The Messages our Mothers Gave Us

For most of my adult life I have altered my hair color. I’ve dyed, bleached, highlighted, lowlighted, and balayaged the heck out of my hair all in an effort to hide my natural hair color. I’ve spent hours and thousands of dollars in salons running away from it. When I was younger my mom called my natural hair color “dirty dishwater blonde.” Whether she meant to give me the message my natural hair color is ugly or not, she did. Two years ago I cut off my fried blonde ends and ended up with a blonde A-line bob to my chin. My intention was to cut off the damage and grow out healthy hair so I could destroy it with chemicals again. But something happened that I didn’t expect. In the process of growing out the blonde and watching my natural hair color come in, I discovered that I really, actually liked my natural hair color. My hair has never been so healthy. I receive compliments on it all the time. And now that I see my long beautiful locks for what they are, instead of the lie I believed about them, I have been questioning why I spent years hating something that turned out to be beautiful.

 This change in the narrative I created about my hair has got me thinking about other scripts that we believe about ourselves that might not be true. I’ve thought about the negative messages I internalized about myself that came from the church – about what kind of woman I ought to be. We are given so many harmful messages about modesty, discipleship, motherhood, marriage, and sexuality. I’ve always been pretty strong-willed and, what my mother would have called rebellious, and didn’t internalize those toxic messages as much as it seems a lot of women who have struggled with their identity and role in the church. So many of my friends, it seems, have these messages reinforced to them by their mothers.

One friend shared with me that her mother’s preoccupation with modesty rhetoric was the reason she never shared with her that she was sexually assaulted as a teenager. The negative script she had in her head told her she deserved what happened to do because her womanly body was a temptation to the boy who assaulted her. I have another friend who just completed a PhD program, whose mother did not attend any of her University graduations. Her mother told her she sent her to BYU to find a righteous priesthood holder to marry and make babies with, and not to have a career. My friend feels a twinge of shame around her academic achievements because she still has that script running through her head that she will not be loved and accepted by her mother unless she fulfills the roles her mother, and the church, deem are worthy.  

 Obviously the negative script about my natural hair color is pretty trite in comparison to what my friends are dealing with. However, as a mother of two daughters, I have tried to make a conscious choice not to talk negatively about my physical appearance or to pass down the church shame I experienced regarding my body through the toxic modesty rhetoric. I’m thankful that my youngest daughter will never be touched by this rhetoric or taught to hate her body because it’s a sinful temptation. I know I haven’t always been successful at instilling body confidence. I have never wanted to saddle my daughters with the body hating baggage my mother gave to me, and I’m happy that they are growing up in an era that is much more accepting of a range of body shapes and sizes than the one I grew up in, when Kate Moss, and her heroin chic aesthetic, was portrayed to be the ultimate in feminine beauty.

 The work I’ve been doing on myself lately is confronting those narratives I have created in my head about myself, that are most often not based in reality, but I react to them as if they are true. It’s hard work and I don’t have all the answers or advice on how to overcome this. Just know that if you are struggling with overcoming these false narratives, I’m right in that same boat with you and will share my paddle.   

Risa

Risa is a full-time social worker in child abuse prevention, a part-time graduate student, and a mother of 4. In her spare time she is a voracious reader, snarker, and subversive cross-stitcher.

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2 Responses

  1. Anon says:

    Brilliant essay. I have been thinking about the narrative that my parents passed on to me to carry. I have realized that I don’t need to carry that narrative and I don’t need to pass it on to my children either. I belong to myself.

  2. Ziff says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Risa. Wow, the story about your friend not being able to share that she was sexually assaulted is particularly heartbreaking. It’s awful that this narrative of women and YW being responsible for men and YM’s thoughts is still so alive. I’m glad you’ve made such a deliberate decision not to pass such ideas on to your daughters.

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