sense of self

Illustration by Jennifer Huang

A Made Up Sense of Self

Women are taught to foster rather than face our insecurities.

Oct 1, 2016

Virginia Woolf wrote, “For we think back through our mothers if we are women.” For me, this was certainly true. The only child of a single mother, many of my thoughts were filtered through her ways of thinking, whether either of us acknowledged it or not. People often warned me, as they often warn girls and girls’ fiances, that I would someday become my mother. I pondered the thought of becoming like my mother in a balanced way; though I would likely nag a lot, I would also bake killer brownies and give really warm hugs. I considered gaining her love for cooking, for movies about animals and for seaglass. Now that I’m 20 years old and can look at my growth and my mother with a bit more nuance, I realize that there are so many more things that we women gain from our mothers and the societies that raise us. We see the world through a tainted lens — rose-colored or not — and gain their impressions. Living through my mother gave me wisdom, but it also gave me her insecurities.
The idea that eating disorders, mental health problems and substance abuse disorders are passed transgenerationally is not new. These phenomena tend to recur in families throughout generations, and the evidence points to both biological and environmental causes. Generally, in the parent-child pairs studied in these cases, both parents and children score high on measures of insecure attachment. On a more minute note, even for those who do not experience their parent’s insecure attachment style, how is the average daughter shaped by her mother’s self-perception?
For me, one of the visible markers of the insecurities I received — I don’t know whether inherited or learned is the right word — from my mother was the makeup on my face. Growing up, my mother rarely went out without makeup. There were a few staple items: foundation, lipstick and mascara. I can’t recall any time she went without these when entering a public space, be it the mall, the grocery store or dinner with our extended family. I never thought twice about it. If I had, the thoughts that society conditioned me to think would have told me that she looked a lot better with makeup. It covered the tired eyes from working long days and from parenting, and it gave her face color. If we were running late, as we often did, I’d say, Mom, come on! But she would have rather put on those three makeup items and risk losing face by being 10 minutes late, even if it was to my volleyball game. Though I was annoyed, it never worried me that she seemed unable to go without it.
When I became a teenager, I was eager to wear makeup myself. After applying neon pink lipstick and blue eyeliner, I looked in the mirror and rather than seeing the ridiculous clown face I’d created, I saw a new person. That was enough for me, and the fascination with transforming my self-perception took a long time to break. Around the same time, I grew taller, thinner, gained some semblance of a style and began to be noticed for my looks. At school, I began getting attention from boys. My family started treating me differently. They commented on my hair, my body, my clothes and — of course — my makeup. My grandparents referenced the previous years of chubbiness I’d experienced with a relieved tone. They were so happy, they said, that I turned out pretty. Rather than feeling angry, I felt loved.
My mom often said she didn't have eyes without mascara or lips without lipstick. I understood that, and we were both 10 minutes late from then on. It wasn’t only my mom that enforced the idea that my appearance was intertwined with my value. My family consists mostly of women, and at our gatherings they called me the diva of my family, referring to me as the one who knew I was pretty, or the one who attracted the attention of my cousin’s older friends. Diva became my first name and Christine — my middle name — became the second. To this day, I am Diva Christine. Despite the names and assurances, I didn’t know whether I was pretty or not, and certainly didn’t appreciate the leering of men double my age. All I knew was that I wanted my family to love me the way I loved them — for who they are. For their warm smiles, honest laughs, mistakes and changes. I’d initially felt more loved through their new attention, but I eventually realized that it came at the expense of the genuine closeness we’d previously shared. I didn’t know where the pressure came from, but I felt that I was the only person who had to try so hard, as my beautiful cousins lounged in yoga pants and didn’t care about having their hair colored, straightened or curled. But being the girl who was always well-dressed, over-makeuped and cared for by herself became the only identity I knew how to wear. So I tried to make it feel like a fit.
