Beauty Shouldn’t be in the Eye of the Beholder, Especially if You’re Looking in the Mirror

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When I was a blossoming teen (O.K. not really blossoming, more like hiccupping and stumbling) living in the land of whiskey and weed better known as Kentucky, I was way too into my looks. Luckily, my mom wasn’t, so when one of her friends paid me a compliment, she’d change the subject and redirect the conversation before I could offer up my $0.02 opinion on why real lemon juice was totally superior to Sun-In for super-sweet summer highlights.

That’s Kentucky, but that’s not my mom. Image via static.prstst.net

Inevitably, we’d be in the church foyer after a sweltering Sunday service, me glancing anxiously at the front door: a mirage-like image of freedom framed by intricate patterns of sunshine playing off finger-smudged stained glass windows, and my mom slowly working the room. She was completely immune to my heavy sighs and exaggerated eye rolls, and unfazed by the fact (I’d already mentioned it, like, a billion times) that all my besties were waiting for me at the pool.

Mom has always known too many people, and as she talked (and talked and talked), I skulked behind her in a hopscotch pattern from deacon to elder to minister, an awkward shadow in a crumpled linen dress, smiling slightly on demand and passing the time by charting the course of a small trickle of sweat running down the length of my back. No matter how hard I tried to defy gravity, it always pooled right at the top of my underwear band, a place I could never reach without looking like a fool.

And that’s just it. Looks. Somewhere between 7th and 8th grade, mine changed. My bowl-inspired Mork from Ork finally worked its way into a Farrahish, feathered flow, I stepped out of my Keds and into some sweet Dr. Scholls, and along the way, somehow ditched a layer of baby fat I’d carried around for so long it should have probably been enrolled in kindergarten.

My teenage definition of heaven. Image via 3.bp.blogspot.com

I was at a hormonal stage in life where I worshipped at the lip smacker-glossed gates of Teen Beat magazine, patiently placing every single piece of hair on my huge head of bangs with a curling iron the width of my pinkie and shellacking it all into place with enough Aqua Net to set our entire encyclopedia set on fire. I’d double and triple check the mirror on the way out the door, hoping (O.K. praying…church had to be good for something) tomorrow would be the day I’d wake up to find that something soft and squishy (but not too small) had sprung from my chest to support the spaghetti straps hanging limply from my tank top.

Hallelujah in a 100% cotton holster.

That’s not me either, but in 1984 I would have been totally psyched if it was. In addition to the obvious fact that something is inside her AA cups, her quasi-Kristy McNichol hair is pretty awesome. Image via couldfront.net

And so, at the end of every church service I stewed, my mother talked, I wilted, a trio of fans positioned to catch a breeze that didn’t exist whirred, and one of my mom’s too many conversations would sometimes turn in this direction:

“Brenda, that daughter of yours is growing into a pretty young woman. Ya’ll must be so proud.”

“Did I tell you Stacie made Honor Roll this semester? Straight As and a B. You’re right, I am proud,” Mom replied.

And that was that. Mom would ignore, deflect, and redirect; a parenting technique she secretly unloaded on me with steadfast resolve for several of the sometimes tumultuous but not necessarily tense years we lived under the same roof.

At the time, I didn’t realize how deeply she was embedding her lesson of substance over style into my Cover Girl Eye Enhancer 3-Shadow Kit, in part because she was so sneaky, but also because I was too busy willing her to get stuck indefinitely in traffic on her way home from Wife Saver with a 12-piece mixed chicken dinner because:

Criss-cross applesauce pinky-swear that this restaurant still exists. Image via wifesaverrestaurants.com

A) No mom = no church. Even though the minister’s son was totally hot and usually sat two rows in front of me, service was long. At the exact moment I picked up a nubby pencil to write one of my besties a note on the back of the tithing envelope about how much fun we were gonna have at the pool if-I-ever-got-there-in-the-next-gazillion-years-because-my-mom-talks-soooooo-much-and-blah-blah-blekity-blah-and-stuff-like-that, she would inevitably pop up like a whack-a-mole in the choir loft, shooting me a laser-like stare from behind the over-teased perms of three super-tall sopranos.

