Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Motherhood and Image

One Saturday a couple of years ago at the park, I noticed a pair of twenty-something mothers. Did they consult each other before dressing that morning or were they in competition to out-hot-chick each other? Razored bobs and pairs of bedazzled sunglasses framed their faces. Taut black tank tops only barely housed generous portions of exposed breast (the artificial quality of which could be debated). Their jeans were torn and low-rise, and separated from peeks of flesh by sparkly black belts with studs. The only real differences between the two women were the graphics on their shirts, and only one of the women had visible tattoos. To have one such momma-candy on the playground would have been enough; two however were like a high-pitched ringing alarm. Several minutes passed before I could name the sensation rising inside me: I don’t want to be like the Hooters chicks on the playground. Interestingly enough, as the young women cavorted about, the other parents ignored them.

What is it about motherhood that makes some of us rebel in our image? Well, we’re moms, but we still look cool. There was a point in my life when a “hot mom” comment made me grin. Now? I’m in a different place. The last thing I want my daughter to hear is, “Your mom looks hot.” On a visit with a close friend months prior to the Hooters-at-the-park episode, she discussed her own appearance. She was no longer the string bean she had been in college. She’d become, well, a mom. The qualities I always had loved about her were present ten-fold: gentleness, wisdom, natural beauty that radiated from within.

“My kids don’t care how thin I am,” she said. “They just want me there to love them, want me soft when we hug. When you are loved like that, the other stuff doesn’t matter. Besides, the way my husband loves me, it doesn’t matter how much I weigh to him either.” For a moment I thought about the velveteen bunny and his desire to be loved, and therefore real. “When I take my shirt off,” continued my friend, “Joe still goes crazy.” Well, not so velveteen bunny all of a sudden, but I wanted this—the freedom to just be who I was, to be loved like that, and to not have my spouse measure his approval on the size of my waist, breasts, thighs, or even the length of my hair and nails. Later, when I was growling over the way my biceps jiggled, she glanced at me and said, “You need to live in a place where there’s less emphasis on appearance.” At that point, my whole life was changing. Little did I know how much it would change or how my vision of myself would change with it.

My girlfriend, by the way, was right about everything. I was living in semi-rural-suburbia meets matching-mail box-hell. Women in the neighborhood drove golf carts to visit each other. (Nota bene: no golf course in the neighborhood.) We had our tennis teams, our merchandise parties, pretty cars in the driveway. If one basement was being remodeled, everyone else’s basement was next. Workouts at the gym were light competition. We congratulated ourselves on being fit, firm, and looking younger than our mothers did at the same age. We said that we did this for ourselves. Knowing what I know now, that’s not true at all. It was a very shallow way of life and I was glad to leave it. And I left it all: the house, nicer cars, conspicuous consumption, gossipy neighbors, and sooty self –image. Gone. I have never looked back, and have found instead, an incredibly rejuvenating re-embracing of motherhood and everything that comes with it, internally and externally. What I used to worry about is baggage left behind in a three car garage and attached McMansion.

That day at the park, as I relaxed against the bench and watched my kids play, the two young women chasing their kids struck a chord inside me. When I returned home, I emptied my closet of every item of clothing I still had that was tight, too short, too clingy, too young, too unbecoming of a mid-thirties mother, and I gave it all to a twenty-one year old family friend. It was the last bit of any image associated with my previous life, anything that I tried to be and was not. I felt like a new person: respectable. Not a trace of Hooters waitress anywhere and no need to earn a mate’s approval by looking that way. Better yet, proud and thankful to look like a mother.

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