The pattern continued at school. My peers often commented on how well I took care of myself or how healthy I looked. These things sound positive. But painting my nails and spending 45 minutes on makeup every morning didn’t signal emotional or physical health. Yes, the bags under my eyes were concealed and the blemishes covered — I had the markers of health and rest that women strive so hard to attain. But I was still exhausted. I still had breakouts from stress, and had a huge issue with my self-perception. When I worked as a hostess, I was only tipped when I wore feminine clothes, did my hair and wore makeup. When I worked the most typical, supposedly laid-back summer job ever, I received comments like, Hannah looks like the ice cream girl from the movies! From that moment on, shoulder-deep in smelly, sour milk and sugar, I was told I needed to keep my hair and makeup on point, my outfit well-fitting. I was taught to feel it was half a compliment when my misogynist boss told me that I was cute but stupid.
Throughout these experiences, even though I couldn’t control my inner sense of inadequacy or feelings of turmoil, I found that I could control my appearance. That was at least enough to maintain the status quo of the way that the people I knew and loved interacted with me, so I kept it up. I clung to it. I wore makeup to volleyball practice, to driving lessons and, of course, to school. If I woke up late, with no time to do makeup, I would stay home rather than get on the public bus barefaced. Even college didn’t give me the freedom from myself that I craved. In the first semester of college, when I couldn’t manage my time or food habits well enough to keep the weight I’d always maintained, when my year-round sports commitments fell away, I found myself facing a self-hatred that I’d always had but never had to face. I’d covered it in makeup and tried to sweat it out on the treadmill.
When I returned home for Christmas, everyone commented on the change in my appearance. Is it hard to eat healthy at school? Your thighs are getting larger. Oh no, the dreaded years of chubbiness were back. Outside of family, the two young girls I once babysat looked at me as if I’d come back a foreigner and said, “You look so different than you used to.”
I was exasperated. I was so happy to see these people. Ones who made me feel at home, ones whom I’d missed dearly. But they made me feel as though I only could be at home within their image of me if I presented myself perfectly groomed. I found it both pathetic and hilarious that so much of how I related to the people I love revolved around my appearance, and how little they knew about who I was on the inside. It was my fault for not pushing them around this, showing them who I really was. While this pattern is not ubiquitous, in my experience and in many of the angering cases I’ve heard of, women are taught to foster rather than face our insecurities.
I actually took control when I decided to stop taking my appearance so seriously. I cut off my hair, my stronghold on femininity. I got a tattoo, then another, saying that this body is mine and I don’t care if you don’t like my tattoo, can’t tell what it is, or think it’s trashy — as many of my family members do. You hate it, okay, at least we’ll be talking about why you hate tattoos for once rather than the boyish new haircut I got. I started to work out because I had a lot of nervous energy and it felt good, not caring so much about the width of my thighs and more about the feeling of strength growing within them. And finally, I stopped with the makeup. I didn’t quite pull an Alicia Keys but I pushed myself to redefine my relationship to this random synthetic material I slathered all over my face. I made a conscious effort to go makeup-free and to do so proudly, rather than hiding my eyes behind sunglasses and my skin under a big sunhat. And after a summer of barely wearing makeup — though I do like to when it compliments my outfits, or I have time to kill in the morning — I began to view myself differently. I still believe that I look better with makeup, because that’s what it’s for. But, finally, I don’t care so much about what some people would consider as looking better. In the words of a very dear friend, “Makeup should be to enhance, rather than to change what is there.” Makeup does enhance my appearance, but no longer does it enhance my self-worth.
After a summer of feeling motivated and empowered to speak up more at family dinners, to share my thoughts rather than my favorite shades of lipstick and to show people who I really am, I feel stronger. My mom remarked about how rarely I’d worn makeup at the beginning of the summer. By the end of August, I was remarking on how little makeup she’d been wearing — to work, meetings and when running errands. I hope that she’s also been able to think back through me a bit.
Hannah Taylor is Managing Editor. Email her at
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