Mothers shape our lives in myriad ways, and it is nearly impossible, if one is being honest, to pick one specific point, or instance where a mother’s value can be said to be accurately described. But aside from the support, unconditional love and understanding that I have generally been fortunate to receive from my mother, one particular lesson she taught me stands out.
To this day, my mother sometimes wonders how I turned out to be so unwaveringly feminist, how I devised my own set of rules and principles to live by, and how it was that I started on this path. Many a time, when I have described to her the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which other girls have found themselves undermined, she wonders why, despite not identifying as a feminist herself, I had not been subjected to any such influences. I always tell her, “You forgot to tell me that I was lesser because I was not a boy. You simply forgot to tell me there were some things I was not destined for.” But unbeknownst to her, in one other way, my mother would lay one of the strongest foundations for her daughter’s feminism.
Sometime when I was between 10 and 12 years old, I remember a conversation with my mother in which I had pitied someone for being, as I thought it, “ugly.” My mother quickly reprimanded me, and said (and I still remember this vividly), “Never judge someone for their looks. It is something they have no control over. How can you judge someone for something they can’t change?” To this day, I remember that lesson. I remembered that when people mocked or poked fun at my own looks — rather than feeling angry, hurt or humiliated, I thought it pathetic of them to pick on something one can’t change.
From that day on, looks became the most idiotic thing, (in my mind) that one could focus on. When the customary rash of experimentation with fairness creams began in my teens in my school, I refused to use them — if I did, I would be bothered about “my looks,” which seemed inordinately silly – why waste time on something that wasn’t under your control in the first place? I’m pretty sure my mother doesn’t think about the extent this lesson of hers contributed to my confidence, and indeed, to a certain extent – a very effective armor against society. But that idea — that my looks weren’t in my control, and so to obsess about it was just a waste of time — would determine my mental makeup about it for most of my teens. Not only did it keep me safe from succumbing to influences about “beauty,” it also meant that I viewed with derision anyone else’s obsession with it, and that is how I would decide who I liked and didn’t like.
I must clarify, my mother did not have a strongly puritan streak against looking good or trying to. As I grew up, she would entertain some of the more obvious trappings of being female with her daughters and insist on self-care. But while it was certainly permissible to try and better one’s looks, the level of importance that was to be given to it remained low. It was an indulgence – not a requirement. So as a brown skinned girl in a country obsessed with fair skin, all comments about looks and marital prospects that even got through to us would cease to have a detrimental effect.
I would end up snorting with impatience at even the suggestion that I was supposed to be worried because as I thought it stupid to feel bad about something that isnt my fault in the first place. In my teens, therefore, as a dark skinned girl with bushy hair, I never considered myself pretty. And I didn’t care. Of far more concern were my studies and my extra-curricular activities. As luck would have it, those would turn out to be the dents in my armor later on, but I think issues relating to accomplishments are far easier dealt with than with those relating to looks.
Enter college, and despite many jokes to the contrary, I held out against chemically straightening my frizzy, wavy, bushy hair — despite multiple people suggesting it (even guys). I would eventually succumb a couple of years later while living in a hostel, but that was also because I found it much harder to deal with my hair when living alone, and a certain process made my life infinitely easier.
Enter law school, and this is where my resistance to good looks as a parameter really found expression, and become one of the most valuable tools in my arsenal in dealing with society. For the first time in my life, I came to know, after a few months, that “looks” were the basis (or at least a major factor) on which junior students were able to find mentorship by senior students. Those with “better looks” were considered more “fun” and good company. It took me a while to catch on, I must admit. I’d always assumed looks only played a role in the romantic dynamic, and not in other ways, but as it turned out it did. For several months then, I would assume that my social failings were perhaps a result of being less intelligent, less funny, less well versed in the language of choice, and simply being less capable of extroverted social interaction.
It was after almost a year that I was informed by a kindly friend of these trends. My reaction was not to feel put out, or even saddened by these realizations – but one of huge, overwhelming relief because it wasn’t my fault. Far from feeling disadvantaged, I found it quite absurd and ridiculous. The mere idea that some people were forming friends on the basis of looks amazed me so much that I found myself inordinately happy to be at the bottom of the social ladder as far as such people were concerned. It was simply not something that I could countenance or tolerate for its ludicrousness, and it instantaneously lowered my opinion of anyone who did use one’s attractiveness as a parameter. Quite simply, I no longer felt disappointed with my failures in certain spheres, rather, I found those circles unworthy of my disappointment anymore. This is also why I think my mother’s lesson about attractiveness is the greatest gift she gave me, because inadvertently, she gave me a parameter to assess people by, one that has stood me in fantastic stead so far.
Not once have I ever found that people obsessed with physical attractiveness are particularly nice, principled, courageous or even shared the same values — in many many ways, not being involved with them would be my lucky escape. The idea that they used physical attractiveness as the first basis to judge someone was an instant red flag to me. In all of my experiences with people thus far, those people have also turned out to be the most utterly mean-spirited and breathtakingly selfish individuals I’ve had the misfortune to cross paths with. They, or their opinions of me were no loss, and rather than spend months or years discovering that, this one simple act would save me a lot of time and emotion.
This is not to suggest that I am entirely unaffected by emotions or thoughts relating to beauty or attractiveness, and as I grew older and formed more defined views about what I liked, would certainly invest time and effort into some aspects of the beauty regimen, mostly with my mother’s approval or participation.
Contrary to issues with looks pertaining to skin color and features, I would also grow to be highly critical of myself with regard to weight, since I deemed that as an aspect that I should control. But my mom’s lesson protected me from countless hours of emotion spent on insecurity and sadness about looks, and became the most accurate determinant of character for me to use in my own interactions. I could never bring myself to respect or value those who used physical attractiveness as grounds to bludgeon or evaluate someone, rather than anger, I reacted with scorn and pity for those who did.
A social system based on attractiveness, for anything other than sexual and romantic interest (for which I fully acknowledge the role physicality plays) seemed utterly and completely despicable to me — this dislike prevented me from wasting time on obtaining or struggling for social validation in one sense or the other. This mindset would unerringly help me pick out the people that I would be most suited to be friends with – to this day, those who dismissed such ideas have continued to be the most wonderful human beings I know.
When I see the surfeit of ‘feminist’ pieces today arguing that everything is beautiful, all bodies are beautiful, I pause. I appreciate the sentiment behind these movements, but I have found greater strength in dismissing “beauty” as something of staggering importance in my life. That, to me, remains the greatest gift my mother gave me.
Beatrice Louis is an international lawyer specializing in human rights and humanitarian law. She is extremely passionate about ending sexual violence and modern slavery in all its forms. You can follow her on Twitter here and find more of her work here.