Mom's Unforgiving Mirror

By Deborah Tannen
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I once showed my mother a photograph taken of me by a professional photographer. Instead of commenting on the glamorous pose and makeup-artist adornment, she said, "One of your eyes is smaller than the other." Then she turned to me and gripped my chin as she examined my face. "It is," she pronounced. "Your left eye is smaller." For a while after, whenever she saw me, she inspected my eye and reiterated her concern. During that time, I too became preoccupied with my left eye. My mother's perspective had become my own.

When else does a slight imperfection -- a pimple, a small asymmetry -- become the most prominent feature on your face? When you're looking in a mirror. A mother who zeroes in on her daughter's appearance -- often on the Big Three: hair, clothes and weight -- is regarding her daughter in the same way that she looks at herself in a mirror. The more I thought about it, the more this seemed to account for some of the best and worst aspects of the mother-daughter relationship: Each tends to see the other as a reflection of herself. It's wonderful when this means caring deeply, being interested in details and truly understanding the other. But it can cause frustration when it means scrutinizing the other for flaws in the same way that you scrutinize yourself.

The mirror image is particularly apt during the teenage years. At this age, a girl may spend hours in front of a full-length mirror, scouring her reflection for tiny imperfections that fill her with dread. And it is typically also at this age that she is most critical of her mother. (One woman recalls how her teenage daughter summed it up: "Everything about you is wrong.") The teenage girl is critiquing her mother -- and finding her wanting -- just as she scans her own mirror image for imperfections.

Part of a mother's job is to make sure all goes well for her children; for a daughter, that often means helping her improve her appearance. But there is a double irony here. From the mother's point of view, the person you most want to help, protect and advise is often the one least likely to welcome your help, protection and advice. From the daughter's perspective, the person whom you most want to think you're perfect is the one most likely to see your flaws -- and tell you about them. And when she does, your reaction is far more extreme than it would be if anyone else made the same comment, because her opinion feels like a life sentence: If she sees faults, you must, as you feared, be fatally flawed.

To the daughter on the receiving end of a mother's suggestion that she get a better haircut, wear a different dress or lose a few pounds, it can seem that her mother cares only about appearance, especially if the daughter expected the focus to be on something else. For example, a woman who had just been promoted to a prominent position eagerly anticipated her mother's response when her picture appeared in the newspaper; what her mother said was, "I could see you didn't have time to cut your bangs." It's an aargh (you might say, a hair-tearing) moment: My mother dismisses my accomplishments and focuses on my appearance -- even worse, how my appearance falls short.

But here's another way to look at it: Your mother may assume it goes without saying that she is proud of you. Everyone knows that. And everyone probably also notices that your bangs are obscuring your vision -- and their view of your eyes. Because others won't say anything, your mother may feel it's her obligation to tell you.

The desire to help a daughter (or mother) look her best may be entirely selfless, but if the person you're trying to help reflects yourself, there may also be an element of self-interest. Daughters and mothers often feel that the other represents her to the world. And it's true that people tend to hold mothers (and not fathers) responsible for their children's faults. Someone who disapproves of how a young woman is dressed will often think, and maybe ask out loud, "How did her mother let her go out looking like that?"

Yet a mother's concern may have no selfish component at all; she may be worried about her daughter's health rather than, or in addition to, her appearance. That was true in the case of my mother and my smaller eye. She had read that thyroid problems could present themselves as a difference in eye size, and she wanted me to go to a doctor and check it out. In fact, the era of my smaller eye ended when I reported that my doctor had found that my thyroid was fine.

No matter how much mothers insist that their focus is health -- no matter how truly that really is their motivation -- remarks about how to banish pimples or lose weight are heard as criticism, not only of your appearance but more generally of you. This came out clearly in the comments by a woman who told me that when she was a child, her mother had always been at her to comb her hair. She went on to say that her mother hadn't approved of her tomboy ways; she would have preferred a more typically feminine child.

When a woman sees in her daughter the same worrisome characteristic that her own mother once saw in her, her reaction can be as complex and confusing as a series of fun-house mirrors. One woman said that because her own mother had always been after her to get her hair off her face, tie it back, smooth it down, she determined not to pester her own daughter that way. "But the not saying anything is in itself an obsession," she said. "Other people mention it all the time." The child had inherited thick curly hair from her -- the same hair that she had inherited from her mother. Her impulse to help her daughter gain control of her hair was intensified because she felt responsible for it -- just as her mother, looking at her as a child, recalled her own struggles with the same hair.

I once said to my sister, "Mom always told me my hair was too long. Did she ever bug you about your hair?" "Yes," my sister replied. "She always told me it was too short." This made us laugh. Then my sister added, "The funny thing is, her hair never looked good. Remember how it always stuck out on one side?" I did indeed; we laughed some more. But then I realized with chagrin that I often told my mother that her hair didn't look good -- and volunteered to fix it.

Then a picture came to my mind, a precious memory from my mother's last years: I am standing behind my mother facing her bedroom mirror, combing her hair and smoothing it down. She is so small compared with me -- 5 feet tall to my 5-9 -- that her vulnerability overwhelms me. The impulse to protect and care for her floods over me. Recalling that image, I understood at last that her fussing over my appearance really could have been, all along, a gesture of love. ยท

Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, is the author most recently of "You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation," which has just been published in paperback by Ballantine.

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