When I was a blossoming teen (O.K. not really blossoming, more like hiccupping and stumbling) living in the land of whiskey and weed better known as Kentucky, I was way too into my looks. Luckily, my mom wasn’t, so when one of her friends paid me a compliment, she’d change the subject and redirect the conversation before I could offer up my $0.02 opinion on why real lemon juice was totally superior to Sun-In for super-sweet summer highlights.
Inevitably, we’d be in the church foyer after a sweltering Sunday service, me glancing anxiously at the front door: a mirage-like image of freedom framed by intricate patterns of sunshine playing off finger-smudged stained glass windows, and my mom slowly working the room. She was completely immune to my heavy sighs and exaggerated eye rolls, and unfazed by the fact (I’d already mentioned it, like, a billion times) that all my besties were waiting for me at the pool.
Mom has always known too many people, and as she talked (and talked and talked), I skulked behind her in a hopscotch pattern from deacon to elder to minister, an awkward shadow in a crumpled linen dress, smiling slightly on demand and passing the time by charting the course of a small trickle of sweat running down the length of my back. No matter how hard I tried to defy gravity, it always pooled right at the top of my underwear band, a place I could never reach without looking like a fool.
And that’s just it. Looks. Somewhere between 7th and 8th grade, mine changed. My bowl-inspired Mork from Ork finally worked its way into a Farrahish, feathered flow, I stepped out of my Keds and into some sweet Dr. Scholls, and along the way, somehow ditched a layer of baby fat I’d carried around for so long it should have probably been enrolled in kindergarten.
I was at a hormonal stage in life where I worshipped at the lip smacker-glossed gates of Teen Beat magazine, patiently placing every single piece of hair on my huge head of bangs with a curling iron the width of my pinkie and shellacking it all into place with enough Aqua Net to set our entire encyclopedia set on fire. I’d double and triple check the mirror on the way out the door, hoping (O.K. praying…church had to be good for something) tomorrow would be the day I’d wake up to find that something soft and squishy (but not too small) had sprung from my chest to support the spaghetti straps hanging limply from my tank top.
Hallelujah in a 100% cotton holster.
And so, at the end of every church service I stewed, my mother talked, I wilted, a trio of fans positioned to catch a breeze that didn’t exist whirred, and one of my mom’s too many conversations would sometimes turn in this direction:
“Brenda, that daughter of yours is growing into a pretty young woman. Ya’ll must be so proud.”
“Did I tell you Stacie made Honor Roll this semester? Straight As and a B. You’re right, I am proud,” Mom replied.
And that was that. Mom would ignore, deflect, and redirect; a parenting technique she secretly unloaded on me with steadfast resolve for several of the sometimes tumultuous but not necessarily tense years we lived under the same roof.
At the time, I didn’t realize how deeply she was embedding her lesson of substance over style into my Cover Girl Eye Enhancer 3-Shadow Kit, in part because she was so sneaky, but also because I was too busy willing her to get stuck indefinitely in traffic on her way home from Wife Saver with a 12-piece mixed chicken dinner because:
A) No mom = no church. Even though the minister’s son was totally hot and usually sat two rows in front of me, service was long. At the exact moment I picked up a nubby pencil to write one of my besties a note on the back of the tithing envelope about how much fun we were gonna have at the pool if-I-ever-got-there-in-the-next-gazillion-years-because-my-mom-talks-soooooo-much-and-blah-blah-blekity-blah-and-stuff-like-that, she would inevitably pop up like a whack-a-mole in the choir loft, shooting me a laser-like stare from behind the over-teased perms of three super-tall sopranos.
B) I was convinced she bribed the orthodontist to K-O braces when I could have geared up on the spot, ensuring that as a freshman, I’d have a mouth full of metal and zero boyfriends.
C) Since the dawn of time or at least speed skates and for sure MTV, that’s what teenage girls are supposed to do.
But somehow, between Aqua Net and eye rolls, her lessons stuck. Too many years later to admit, I can actually hear her voice in my head (which kind of scares me when it’s dark outside), as I repeat her mantra to my own girls, and begin to teach them to anchor their self-esteem to any of part of their being people can’t see. Vanity isn’t all bad, but in a world increasingly crowded with camera phones and profile pics, it’s still everything under the surface that counts.