Do I Hate My Mom, or My Face?

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Dear Sugars,

I’m a 50-year-old professional woman. I’ve been married to a wonderful man for the last 25 years. We have three children: Two graduated college, and the youngest is doing well in high school. I love my career, and I’m very successful. I work out regularly and enjoy good health. I’ve suffered from depression in the past but am doing well currently.

The problem is that whenever I look in the mirror, I see my mother. She has been verbally abusive to me throughout my life, and it continues. I’ve gone to counseling, and I keep our relationship very superficial to protect myself. But I look just like her. I don’t see my cute self in the mirror. I see an aging woman who looks strikingly like my mother.

I would like to get a face-lift to help give me a more youthful look. My husband doesn’t support this decision. He thinks I look beautiful, and he’s fearful I’ll have complications or not look like myself anymore. What should I do?

Mini Mom

Steve Almond: Thank you for writing us this letter. There’s a culture of silence around cosmetic surgery that arises in part from what I think of as the double bind of beauty. That is, our popular culture enforces an absurd standard of youth and good looks, on women in particular, and yet heaps scorn on women who get “work” done. This shame inhibits women (and men) from having frank conversations about their motives for these procedures. You seem pretty clear about your motive: You don’t want to look like your mom, which sounds straightforward. The real question is how much a face-lift will alter this perception. That is: Will an aesthetic change alleviate the sense in which you feel psychologically haunted by your emotionally abusive mother? At the same time, there’s also a clear risk to your marital relationship here. The more your husband learns about the surgery, the less he’ll worry about complications, which are rare. But the feeling within him that you won’t look like your beautiful self — that might endure.

Cheryl Strayed: While a face-lift may temporarily give you a slightly more youthful look, I caution you against thinking it will appreciably alter your resemblance to your mother, Mini Mom. It won’t. Face-lifts simply don’t do that. You may see your mother in the mirror, but you’re gazing at your own face. This is how you look at 50. Like many women, you don’t like what you see not because there’s anything wrong with your appearance, but because we live in a culture that holds a relentlessly narrow view of female beauty while placing the utmost importance on it. Though I don’t judge people who opt to surgically alter their faces for the reason you cite, I can’t deny that I find it pretty sad. It’s a decision born of shame and self-loathing, and it’s one that could only be made in a culture that degrades women. What if, instead of changing the face the world sees, you change the way you see your face in the world? What if, instead of risking your life (and you would be risking that) to look 10 years younger, you risked standing strong against the sexism and ageism 50-year-old women endure because they are female and 50?

SA: I agree with Cheryl that cosmetic surgery has a certain air of Dorian Grayish sorrow about it. But I’m not sure that “standing strong against sexism and ageism” alone will address what you feel when you look in the mirror, Mini Mom. Your struggle also resides in standing strong against your mother, and the looming shadow of her cruel behavior. It’s worth noting that her verbal abuse toward you is almost certainly displaced self-loathing. Don’t fall into the same trap. Your job is to figure out how to love and accept yourself. That, I suspect, is what will make you feel truly distinct from your mother.

CS: On the contrary, I think standing strong against sexism and ageism is the only thing that will eventually allow you to feel O.K. in your skin, Mini Mom. A face-lift is a temporary fix for something you’ll have for the rest of your life: an aging face. Having surgery will allow you to feel better about your appearance only until you age more and feel miserable about how you look again. Changing your perspective about what your “cute self” looks like is a mental shift that will be with you forever. You’ve already done important work of this nature when you learned how to give your abusive mother less access to you — and therefore less power over you. I’m suggesting you do the same with our society’s beauty standards.

SA: Cosmetically speaking, there are less radical ways of altering your appearance so you don’t look “just like” your mom (i.e. hairstyle, makeup, clothing). But ultimately, the goal should be to accept that, however you look, you are distinct from your mother. As much as I applaud Cheryl’s firmer stance here, I tend to see the line between cosmetic measures that trigger personal empowerment, and those that arise from cultural judgment, as subjective and awfully blurry. Some women feel better about themselves if they wear makeup, or lose weight, or shave their legs — even though they do those things, at least partly, in response to an internalized (patriarchal) set of ideas about what makes women desirable. Rather than judging what they want to do, I’m more interested in why.

CS: I’m 49. I know your struggle, Mini Mom, because it’s also mine. I’m entirely aware that it’s a lot harder to alter your mind than it is to alter your face, and unlike surgery, it’s not something that will happen in a day. But with intention and effort, coming to accept — and even love — your body is possible. A face-lift won’t obliterate the fears you have about your beauty as you age, but seeing beauty in a new way will. The best way out of a hole isn’t to dig deeper. It’s to climb out.