“It’s not my job to look beautiful for a man. Or anyone else for that matter.”
“Yes it is,” said my mother.
“No. My job is [redacted for the sake of anonymity]. I don’t get paid to look pretty and frankly, if someone is going to offer me a job based on how I look rather than my qualifications, I don’t really want it.”
“That’s just the way the world works, H,” said my mother.
“Well it’s not the way it should work. Don’t you want me to try to change it?”
“You’re not gonna change anything,” said my mother.
“People have been trying to change things since I was your age and they haven’t made any difference yet,” said my mother.
“It’s just the way it is. Nothing will ever change,” said my mother.
And this is the moment I realised … my mother is not a feminist. My mother was in her prime in the American Golden Age of misogyny (have we left that age?) when it was perfectly acceptable for a woman to get an entry-level job because she had cleavage, big hair, and perfect lipstick. She is a product of her time. What stuns me is her apparent disinterest in seeing the way of the world changed for her only daughter. Was she really happy with the way she got to where she is? She openly admits that she uses her ‘feminine charms’ on a daily basis to manipulate people into doing what she wants or needs them to do. I’m not talking about persuading people to kill someone or anything like that, nothing serious, but you know. Still.
When I was growing up my mother waxed poetic about the glory days when she was thin and beautiful and had the world in her hand. She recounted Gatsby-esque tales of her first husband’s extravagant parties — she described him as ‘a man who just truly loved women’ and told me that one day when I was older I would understand what that meant. (I don’t.) She tittered and chirped about growing marijuana plants in the tomato beds for him, but no she never used it, not even once. She fondly remembered the day she met my father, her second husband, at one such wild party. She and her first husband had an ‘arrangement’. It did not occur to me until many years later … was my mom a swinger? Was my mom a submissive? How could this woman who never so much as said the word ‘hell’ have led this entire other mystery life that played cinematic and glamorous in my imagination? And to come back to my more recent thoughts, was she really okay with all of that?
Once upon a time I thought my mother’s advice was golden, spilling from her perfectly pink lips like pearls and jewels that I would treasure forever. Now I think back on it, most of what my mom told me when I was a kid was bullshit. Bullshit that certainly didn’t come from her, though she may think it did, but from a society that has endlessly sought to keep women in a weaker position than men. Here are a few of the gems I remember from my childhood.
“H, when you meet the man of your dreams, you can get him. You just have to know what to do! Learn what he likes and play your cards right. If he likes tennis, learn about tennis and ask him to teach you how to play. Men are easy to understand. If you know which buttons to push, you can make them do whatever you want.”
“H, when you get married, there’s only one way you can stop your husband from ever leaving you. Every morning, wake up before him, have your shower, do your hair and your makeup and put on your clothes, and then make him a cup of coffee. That way, the first thing he sees when you looking great and ready with his coffee. Then at night, when you’re going to bed, always look nice. Don’t wash your face too hard and always use a moisturizer so when he kisses you goodnight your face is soft and it’ll be the last thing he thinks about before he falls asleep.”
“Stop picking your fingernails! Men prefer women with beautiful hands!”
Time and time again I tell my mother, I’m not interested in living my life the way she lived hers. Don’t get me wrong. My mother is my best friend. I share everything with her. But the more I reflect on my formative years, the more I wish she had talked less about the importance of appearance and more about the importance of following my heart, achieving my goals, finding my happiness.
So I’m gonna continue to pick my fingernails because, honestly, I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks about the state of my hands. And I’m gonna keep cursing like a sailor because, again, zero fucks. Tell me all you want that it’s ‘unladylike’ … I can’t bring myself to care and I honestly hope to God that I never do.
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