Thursday, March 4, 2010

When moms go for cosmetic improvements, is the message all bad?

Beth Teitell wrote here in today’s Boston Globe about the conflict mothers of growing children face when they – the mothers – want to get plastic surgery. In effect, Teitell’s question is this: How can we promote the message to our fashion-hyperconscious and eating disorder-prone daughters that you’re just perfect the way you are if we are running off to get tummy tucks and face lifts?

Though cosmetic surgery is not an issue I’ve personally confronted, I see it a little differently from some of the moms in the story who worry about setting the wrong example. I don’t necessarily see it as a problem to communicate to our children that it’s okay to think about your appearance and it’s okay to strive to improve it. Especially if we can tie it in to with aging and make the point that our skin, our hair and our bodies tend to change a little bit once we are well into adulthood, and that children are lucky not to have to worry about gray hair or wrinkles.

When I was growing up, my parents were unflagging in communicating to us that everyone is just fine the way they are. At the opposite extreme is a mother like the one in the book I am reading right now, The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Poor 23-year-old Skeeter is tall and slender, and her Southern belle of a mom constantly urges her to diminish her height by slouching.

There’s no question that a mother as critical as Skeeter’s is detrimental to her daughter’s mental health, yet I would argue that the “perfect as you are” message in families like mine might go a little too far in the opposite direction. As late as college, I was still looking to my friends to pick up basic grooming tips and to remind me not to leave the house in clothes that were missing buttons. My 17-year-old niece clearly knows more about cosmetic enhancement than I did at her age – not in the form of surgery but certainly in the form of beauty products -- and I so admire the poise and self-assurance that appears to have carried her throughout her teens. I suspect that having the acumen to use a little bit of makeup and get a good manicure ultimately has a more positive effect on a girl’s self-esteem than being told over and over again that she looks just beautiful the way she is.

Not long after turning 40, I became increasingly bothered by wrinkles around my brow. Botox is simply not in the family budget right now, but some kind of cosmetic enhancement is definitely something I’ll be open to if and when our finances improve, and if that happens I think I’ll be fine with explaining it to my daughter. After all, she’s the one who just last weekend peered closely at my face and commented that the wrinkles around my eyes made me look a little bit like a grandma. I don’t think it will be all that difficult to explain to her that sometimes our skin and bodies age and make us feel older than we are, and it’s okay to try to fix that. (No doubt I’ll also insert a hearty endorsement for the importance of sunscreen into this same discussion.) Moreover, I can claim to my children that I go running every day for reasons of health, and they do understand that a toned body is probably healthier than a flabby one, but I don’t mind if they also know that I’d rather look lean than chubby and I work out in order to help attain that look.

So: by seeking cosmetic improvements, what’s the bottom line in terms of what we’re telling our children? Is it that our bodies are not good enough the way they are and our kids should probably start saving now for liposuction in order to compensate for what nature gave them?

I don’t think so. I think we’re showing them that we are empowered by taking opportunities to make ourselves happier and more confident, whether those opportunities arrive in the form of getting a new job, running a marathon or coloring our hair. And if in my case that’s erasure of the wrinkles between my eyebrows, all the better.

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