tormentors, that the problem of being considered ugly when you aren’t isn’t solved by working to become more beautiful. The same people who treated her badly when she didn’t look the way they wanted, treated her worse when she tried. When things went wrong—like the time a hairdresser damaged her scalp so badly with a relaxer that it all fell out and didn’t grow back properly for years—she was treated as though she’d done this to herself on purpose. When she cried over the loss of her hair, nobody reassured her, comforted her, loved her. They simply told her more things she could do to look better. When she lost weight, she was told she was getting too skinny. When she gained weight, she was told she was getting too fat. Other women would join in and whine about how frustrated they were, how tired and sad they felt when their husbands and mothers and sisters and friends and the rest of the world told them they were too fat to be beautiful, to be desirable. They kept getting pregnant and kept being told that the resulting rolls around their stomachs and dimples on their thighs were disgusting and would keep a man from ever wanting to touch them again, that fat women were lonely women, that fat women deserved to be alone. They kept getting pregnant. That’s not a thing you do alone.
I can hear another question, small and distant. Did she treat you badly because you have her face? Did your mother think you were ugly, too?
Yes. No. Maybe. I’ll never really be sure.
I watched my mother my whole life. I watched her paint her face, draw in her eyebrows. I watched her diet get weirder as she got bigger, as though unhappiness was expanding the borders of her cells one by one and creating space for her body despite her attempts to stop it. I watched her buy clothes in the right sizes, feel guilty, and never wear those clothes. I watched her groom herself in ways that burned her skin, her scalp, her fingers and her pride. I watched her try constantly to be someone else’s idea of beautiful and felt sad for her when it never went quite right. My mother’s real beauty wasn’t bought, and so when she tried to buy it, it sat like oil on water, never blending together smoothly. Still, I grudgingly accepted it as she tried to pass all of this on to me. Then I worked out my own ways of resistance.
I stayed quiet when men in the room would make comments about my skin, my hair, my face, and their acceptability as though that was somehow the only metric by which I gained value. I stayed quiet when my mother would later rail against the men for their comments—every man who made eye contact was a pervert to my mother—then punish me for drawing attention in the first place. I stayed quiet when other little girls—ones with lighter skin or longer hair or smaller, more touchable bodies—got things I wanted, things that seemed to signify attention and love. I realized that the system was built in a way that didn’t work for me. I didn’t believe I was ugly, and I didn’t want love based on bought beauty. So, I never really tried to follow those rules, and I realized that people thought I wasn’t trying because I was defective in some way. After all, look at my mother.
I wore makeup two shades too light to church once. I knew it was too light. I wanted to see if someone would say something. My younger sister tried but was shushed because, finally, I was trying. I was trying to be pretty. Maybe I could make myself better. Why discourage my attempts, even though it made me look ridiculous? Looking silly meant that maybe I was worth something.
I began to distrust the eyes of other people. I ignored comments on my looks. I wore big jeans, big shoes, big T-shirts. As soon as I was expected to pay for my own hair maintenance, I spent a year growing out my relaxer in huge and ugly ways, then another year paying for the inconvenience, bad customer service, tension headaches and disappointment of braids. All that work, all that money, all that annoyance and discomfort only for someone to tell you that you have become more lovable due to something that isn’t even you? Something that isn’t real? Something that was ugly to create? My distrust of the beauty gatekeepers deepened.
When I was 19, I decided to escape the system entirely. I shaved my head. My family protested, insulted, complained. My grandmother told me the news of my haircut was like cutting her with a knife. My father told me that not even a white boy would want me after what I had done.
My mother began to resent me.
It hurt, but I realized that even if I grew my hair long, I would never be beautiful enough for the people who wanted me to try to be beautiful in the first place. I realized that none of the roads to anything I truly wanted began with another person’s idea of beauty. I looked in the mirror and saw my mother’s pretty face on my happy, curious spirit and I felt joy. I started to buy dresses that I liked. I wore makeup that matched my color. I did these things when I felt like it, and only then. My big jeans and T-shirts stayed in my wardrobe. Men still spoke to me on the streets. The comments ranged from “You’re gorgeous, beautiful” to “Hey ma” to “Ugh, look at that. I’d never hit that,” depending on what I was wearing. So, I began to speak back. When it was about something besides themselves or my desire to be wanted by them, the conversations ended quickly. Men were speaking to their ideas of beauty, but never to me. Men were speaking to my youth and were expecting to be allowed to drain it. Men were speaking to my mind as though it wasn’t there.
I stopped sleeping with men for a while. I’m not attracted to women. That was tough. My mother told me my life was nothing because I wasn’t good enough to attract a man to give me children. I got sick. She put me out on the street, told me to use what God gave me to find a man to take care of me because it wasn’t her job. We stopped speaking. I’m still learning how not to resent her for that. I still think she’s beautiful. It still hurts that she doesn’t see the same in me.
I can see something else forming in your eyes, not a question this time but a comment. You want to say, “But you’re beautiful! You’re gorgeous! I’ve always thought you were super hot/sexy/cute/pretty! You shouldn’t let society get you down like this.”
If that’s all you have to say after reading all of this, then you’re missing the point.
I don’t really need to tell you about the way that society cheapens beauty, makes it a thing we have to buy, not embody, something to possess, not create. I don’t need to tell you how society strangles women and tries to make our only value our physical beauty and the sacrifices we make to maintain it. I don’t need to tell you how we’re crushed by impossible standards that make our personalities about our bodies, our bodies about our personalities, and our place in society about our ability to disappear into a concept of near-perfect desirability that no one truly possesses. I don’t need to tell you about how Black women, specifically, are treated like Schrödinger’s hoes—simultaneously too ugly to be desired and so hypersexual that everything we do is dangerous because it might provoke desire. I don’t need to tell you any of these things because we know them. We live them. We struggle with them and how to balance desire, expectation, and our natural bodies in a society that judges us all very harshly on how we look. I don’t need to tell you how that affects our children and how difficult it truly is to raise beautiful girls who cannot be crushed.
I also don’t need to tell you that the answers to questions and criticisms about beauty are never easy. I don’t need to tell you that navigating beauty as a woman in the world is also not easy, and we are often rewarded for believing that we are all too ugly and spending our lives trying not to be. I don’t need to tell you that we are often punished for embodying our own beauty in a world that profits from convincing us that we have no natural beauty in ourselves. I don’t need to tell you these things because you already know them all.
But I do need to tell you that I never thought my mother was ugly.
Neither are you.
Be sure to tell your children.
Image courtesy of Yayra Nutakor on Pexels
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