Claire Bidwell Smith is a therapist specializing in grief and the author of a memoir called The Rules of Inheritance. Her mother died of cancer when she was eighteen, and Claire now writes about parenting, grief and other life issues on her website http://www.clairebidwellsmith.com/.
You're so young right now, but I hope these letters will be helpful to you one day when you're older. There is so much I wish I could ask my mother now that I am a grown woman. There is so much we never got to talk about. I'm planning on being around for you well into your lives and adulthood, but even so, I think having these letters will be useful in some way. Who knows how things might change down the road, and at least you'll have your 34-year-old mother's thoughts down on paper.
Anyway, I want this letter to be about beauty and my relationship to it. I feel this enormous responsibility, as a mother of two little girls, to lead you down a path that is relatively healthy when it comes to beauty and self image. In a lot of womens' eyes I've probably already failed in that respect due to the amount of pink-princess-Barbie mess cluttering up Vera's room right now. But I will say this about Barbie (and all the rest of that princess garbage): I played with that stuff for a solid decade when I was growing up and here I am now at a healthy weight with a healthy outlook about my body and image. I have a masters degree and have a successful career and a published book . If Barbie were really so damaging to my femininity and self-image I highly doubt I could list all of the latter as accomplishments.
But I get it too. It's hard for women to maintain a healthy self-image. It's hard not to obsess over our weight and to wish we could afford more stylish clothes. It's hard not to covet someone else's hair or hips or eyelashes, and to spend inordinate amounts of time trying to achieve looks that we were never suited for in the first place. I have girlfriends around whom I have to brace myself to see, because even though I love them, just being around them makes me self-conscious. I look at old pictures of my mother and wonder why I've never been able to be as skinny as she was. And then I have friends who are thinner than their mothers ever were. We women go round and round in circles, holding hands and trying to be one another sometimes.
Men like to think we dress and style ourselves for them, but why would we when they hardly notice? I've never tried so hard to look good as when I know I'm about to meet up with a stylish girlfriend. It's she who will notice my slimmed down waist or the thinnest, little bracelet on my arm. And I have no doubt that the two of you, Veronica and Juliette, will endlessly compare yourselves to each other. You will wonder why one of you got longer legs or shinier hair or bigger breasts or thicker eyelashes. I know this, not because I know sisters, but because I know women. The thing I'll tell you, the thing to remember is this: not even the prettiest of us feel settled. The girl you think looks the most perfect in all the world is probably the girl who wants to change herself more than anyone else.
Even as I write this, I fear these thoughts will be controversial, but I suspect that really they'll only push buttons because these are the things that no woman wants to admit. I've never felt so self-conscious as when another woman catches me making adjustments to myself in a mirror. That moment when you've leaned in closely in a public bathroom, say at an airport, and you're scrutinizing some spot on the bridge of your nose, or applying lipstick just so, or moving a small strand of hair into a better place, and you glance up to catch another woman's eyes as she enters the room. A flush will spread through me, all the way to my toes, because what she has just seen is the giant conundrum that we women face: we are supposed to look perfect effortlessly. To be caught working at it implies that we care. To imply that we care says that we think we are worth it. And that, my dear girls, is a deep, deep message that so many of us, not just women, carry around. Worthlessness.
Don't take this on. Don't let that message carry any weight within yourselves. You are not worthless. You are so full of love and life and light and you should let it shine through you every second of every day. If someone pushes you down for standing tall then just push yourself back up and stand even taller. And know that the reason they pushed you down in the first place is just because they're scared. We're all scared to be who we are sometimes, but I will tell you that I have never in my life felt more beautiful than when I have stood my tallest.
Well, this letter has gone in a direction I wasn't quite expecting. I thought I was going to write more about makeup and clothes and how to feel good about yourself even when you don't like what you look like, but I guess my thoughts about that idea run toward a deeper place. At least you know how I feel. I wish so much I could ask my own mother about beauty. She was a stunning woman and I want to know if she tried or if she cared (of course she did, right?). I want to know if she ever felt satisfied enough about her looks to enjoy walking into a room and turning heads. I want to know where her bravery in fashion came from and how I can pass that down to you girls, since it clearly skipped me. I want to what she wanted for me when she looked at me.
At least you know what I want for you.