Saturday, November 14, 2009

On beauty: mothers and daughters

This past week was my mother’s birthday. I called to wish her in the morning and then headed to work.

On the way to the tube stop, a strange thing happened: I caught a glimpse of myself in a shop window and was startled enough to stop and stare at the reflection. Somehow, for the first time in my life, I reminded myself of my mother. Not resembled her, but somehow echoed her. And that was bizarre enough.

When I was a child, I was fascinated by my mother: she was beautiful and glamorous in that old-style movie star way. People would stare at her but rarely approached her, not only because we lived in a conservative society where she was a scion of a well-known family in the region, but also because there was something intimidating about her beauty. Even in kindergarten, friends would sigh every time she appeared at the school gates – all silks and chiffons and warm perfumed cuddles. “Your mother is soooooooo beautiful,” they would whisper in awe.

Early in my childhood, I realised that my mother’s kind of beauty was not only extraordinarily rare but also beyond my reach. In any case, everyone said that I resembled my father, and while he is handsome, it isn’t much help being a little girl and being told that one looks like a man!

So early on I rebelled: not in any overt way, but by simply refusing to take on the trappings of femininity and beauty. And quite early on, and thanks to my mother who was unfailingly proud of me, I realised that I had something extraordinary too: a brain that worked in ways that were unusual and powerful. As early as elementary school, I had decided that instead of the beauty of the family, I would be the brains. At least that I could achieve on my own steam.

At sixteen, someone took a photograph of me at a party and my mother was genuinely thrilled: “I have a beautiful daughter,” she exclaimed over and over again, putting that photograph in a frame. I didn’t believe her then. Tomboyish and bookish by turns, beauty was just as unattainable in my teens as when I was a child.

Then in my early twenties, I fell in love a man who I believed was a connoisseur of feminine beauty. Perhaps he was poor at communication or just deeply insecure, but during one alcohol-laced conversation, he told me that while I was “extremely attractive,” I would never count as “beautiful.” It was an affirmation of what I had always believed, and yet it hurt. Nothing he ever said afterwards to explain or make up, could undo that initial hurt.

In the years that followed, I single-mindedly pursued the goal of becoming the “brain,” eventually with a degree of success. And then, increasingly, I found that people were intimidated by the knowledge I had steadily and painstakingly acquired, by my ability to out-reason them.

And after the first flush of power that ability to intimidate gave me, I started to question it. I remembered the remote glamour that accompanies beauty and didn’t want the same reaction for my brain. Instead I began to search ways to inspire not intimidate. Over time, it is a skill I have acquired to some proficiency, and in the past few years, I have slowly gotten better at it: I can see that in my daily life.

Over the same period, my hankering for beauty has also fallen by the wayside. Perhaps that is only a natural corollary of deliberately trying to shed an ego that prides itself on intelligence and knowledge and on deliberate and consistent attempts at superiority, and instead focussing on excellence.

This is why I was stunned to see the reflection in the shop window. The woman who looked back at me was frighteningly good looking. Perhaps she was not glamorous in that movie star way like my mother, but still shockingly arresting, perhaps even intimidating, in her looks. Since then I have started noticing the way people “check” me out on the street, in cafes and pubs, in shops. They often wear the same arrested expression that I remember from my childhood, the one that my mother evoked. And sometimes, they approach me (no protective social barriers for me!) with curiosity and yet hesitation, as if expecting to be rebuffed.

My women friends (including my sister) laugh at me when I tell them of this strange new phenomenon. “You’re the only one who doesn’t notice she is beautiful,” my sister tells. “You’re crazy,” one of my oldest and closest friends exclaimed the other day, telling me (for the first time) that even that hyper-critical lover from my twenties couldn’t keep his eyes off me when I entered a room; this time I believe her.

My mother would also laugh when she reads this. She will call me to point out all the beautiful women in the family and wonder why I should expect to be different (she has done that before). For the first time, I remember that I also look like my paternal grandmother, and she was an accredited beauty of her times.

Sometimes I wish I hadn’t doubted myself for so long. But then perhaps that is good: convinced for years that I could not be beautiful, I have nurtured my brain; wracked by insecurity since my childhood, I have learned to identify with the underdog and have (hopefully) escaped the horrors of hubris. Those are not mean achievements for half a human life!

I also think I understand why I begin to look like my mother: some how, without trying, I have found the same confidence that my mother has always radiated, full of warmth and happiness, and a bubbling enthusiasm for life.

And that is a gift from her that is impossible to match, no matter how hard I try. Even for the rest of my life.

Happy birthday, mum!