When I was a child, I didn’t understand that my mother was a beauty. I only saw her eyes, perpetually dark with fatigue, only heard her voice, tense, barking out my name. Every day, I felt her annoyance with me, her dissatisfaction with what I did, what I didn’t do. She tried to coax me into a passion of cleaning, I loved books. She attempted to bribe me with toys and dresses, I wanted more notebooks, more pens. She expected me to throw my arms around her neck at lunchtime, grateful to be reunited with her for an hour; I just wanted to quietly eat my lunch and watch The Flintstones before going back into the fray. I saw the black and white photos of her wedding day, but the fine features and Sofia-Loren curls didn’t register. I couldn’t make the connection between the creamy-cheeked woman wearing a veil and the short-tempered woman in a wraparound apron who kept interrupting my reading with her inconvenient demands. I didn’t understand the concept of beauty, because it was not a value ascribed to me.
It’s okay to say it, I was a weird kid. I did not have glossy pigtails and roses in my cheeks, like the doll-like girls I read about. In one studio photo taken with my brother when I was about two, I do look like a doll, but more of a ventriloquist’s dummy than a Barbie. I was an adorable shambles. Glasses from the time I was three years old. My tiny head balancing the weight of too-large frames that magnified my eyes to comic proportions. Wispy hair hacked into a vague shape by my mother’s scissors. Blouses that never stayed tucked, bows that never lay flat. Baby hunchback from too much reading. Eyes moored in another world. My socks perpetually pooled around my ankles, my shoes perpetually scuffed. Yes, that is chocolate ice cream all down the front of my t-shirt in that photo. I was fidgety and chewed on my cuticles. My shins were frequently bruised from run-ins with furniture. In party photos, I am dishevelled and sweaty from cavorting with my cousin. Even if I tried to look nice, entropy pulled at me with exaggerated force.
For my renowned beauty of a mother, I was, understandably, an endless source of sighs. But because she is also a control freak, I was a puzzle that could — and needed to — be solved.
“When Nonna told me what was wrong with me, I knew that she loved me,” my mother once explained. “Because she wanted me to be perfect. And I want you to be perfect.” In high school, when my friends left the house, the mother once commented, “Your friends are so beautiful. Do you know, when I was young, the prettier girls always hung out with less pretty girls to make themselves stand out more.” When I asked if I was the “ugly” girl in this scenario, she patted my arm and made a vague reply. When someone mentioned that I resembled her, my mother snapped, “Oh, no! She doesn’t look anything like me. But she’s pretty in her own way.” In one breath, I can be the most wonderful daughter in the world, but give it three hours, and I could also hear, “No, I’m smaller than you, look at my thighs and look at yours.” Apparently, the notion of self-esteem never made it to the hilly regions of Le Marche. Even my father, with his odd sense of humour, affectionately greeted me with “bruta!” every time I walked in the door — and still sometimes does (that’s the Italian word for “ugly”, if you didn’t catch it).
I was not the daughter either of them hoped for. They love me more than any other human being on earth, I know that, but the expression of that love often felt conditional, restrictive and definitely judgmental. Their love was only given freely when I fulfilled their expectations, but needless to say, their expectations were too high and I fell short every time. Yes, you look nice today, but look at how nicely dressed all the other girls are, look at how well behaved. Sure, it’s nice that you lost weight, but you could lose a little more. Sure, you lost weight, but be careful not to lose too much, your face is already so long and thin. Yes, you got a 98%, but what happened to the other two points? Yes, it sounds like that other girl was mean to you, but what did you do to deserve it? Thank you for putting your dish in the sink, but you couldn’t wash it? And why didn’t you collect everyone else’s? There was never any rest to be had.
We don’t need a therapist to understand this. It’s easy. Their parents made them never feel good enough, so they made us feel never good enough. Buffeted by fears and the drive to survive, giving anything less than 110% effort at all times could mean death. But there was never an adjustment made after the move to Canada. Although they began to thrive, buying homes and cars, marrying their children off in lavish events, the howl of “never good enough” never diminished. And why would it? This drive was not negative to them — quite the opposite. They cloaked it in language that sounded positive. Like it was all rooted in a desire to encourage you be your best. How can you improve if I don’t tell you what you did wrong? Don’t you want to have better grades at school? Like if they let up for one second, your entire life would crumble, like you had no will of your own unless they gave you meaning. Like they actually knew what entropy meant and were trying to protect me from it.
I certainly developed drive and resilience because of this, but when it came to the exchange of love, my parents and I were using different currencies. The fact of having to accept theirs drove down the value I placed on myself and the value I placed on other people. What happens when you are the physically unbeautiful child of a physically beautiful woman? When you think that rewards only come after you’ve jumped through enough hoops? You work extra hard to be nice, to be helpful, because you think you have to earn love and affection. All beautiful people have to do is show up and the ground is thick with blossoms, you talk yourself into believing. The rest of us, you conclude, have to hustle for our dinners. As if everyone you know and meet has a checklist to evaluate you against and that if you stumble, they won’t like you. So you learn to be funny and to be earnest, because no one is going to want you around if you’re not hot and too serious and you play too many games. Only beautiful people can get away with imperfections. You hustle and you become the one that everyone loves, because when they need a hug or someone to share whatever heavy burden they are carrying, they know you’ll always squeeze your schedule to make time for them. What’s not to love about that person?
But what about self-love when you’re that person? In my world, the bestowing or withholding of the word “beautiful” is an expression of unconditional love. It is one of only a few words that makes me flinch, arms crossed, head shaking. I still don’t consider myself to be physically beautiful. This face will never launch one ship, never mind a thousand. I spent years joking that I am “better-than-average cute”. I have never even dated a man who could easily (or frequently) call me “beautiful”. I only need one hand to count them up. Yet, I am a master at finding the physical beauty in others, in spotting and celebrating the sharp line of a nose, the graceful curve of a nape, the efflorescence of a gaze. I hate that I still place value on beauty, that I cannot turn this trick inwards, but I don’t yet know how to turn back mechanisms that were set in motion generations before my birth.
In the meantime, I have the saving grace of knowing myself to be a beautiful person (and so my friends tell me so). The abundant love and affection I receive has been earned, it turns out, but not because I learned how to tame my hair or bend over backwards. I earned it by being an adorable shambles, by the integrity I practice and my desire to laugh and make others laugh in turn. By being me. Unconditional love, it turns out, is conditional on trust and learning, on respect and patience. Not on beauty, not on perfection, not on mere presence. I may not have made peace with the notion of physical beauty, but I love the child that I was so fiercely and I would not change her story for all the heart-shaped faces in the world.