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Freud analyzed her. Eminem rapped about her. Faye Dunaway portrayed her with a wire hanger in hand. Let's face it: Mothers are the go-to figures in songs, stories and screenplays for good reason.
While occasionally those who reared us were our fathers, grandparents, aunts or even siblings, often it is our mothers who have the greatest psychological impact on our lives. As the author of Face It: What Women Really Feel as Our Looks Change, I'm interested in the role our mothers play in the development of our self-image and our experience of beauty.
Wasn't it Mom who came with us to buy our first party dress and patent leather shoes? And later, our training bras and wedding gowns? It is her voice that we still hear telling us to stand up straight, and who asked if we really planned to wear those pants? Physically and psychologically—from our bone structure to our blood type, from our coloring to our mannerisms—we are genetically programmed to be most similar to our biological mother. As a result, our own aging process parallels hers more than anyone else's.
As teenagers, we may have said, "She seems so old!" Later, we think, "She is so old." As we age, we begin to see our moms in our mirrors, reflecting not only her face, but the emotions we connect to that relationship. In the book The Unbearable Lightness of Being, one passage potently reads: "Staring at herself for long stretches of time, she was occasionally upset at the sight of her mother's features in her face. She would stare all the more doggedly at her image in an attempt to wish them away and keep only what was hers alone." Moving from childhood through adulthood, we may minimize the significance of the never-ending bond between mother and daughter, but by understanding this relationship, we can learn from it.
Our self-image is influenced not only by our genetic connection to our mothers, but by our emotional relationship to her as well. Observational studies suggest that our first moments of self-awareness are experienced through seeing ourselves in the mirror of our mother's eyes. In her glances and later through her words and behaviors— how we were touched, held and caressed—we begin to develop a psychological and physical image of ourselves. These interactions contribute to the foundation of our identity and impact how we see ourselves for the rest of our lives.
At best, a strong and appealing self-image begins when love is reflected back at us in the gleam of our mother's eyes. If those eyes are filled with affection, mother and child both bask in immense pleasure, experiencing themselves as blissfully beautiful. It is in this mutual glow that the earliest seeds of positive self-esteem are planted.
Use your personal history to make sense of your feelings