B) I was convinced she bribed the orthodontist to K-O braces when I could have geared up on the spot, ensuring that as a freshman, I’d have a mouth full of metal and zero boyfriends.

C) Since the dawn of time or at least speed skates and for sure MTV, that’s what teenage girls are supposed to do.

But somehow, between Aqua Net and eye rolls, her lessons stuck. Too many years later to admit, I can actually hear her voice in my head (which kind of scares me when it’s dark outside), as I repeat her mantra to my own girls, and begin to teach them to anchor their self-esteem to any of part of their being people can’t see. Vanity isn’t all bad, but in a world increasingly crowded with camera phones and profile pics, it’s still everything under the surface that counts.

74 responses »

  1. Darn, I read the whole blog hoping you were going to show me a pic of Shawn Cassidy or admit that you too used QT! Sulking………

  2. Great post on embedded Mom Lessons. Isn’t it funny how they work they way to the surface of our middle-aged (well, me, anyway….) bodies?? Love the last line!
    PS I didn’t know you were Baptist?!

    • My religious roots aren’t only Baptist, Laura, but Southern Baptist.

      Back when my grandmother could still drive, she had a bumper sticker that read,
      “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” And it did.

      Now that I’m a middle-aged body, my religious views lean a lot more left, but don’t tell my grandmother I said so.

      Great to see you.
      =)

  3. I remember the awkward vanity of the teen years all too well. Oddly enough, the thing I was so proud of was my long, thick reddish-brown waves. Particularly odd because I cut them off at age 20 and rarely miss them. I grew it back to shoulder length twice, hated having to deal with it, and cut it right back off again. Yet it was a big part of my teenage identity and vanity.

    Since my mom was high school valedictorian, even though I did well, I rarely felt smart by comparison.

    • Hmmmmm, that last sentence is interesting. Did you compare yourself to your mom? Whenever I did, I felt a smug sense of superiority that I was way cooler than she was, even if at the end of the day she was way smarter….and teaching me lessons I didn’t even know I was learning. Now if I can sort of transpose that onto my own girls without being completely ridiculed….

      • From the time I was young, my parents downplayed everything. The awards, the state math competitions, etc… probably because my sister didn’t have them. So I was consistently referred to as “just book-smart”, which always stung. Years later, I know that’s probably not the case as it’s actually my sister who has trouble sustaining relationships and friendships, but clearly my parents didn’t want her to feel inferior. And my mom had her own issues, and wasn’t easy to please.

      • That’s a shame. While on one hand, I get the sibling thing (my three kids are each 22 months apart, and two of them are girls) because as a parent you feel badly if everything isn’t equal. But accomplishments should be celebrated in my book. Judging from your profile pic and your blog (NOT that you should judge a book by it’s cover…), you seem to have a lot to celebrate, with or without mom’s approval. =)

  4. Oh, Stacie, you always make me laugh. “Carried around a layer of baby fat so long it probably should have enrolled in Kindergarten.” Hee!

    Where’d you dig up those awesome photos? Teen Grown-up Bra – because nothing says grown-up like talking on an antique telephone in your bra!

    Thanks for the laughs, and for sharing your mom’s (and now your own) wisdom that we need to anchor our daughters’ self-esteem to what lies beneath. (And not just their Cross-your-Hearts)

  5. I think I take after my dad in a similar vein. I considered myself immune to life’s punishments that he warned me about. But that’s teenage I guess. If you didn’t think you were cooler than your parents, you weren’t a teen.

  6. Three cheers to your mom, and now three cheers to you for putting the emphasis in the right place. I was no looker growing up, so I didn’t go through the same experience, but I grew up with decent self-esteem, so my mother must have done something right. I also grew up knowing I could be anything I wanted.

