Dear Carolyn: I'm feeling like an extremely horrible person, and I don't know how to get over it. My son has started dating a woman whom he seems to like a lot. Wonderful, right? Here’s where my horribleness comes in: Although I haven’t met her, I have seen photos of her, and she’s quite physically unattractive.
My son has always been generally considered to be very good-looking, and his previous relationships have been with interesting, intelligent women who were also physically lovely. He seems very happy and I’m sure that once I meet her I’ll find her just as wonderful as his previous girlfriends. However, I’m so ashamed of my knee-jerk first impression and how much it still bothers me that she’s just not at all pretty.
I haven’t mentioned my reaction to anyone, of course, and I never would. I grew up feeling unattractive and then was suddenly considered a beauty in my young adulthood. I’ve always believed that gave me a healthy perspective on society’s emphasis on appearances, but apparently I’m a lot more shallow than I thought. I’m hoping that all of this goes away when I get to know her and all the qualities that my son finds so attractive, but in the meantime, why am I being such a jerk about this?
Horrible: Clearly you know that looks are subjective and temporary, and that a person’s value is not determined by their appearance. You also know that you’ve passed down that awareness to your son — that’s a win, mom! But these judgmental feelings toward your son’s girlfriend have made you aware that looks mean more to you than you thought, and that is uncomfortable. But you need to first give yourself a break. Who says you are supposed to be perfect? Having physical features that society deems attractive carries privileges, and no matter how unfair that is, cultural biases seep into our thinking despite our best intentions.
Fortunately, recognizing our biases is the first step to countering their effects on us. With self-compassion, you can face your appearance bias and examine it. Reflect on how you got it, how it has shaped you, the benefits and costs to it, and determine whether it serves you. Then, when you have unpleasant thoughts about you son’s girlfriend, you can think to yourself, “Oh dang, there’s that faulty social conditioning again” instead of, “Oh no, I’m a bad person!”
By recognizing the source of your superficial judgment of the girlfriend and giving it less energy, it will become easier to move past it rather than watching those thoughts root down deeper in your mind. Good luck, mom. You’re not horrible. You’re human. With humility and humor, you’ll regain your perspective and be fine.
— Pretty Plain
Horrible: Why indeed. Pursue that question — maybe with a therapist. Investigate what a woman’s physical attractiveness means to you as a person, then as a mother of a son who is dating, then as a potential future mother-in-law, then as a potential future grandmother. … You can see that the implications are pretty ugly and tinged with misogyny and eugenics.
Is she not good enough for your beautiful son unless she meets current beauty standards? Or is your own beauty in decline, and this is a kind of post-Shakespearean “From fairest creatures we desire increase,/ That thereby beauty’s rose might never die?” I am glad you recognize how unsavory these feelings are and can work through them. Besides, she might turn out to have such personal presence — something that doesn’t come across in photos — and intelligence, and heart, that you end up not caring how she looks. Let’s hope so. You raised a son who is capable of that, so that’s promising.
Horrible: Maybe you subconsciously worry that people will view your son as less worthy if he isn’t with a partner who meets societal expectations of beauty. You and your son apparently won the genetic attractiveness lottery, despite the fact that you grew up feeling unattractive. Feeling that way for a time before realizing you were considered beautiful doesn’t actually mean you have a balanced or healthy perspective.
It means that even you, despite your beauty, have suffered from our cultural focus on appearances. What you can do is consciously decide that physical beauty is not required to be a lovable or valuable person. Acknowledge that even though you won cultural approval for your own appearance, you have still been harmed by the way our image-conscious world weighs and measures women and finds them wanting. Imagine how hard that is for people seen as unattractive. Decide not to be a part of the problem for your son and his new partner.
— Think Big
Horrible: Your experience of feeling unattractive at a younger age may be triggering feelings of shame that your handsome son is not dating a beauty. We identify with our children. As the saying goes: They are like our hearts walking around outside of our bodies. His attractiveness and, by extension, the potential mate he has, may take on more importance for you than you had previously realized.
If this resonates with you, you may take a more introspective look at the origins of your feeling unattractive when you were younger. Were you criticized or judged? Explicitly or passively? We internalize criticisms as well as the unhealthy standards that others impose on us. It’s the unwanted gift that keeps giving, and you are now the giver.
You share the desire to move past your judgmental feelings, which is great. Acknowledge where they may come from, and keep an open heart and mind. Trust that your son sees his girlfriend’s beauty, and understand that in his big picture, it’s all that matters. His heart is his own.
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