My grandmother instilled in me an appreciation for art and an understanding that determination keeps you moving. From her, I also inherited an overblown concern for how my hair looks.
People called my grandmother (my mom’s mom) “the last of the Great Ladies.” That meant she was elegant and paid a lot of attention to appearance, from her own to the flower arrangement on her dining room table. She went to the hair salon weekly until she died. A few years ago, she admitted to my sister that she regretted spending so much time on her appearance. This was a fluke moment of remorse, however. When she returned from the hair salon just before her 100th birthday party, I asked her about her fresh nail polish. “Of course,” she explained, “I had to match my nails to my lipstick.”
My mom dealt with her mom’s high standards with a mix of acceptance and rebellion. She has worn yoga pants nearly every day of the last thirty years and shops largely at Gap Body. But she too regularly comments on my hair, and she won’t leave the house without inspecting the back of her head in the mirror.
Our Inherited Beauty Attitudes
With such an emphasis on looks in my family, I was not surprised that our beauty survey revealed a correlation between the habits of the 200+ women surveyed, and what they said about their mothers’ approach.
Our results show that our beauty habits correlate with how we perceive our moms. There is a strong, statistically significant relationship between how high maintenance you see your mom as, and how high maintenance you label yourself.
We asked, “On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being low and 10 being high, how would you rate your mother’s maintenance level?” Every point higher on this Mother Maintenance Scale translates into a .3-point increase in one’s own maintenance rating.
This makes sense because we pick up so many cues about appearance from watching our mothers. I remember piling into my mom’s bathroom to watch her put on makeup for special occasions. When alone in the house, one of my favorite activities was pawing through her bathroom drawers to inspect her make-up brushes, lipsticks and eye shadows.
Interestingly, we generally gave our moms higher maintenance ratings than either our partners or ourselves. (We gave our moms an average of 4.7 out of 10, ourselves a 4.1, and our partners a mere 3.3).
More Attention = More Time
Those with higher maintenance moms also spend more time thinking about every category we listed—clothes, hair, weight, and skin—than those with lower or medium maintenance moms:
I can relate to this. When I’m shopping or picking out an outfit for something important, I often hear my grandmother’s or my mother’s voice in my head. “A little color would be nice,” my grandmother would say, a disapproving of my largely black wardrobe. Or, “don’t just buy a top, make sure to pick out a whole outfit.”
Defending our Choices
Some of the energy we spend thinking about appearance, however, is to justify our choices. Those with high maintenance moms are more likely to feel like they have to defend their beauty choices to their families:
In my family, defense is essential because the offense can be aggressive. For her 33rd birthday, my sister received a check from my grandmother with a card suggesting she use the money for a haircut.
The Deliberate Beauty Legacy
There were also moments when my mom deliberately influenced my beauty habits. As a high school graduation present, she sent me to “have my colors done” by a man named David Kibbe. For those of you unfamiliar with this concept, the idea is that everyone looks best in a certain palette of colors. I am a “Winter,” which means I should stick to black, white, and vivid jewel tones. Long before the revival of 1980s fashion, Kibbe’s sage advice to me to compensate for slopey shoulder was to always to wear shoulder pads. Because of her hourglass figure, David told a friend of mine she should never wear pants.
It’s easy to make fun of these ridiculous maxims, especially given Kibbe’s own mono-color style (he was head-to-toe in purple when my mom first met him and all in tan for my session), but we bought into his system. Kibbe gave me confidence to pick flattering colors and styles. When shopping with my mom (a Spring) or my sister (another Winter), “David Kibbe would approve of that!” is still a high compliment.
Perhaps the biggest, most significant beauty lesson from my female relatives is the belief that looking good generates confidence. When I am nervous, say about an interview or a presentation, picking my outfit becomes almost more important than any other preparation. Often it works, and a good outfit leaves me feeling confident and talented. But then again, moments beforehand I am certain to be found in the bathroom, frowning at my hair.
Readers– what did you learn from your parents?
This is the first post in a series about beauty where we’re sharing results from the over 300 responses to our “Do you feel beautiful?” survey.
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Image: “Woman at her toilette wearing a purple corset” by Paul Signac (1893)