    As for Farrah, oh, she was my idol. I certainly wouldn’t complain if I had her looks now. Or Heather Locklear’s. (Young versions of both, of course…)

  7. Your post was right on target Stacie….something I have been trying to teach my daughter as well. I even sent it on to her because they listen better when it’s someone else beside their mother telling them. I can feel her eye-rolls already 🙂

    • Oh no, now she’ll roll here eyes whenever she sees ME! =)

      Thanks for the kind words and compliment, Lesia. I hope your daughter likes what she reads, if not, rest assured she’ll figure it out. My mom just laughs to herself when she sees one of my girls roll her eyes…like I deserve whatever they give me. =)

  8. I love how your mom simply led by example by redirecting energy away from the superficial. And now in turn you’re a great role model for your girls. What a lovely family you have!

    • Wow! Did you send them via Pony Express? =p

      Happy to know you’re safely settled, and it looks like I’m not getting anywhere close to that $100 GC and t-shirt.
      Boo Hoo.

      Thanks for the comment, Jed!

  9. Jocularity with a heaping helping of sound life advice. Your mother would be proud! Some damn nice writing, too.
    Hope you’re staying warm (as I bask in the 73 sunshine of Charleston. Who said that?…but I’m dreaming of dear Colorado.) -Nikki

    • Nikki,
      You know the best kept secret in America (well, second-best, behind Tom Cruise’s bisexuality) is that Denver really isn’t cold. That having been said, this past weekend was ARCTIC. I’m envious of your 73 degrees.

      Thanks for the read and the kind comment, and enjoy the warm weather!
      Stacie

  10. Hi there, I’m a new follower. Caught wind of your blog from Carrie Rubin’s site. I love it already! Farrah was a little before my time (actually my novel is set in this era), but I definitely know her significance. When I was twelve I would have been in heaven if I looked like Jennifer Aniston circa 1994, during the first seasons of Friends.

    Can’t wait for more of your posts!

    • Dear Katie,

      1) The way you say “I’m a new follower” makes my blog look like a cult, which is AWESOME!

      2) Carrie Rubin is quite possibly the kindest, most generous blogger on WordPress, so the fact that you came via her makes you uber-amazing by association.

      3) Your novel is set in the 70s? I want to read it. Like, right now.

      4) By my calculations, I was twenty-four when you were twelve, which means I could be your mom in a bad after school special, and for sure your older half sister via second marriage when my dad cheated on my mom with your mom who was his admin and you usurped me as the baby of the family 12 years later. What am I trying to say? I’m not sure, but back to your book: no one, and I mean no one in 5th grade wanted to be Sabrina when we played Charlie’s Angels…just so you get that right. A lot of old people like me would totally call you out if Sabrina was the favorite in your novel. Just sayin’.

      5) Welcome. I’m so happy to have you hear that I’m drinking a celebratory cocktail as I type.

      xoxo
      Stacie

      • My vain side (that I got from my dad and am constantly trying to beat into submission) says thank you Garrett, both for the cult and style comments. My chill side is incredibly thankful for my mom’s guidance, because getting old would suck otherwise.
        Great seeing you here, I hope you’re well. =)

  11. Stacie,
    1 – When I was a kid we went to church every Sunday and after mass there would be donuts in the rectory. That’s not a code word for anything, I mean real donuts. It was all on the up and up, no grab ass going on or anything. But the amount of talking my parents did between the church and the rectory was insufferable for a young boy who just wanted to get his mouth on a cruller. Once again, not a code word. Just a donut stick. Or doughnut stick as I should say.
    2- I had Farrah Fawcett hair when I was a teenager and I was virtually unstoppable, until I had my fourth beer. But even passed out in the woods in a puddle of my own sick, I was still a looker.
    3- I think Kristy McNichol was my first love. Or maybe it was my mom. Aaaaawwwwww.
    4 – Great read as always, my friend.
    5- There’s no number five.
    Bill

    • Bill,
      1) You make me laugh, hard, in a seriously gut-wrecking, unattractive way. Not many people can do that. What am I trying to say? I read your work in the closet so if I pee in my pants there’s sure to be a dirty pair of undies laying around somewhere within arm’s reach.

      OK that’s gross. I can’t believe I just typed that and am not deleting it. You’re ruining my reputation.

