Woman looking in mirror
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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
As children and even as adults, we yearn to identify with the caretakers who provide security and strength. We see them as role models and internalize aspects of who they are into our own sense of self. Girls who experience early positive interchanges in their relationships most often become women who go forward into adulthood with a strong self-image. Regardless of one's physical features, this sturdiness provides a cushion against the complicated messages culture throws our way. These girls grow up to be women whose internal perception is less likely to undergo radical swings as aging occurs. They age, as did their mothers, without anticipating the process with fear and dread.

On the other hand, a caretaker whose eyes reflect indifference, jealousy or antagonism toward her child, leaves her feeling insecure and self-critical, no matter how attractive she may appear to others over time. If a child's mother has not viewed her with tenderness and pleasure, it is difficult for the child to believe others see her lovingly, even if they do. Young girls with these kinds of mother-daughter interactions tend to become women with a shaky sense of who they are and how they appear to others. In the end, they fail to feel attractive regardless of how good they look or how attractive others perceive them to be. And, they often dread becoming, and looking like, their moms.

You can use an understanding of your personal history to make sense of feelings you have now and learn how to influence the feelings your daughters will come to have about themselves as women. Examine your relationship to your mother (or your maternal figure), how she viewed herself and how others viewed her. Therein you will find the roots of your self-image.

Remember, human nature leads us to repeat history unless we take active measures to change the patterns we learn and absorb. If you know from where you came, changing the course of your future is possible. Insight requires awareness. Change requires effort. Who knows? If you can liberate yourself from your past, you may even find more compassion for your less-liberated Mom and take her off that psychological hot seat once and for all.

Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change by Vivian Diller, PhD, with Jill Muir-Sukenick, PhD, and edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances. As models-turned-psychotherapists, Diller and Sukenick have had the opportunity to examine the world of beauty from two very different vantage points. This unique perspective helped them develop a six-step program that begins with recognizing "uh-oh" moments that reveal the reality of changing looks, goes on to identify the masks used to cover deeper issues and ends with bidding adieu to old definitions of beauty, so women can enjoy their appearance—at any age!

Keep Reading:
How to improve your mother-daughter relationship
Understand the impact of your mother-daughter relationship
Repair your broken relationship
The opinions expressed by Oprah.com contributors are strictly their own.


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