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What’s your beauty legacy?

That’s the question that a new Dove film asks mothers and daughters. In documentary style, moms and their daughters (7-10 years old) are asked – separately – to write two lists: what they like about their bodies and what they don’t like.

The first time I watched the film, all of three minutes, I found myself holding my breath. Oh god, what are my daughters, now ages 14 and 16, adopting about the way I view my body or myself?

In the film, when the mother and daughter pairs’ lists were compared, the things they liked and disliked about their body were remarkably similar. If a mom complained about her legs, so did the daughter. If a mom liked her smile, so did the girl.

I watched the film a few more times, putting myself in the role as mom, and as the daughter…my 8- or 12- or 16-year-old self.

To be sure, some women will watch this film and say, “Oh here’s another mother-bashing moment.” Surprisingly, I don’t feel that way. And I’m in a profession that tends to examine childhood hurts and “empathic failures” of parenting to a fault. Instead, I found the film to be a teachable moment. The moms and girls were relatable and endearing;  it made me take pause.

And that is the whole point of the film—coming to a moment of self-awareness about the ways we may be influencing our children, intentionally or otherwise.

It also invites a retrospective lens on what beliefs we may have carried forward that may not have been our own to start with.

Mom and Tara at Beach-Daisy in Hair copyWhen I reflect back on my childhood I remember feeling skinny, awkward and ugly. I was the girl who stuffed a training bra with tissues, with little added result. Yet, this self-consciousness didn’t come as some sort of message from my mother. In fact, she missed, and often dismissed, any coming-of-age angst I may have expressed. But no matter. Culture was an influential teacher, even in the hang loose, hippie heyday of the 1970s where a bra was a non-essential.

As my luck had it, my mother was an extraordinary beauty. I admired and felt proud of her natural good looks as some badge of honor I could benefit from. “Your mom is so pretty!” my girlfriends would say. She was much more than that.

My mom handed down an appreciation of the European aesthetic she grew up in, a value for arts and culture, and the gift of grace. She had an aptitude for pulling herself and her two girls together with virtually no financial resources. In hindsight it’s no surprise that she became an Avon Lady selling cosmetics door-to-door, sashaying into the homes of dour housewives, who were charmed by her German accent and her Sophia Loren looks. She had a talent for helping them feel beautiful not only with make-up and perfume samples, but with the wholehearted attention she poured over them.

I doubt any of her customers, largely middle and lower class women living on the coast of Connecticut, had any idea whatsoever that our family was on food stamps, that her husband left the family bankrupt, and that we relied on the generosity of friends to help get us by.

The beauty legacy I inherited from a beautiful woman was not about the shape of my nose, the thickness of my thighs, or the texture of my hair—timeless issues that so many girls obsess over. As the Dove’s Legacy film portrayed, moms are central role models for their children. They pass on beliefs and feelings about beauty, self-worth and so much more.

Mom, Girls and Banana Curls copyThe legacy that I inherited was this unspoken rule that under no circumstances could anyone know that we were poor. The trick was we had to have a really good cover. The only way that my sister and I could travel through life was to look very put together, neat and clean, and yet trendy. My mother had style. She sewed our outfits. She frequented the local second hand shop, trading our old clothes for the newer, “gently worn” items of the more fortunate.

It was a childhood lesson in “fake it until you make it.”

This had its consequences as my sister and I became teenagers. I remember my first date, the late bloomer that I was, in my sophomore year in high school. A friend’s older brother, the lanky star of the basketball team, invited me to the homecoming dance. I was excited and terrified at the same time.

My girlfriends’ mothers were buying the current fashion of the early 80s: the dreamy Gunny Sack dresses with lace and high collars. Surely we could not afford a Gunny Sack dress. I cried about it. My mother, to her credit, agreed to buy me a short sleeve blouse of the coveted brand. We then went to the fabric store and bought three yards of a sage green print – to match the ribbon trim in the blouse. We sewed a long flowing skirt. And despite my mom’s resourcefulness, I felt ashamed and angry. I feel badly about it now, but that’s a teenager for you. (Today it’s overpriced Uggs and Lululemon yoga pants that are a topic of contention between my girls and me.)

When I met my date’s mother, holding a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other, she lavished over me. She droned, “Why, honey, aren’t you simply lovely. You look like a doll.”

I died inside. Indeed, I felt like a Madame Alexander collectable doll. The worst part, of course, was the only judge was me.

Later in college when I started dating a handsome soccer player, I laughed out loud when he later told me that he thought I was a rich girl from the exclusive township of Greenwich, Connecticut. I seemed untouchable, he noted, and this inspired his pursuit.

It’s funny when I think back that this was the beauty legacy I inherited: to be well put together, look wealthy (not poor), and appear out of reach so that no one could know the real story of my life.

This morning I watched my younger daughter getting up an extra half hour early for school so that she could straighten her long hair with an iron. I remember I did the same, but with hot curlers.

No matter what our mothers may want for us, or say to us about how wonderful we are on the inside, or complain about their own body image, there’s no doubt that girls are raised in part by a much larger force: our culture. My older daughter laments about her thick (and luscious) hair that other girls would die for. My younger daughter thinks that she has a round, fat nose which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yet, I understand girls are a by-product of the communities they live and play in – off line and online. Unquestionably, mothers can’t help but hand down their beliefs or “legacies,” including those that go beyond looks or body image.

ImageIt’s interesting to me that my girls are keenly aware that our family is not rich. Self-comparison is the name of the game in adolescence, especially observing the haves and have-nots. They complain that I’m still driving a 14-year old, rusty mini-van because soon they want to drive a much cooler car. Our house could use a paint job. And we’ve never taken a family vacation to Disney World.

Yet, they have no real idea of what it means to be poor, either. That’s because I have done my best to protect them from the experiences I had as a child, which were largely shrouded in secrecy and shame. I can’t say that this is a good thing. My girls have been well protected from the plight of a broken home, relying on food subsidies, or having to put up a good front. They can only imagine it and, frankly, no kid wants to be lectured about it.

I have no doubt that they will experience losses and hardships. Struggle is necessary, as is failure. That’s the only way to understand what it means to fully live in the world. It requires having to draw on inner resources and resilience you don’t know you have until you are tested by life. At the same time, I am mindful that the lessons I want to teach my daughters is not about the necessity of fitting in or standing out – paradoxical messages they get from society – but of the imperative for kindness and compassion. But mostly, I want them to know they have beautiful spirits and a life of purpose.
It’s a subtle teaching and I have no idea if it will work, but I find myself shifting how I speak to them, which de-emphasizes their looks, social dramas, or complaints.

How’s your spirit today?

Be open to the unexpected surprises.

Smile and see who smiles back.

What made you laugh?

Name one delightful thing you experienced today.

Savor the moment.

Do something nice for someone.

Say thank you.

They pretend to ignore me or roll their eyes. But I don’t mind. The point is our lives are full of riches. And one way or another, they will absorb it. That’s the legacy I hope to pass down.


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See Dr Tara’s recent article on Dove’s Self-Esteem website.

Dove kicks off the 5th Annual Self-Esteem Weekend at the United Nations on Oct. 9.

*Disclosure.  I am an expert global advisor to the Dove Self Esteem Project, which has a social mission to improve body confidence in girls. I provide expertise on evidence-based content and curriculum development to support educational initiatives on self-esteem and positive body image in girls. My participation on the Dove Self-Esteem Project advisory board is not an endorsement the DOVE products. The opinions stated on my blog/website are my own.

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