      2) You’d look AWESOME in a Jill Munroe updo. I can totally see it. I can’t see you with Sabrina hair, though. Everyone hated her and you’re way too snazzy for that shit.

      3) I always kind of thought Kristy McNichol would be hot for me if she ever met me at Skate World. Just sayin’.

      4) Thank you.

      5) Boo.
      Stacie

  12. Funny funny funny. Of course you don’t give a toss about your looks now, which is why you choose that incredibly ugly photo as your avatar ;-), right?

    My daughter is incredibly pretty. Sheer fluke. Well, her Mum is too. But I reckon she had a dalliance with a good looking milkman or something. Anyhow, when she was growing up she couldn’t help but check herself out in every shop window and mirror we passed – usually the hair, which went through more changes than a thing which changes a lot on international “Let’s change everything” Day. Whenever I noticed I called her on it. Eventually she got so bloody irritated she stopped doing it. Almost.

    Who’d be a girl, eh? I’m just glad when my t shirt meets my shorts without the spare tyre peeping through. Did someone say something about scotch? Cracking idea.

    • Truth be told, Yolly, I AM vain, but I get that from my dad. My mom had her work cut out for her when I was a teenager for sure, and as for now? I’m in what I deem to be the “Preservation Era”, just trying desperately to hold onto what’s left. I DO practice what I preach though, and get my self-esteem not from how I look, but from writing and flipping people off who text while driving. =p

      Thanks for the comment, and keep calling your daughter out on that stuff, it will pay dividends down the road.

  13. Wanted to read this when it came in, but work got in the way.
    I’m glad your mom instilled in you what she did; otherwise, I would be telling Gabi to steer clear of Grace! 🙂
    I was more a Jaclyn Smith fan – largely because I knew I could NEVER have Farrah-esque hair.
    I am an old follower – and yes, your blog is like a cult! I say that with pure admiration.
    And oh, I officially declined the job offer the other day.

    • It sounds like the thumbs-down on the job is the right choice based on what we talked about. I loved Kate too, I always wanted to be here when we played Charlie’s Angels in 5th grade and would get totally bummed out if I had to be Sabrina.

      Thanks for the love, Stella, you know it’s comin’ right back ‘atcha!

  14. I wonder what sort of messages I’m planting in my daughter. I know which ones I hope are sticking, but if my own childhood is any indication, there will be some unintended messages that stick too.That thought is scary.
    Once again, an intelligently written piece…In fact, I had to read a couple of the sentences twice because I’m still coming down off a NyQuil bender and I didn’t want to miss the poetry of your description.

  15. Cover Girl Eye Enhancer 3-Shadow Kit brought back memories for me! Those spongetip applicators made us all heavy handed with the chalky shadow.

    Your mom did a great job, and I’m glad you’re passing it along. It’s a fine line, making your kids feel confident physically and mentally. You’re very active, and I’d venture to say that instead of making you feel good about your hair, your parents made you feel good about your strong bodies.

    • We played sports growing up for sure, but Mom was more focused on academics and being kind to people.

      I didn’t really get into fitness until we moved to Colorado 8 years ago. You have to commit to lifting weights twice a week and going on daily trail runs just to get a permit to live here.

      Great seeing you Jen! xoxo

  16. You’ve illustrated perfectly the one-sided, all-knowing viewpoint of teenagers, and the authentic (if not flawless) wisdom of parents. I wish the entertainment media would stop presenting it the other way around. I’ve seen first-hand what happens to young people, especially girls, who base their entire self-worth on their looks — and the results aren’t pretty.

    Thank you for writing this, Stacie. In fact, thank you for everything you write.

  17. Your mom clearly knew what you didn’t yet know…that you are beautiful inside and out. I think she just wanted to make sure you knew that. If I didn’t like you so darned much, I might hate you just a little bit. Nah, I can’t. You’re too fabulous. Now what’s this nonsense about Farrah?

  18. Good stuff. Good, good stuff. And if you somehow manage to prevent your daughters from ever making duck lips in a public restroom mirror, or faux-touching tongues with each other while the cell phone snaps, you will have done a very good thing, for them, and for the world in which we live.

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