tw: body image, disordered eating/body image, some mention of gender dysphoria
I do not know what my mother looked like as a child.
I grew up in my father’s childhood home, surrounded by his side of the family. Sometimes, as a treat, my grandfather would pull out the old photo albums, the ones of my father in his youth. Then we’d flip through them together, both of us cross-legged on the ground, and point out the ones that stuck out.
I can picture my father at every stage of his life. Newborn, red and crying. Then again as a little kid, cheeks puffed and frowning at the zoo. As a middle schooler, in the pool. At a birthday, bothering his older brother. With his younger sister, smiling. A moody high schooler, with his hair all wild and grown out.
But my mother—I can hardly picture her at all.
The earliest photos I have of her are wedding pictures, the few framed around the house. White dress, baby-faced, beaming like she had the world in her hands. She is gorgeous, stunningly so.
Then the photos skip to her in motherhood. And she is beautiful, still. But she is a mother, the weight of it in her eyes, her stance, the strain in her smile.
I’m in every photo. In her arms, by her legs, making a fuss in the background. Inescapably, irreversibly, there, as young children tend to be.
Who was she before me?
My mother is beautiful. Many say this about their mothers, which quite diminishes the word’s effect. But my mother is beautiful in a way that is impossible to put to paper; in a way I have tried—many times—to capture, but have failed again and again and again.
Our household is full of my attempts, drawings of my mother scattered on cabinets and across the walls, none more successful than the last.
Growing up, I didn’t like when she came to school. She drew too much attention—not just to herself, but to me. “Your mother is so pretty,” kids would tell me, their words a hushed whisper. Then they’d glance at me, squint at my features. “But you guys don’t look anything alike!”
Even now, well into college, the comments have stuck. “Damn,” I remember one friend saying, running his hand over a photo on the wall. “No offense, but what happened to you?”
“Fuck off,” I said, without much malice.
I grew up with these comparisons, the acknowledgment that she and I were nothing alike. She was perfect. I wasn’t.
Where my mother was graceful and womanly, I was stocky and awkward. Uneven eyes, big nose, fat cheeks, crooked smile. I’d stand by the mirror and jab at my flaws, pinching the fat around my wrists, analyzing the droop in my right eye.
I could list my flaws to eternity, but could name so few, if any, for her.
She worked hard for her beauty. I’d seen the ways she’d eaten, across the years, and I’d seen the exercise habits that had come with. She’d wear her workout clothes throughout the day, so she could continue her workouts later.
Sometimes I’d watch her at the mirror. “I’m so fat,” she’d say, hand on her stomach, “so bloated.”
Sometimes I’d put a hand on my own.
They say the first daughter is her father’s child. I liked this sentiment—because I certainly wasn’t my mother’s. I think she sensed it, these insecurities of mine. And she’d try, I suppose, to guide me through it.
“You’re a girl,” she’d remind me.
“Uh-huh.” I’d try not to engage her.
“Come on. You need to start dressing properly,” she’d tell me, handing me dresses and skirts. “Here, put some blush on.” She’d run the brush over my face. Dab lipstick on my lips. Beg me to do my brows. “Don’t be so tight-lipped. Just smile.”
I’d force a smile. She’d chastise me for an attitude. Rinse and repeat.
For a kid that struggled so intimately with gender—with just being a girl—having a mother who was the epitome of femininity was a curated hell. Because if this was womanhood, this polished perfection she wore with ease…
Well, I’d been doomed from the start.
There was, inevitably, a distance between us as I grew up. I couldn’t relate to her, nor could she relate to me.
My insecurities mounted as I grew older, and I had a breakdown in my senior year of high school—as one does. I lay in bed, days and weeks on end. Stopped eating. Grew pale and thin in the way I’d always been told was beautiful.
My mother watched, at first from afar, unsure how to intervene.
I’d never learned to confide in my mother, never learned to accept her help. Even still, she tried; came into my room and sat by the foot of my bed, silent while I wailed.
At a lull, she cleared her throat. “You know,” she said, so quietly I nearly missed it over my own tears. “There’s a photo of mama from when I was much younger.” I listened, keenly. “But when I saw it in high school, all I could think about was how big my butt looked.” She chuckled. “How fat I was.”
I looked up at her. Saw myself in the reflection of her eyes, big and round. “I hated it,” she admitted.
I’d never heard much of her childhood. She’d never let me in. But there, as I cried, she laid herself bare: everything she was, in her youth. Same insecurities, same fears.
“But, you know, baby,” she says, rubbing my legs. “When I see those photos now, all I can see is how much I’m smiling.”
I do not know what my mother looked like as a child. But in that moment, I could picture her: my spitting image, growing pains and all.
My mother was a girl once, too.
I think I’m surviving.
“I’m proud of you,” my mother tells me. “Do you know that?”
I haven’t yet told her—but I’m proud of her, too.