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Cute…or Smart? By Madeleine Chestnut
In my mother's view, to be gorgeous was to be brainless. And to be brainless was to commit the sins she'd never forgiven herself for: promiscuity and educational poverty. The "fast girl" who'd gotten pregnant out of wedlock twice before age 20, Mom sought a strange kind of redemption: She may not have kept her skirt down and her grades up, but she would certainly raise girls who did.

Which is why, when she caught 12-year-old me experimenting with lipstick, she pounced: "Do you think you're cute?" she spat, hurling the lipstick into the garbage. "Now go start on your algebra."

I was nearly 30 the first time someone—a boyfriend I loved—told me I was beautiful. "Me?" I said. Chatty, yes. Witty, maybe. But my mother had spent 20 years and hundreds of dollars on SAT prep to make sure I put smart into the slot where other girls put pretty. "Can't you see yourself?" my boyfriend quizzed. I couldn't.

Then, two summers later, I found a photo I'd never seen before: my mother at 19, Rockette legs emerging from teensy hot pants, nipples at full salute, Afro stretching toward the sky, a bootylicious hottie babe modeling a stunning figure I can only dream of, yet bearing a face almost exactly like my own. Can't you see yourself? No—but now I could see the woman in the photo. And I could see that whatever erroneous notions Mom might have given me, she gave them along with her intelligence, her courage, her imagination, and, yes, her beauty.


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