Mummy, am I beautiful?

By Jayne Manfredi

Recently I watched my two girls play dress up together, which is not an uncommon sight in our house.  I looked on with amusement and pleasure as my six year old teetered about the house in a long abandoned (pre-motherhood) pair of five inch heels, while my ten year old fashioned herself a dress out of a satin nightie.  They had both helped themselves to a tube of Rimmel in “shocker” and the scarlet grease was smeared around both their mouths.
Playing at being grown-up, at being women. Comic and colourful caricatures of what they will one day become.

For my eldest at least, with puberty just around the corner, the metamorphosis from spindly limbed, unpolished and pink cheeked child into that most exotic of creatures; that of woman, is fast on its way. Her induction is likely to be a painful affair, involving shaving, waxing, plucking, filing, moisturising, exfoliating, squeezing, brushing, curling, straightening, soaking, steaming, sweating and starving. This is of course without even mentioning cramps, underwire and P.M.T; some of the more obvious discomforts of womanhood.

I describe a particular experience of course; and I should know, because it was my own and my mothers before me.  I don’t think my experience is an uncommon one. Indeed, visit any Boots store on any street corner in Britain and you’ll see a dizzying array of potions, paints, implements, chemicals and creams, all purporting to do that one thing that is so terribly important if you’re a woman: Achieving real and lasting beauty.

For women it is an ambition, nay, a social imperative to be beautiful. It is something to aspire to, to yearn for and to set huge store by, whilst growing up and learning the ways of womanhood. I wonder, how have I, as their mother, contributed to my daughters’ need to be beautiful?

It’s because inside me there is a persistent and desperate need to be beautiful too. And its roots are strong and very, very deep.

I was born with a cleft lip, colloquially known as a ‘Hare lip,’ but I’ve always detested the pejorative feel to that term and so have never referred to it as that.  Put simply, I was born with a split down one side of my mouth; my upper lip being most affected as well as my nose.  I’ve had numerous procedures to correct this condition, all of them painful, the last one at age twenty-six, which was a particular joy. The surgeons have done an amazing job; I look what one might call “normal,” which pleases me no end but was never actually my goal growing up.

I didn’t want to look normal.

I wanted to be beautiful.

Surely this is a pointless and unattainable ambition, for how can one be truly beautiful with a scar down the middle of one’s mouth? How can a woman be beautiful with such an imperfection, when we’re trained to view beauty as the absence of imperfection and flaws?
If I am ever described as beautiful I always feel that “despite the scar” is being silently uttered, for I could never be considered beautiful because of it.

Ok, pity party over, because actually I think that at times my mother has suffered because of my defect (quirk of birth, condition…whatever) far more than me; after all, I have no memory of the trauma of the first corrective surgeries; nor of the isolation she must have felt when I was born and was less than perfect, and people avoided her out of embarrassment or worse still, disgust. She once
commented that a friend’s birth to a baby with a hole in the heart elicited open sympathy, (as you’d expect) whereas my birth, which involved a facial deformity, engendered a less compassionate response. People were undoubtedly uncomfortable about it. Living on a terraced street at the time, within a close-knit community, she remembers watching people walk past with gifts for her friend’s baby, whilst never once knocking on to say congratulations to her. She has memories of being out with me in the pram, and having people come over to look and gush over the “new baby” and seeing their faces freeze with horror when they saw me.  She can talk of being in the doctors’ surgery amongst a room full of whispering mothers and having the receptionist ask if she’d be “more comfortable in a side room.”

I’d like to think we’re more enlightened now; more understanding and compassionate. I’d really like to think that. My poor mother’s experiences of having a child with a facial deformity in 1979 were anything but. This heavily influenced her attitude towards me, in particular her insistence while I was growing up that I was beautiful, for aren’t all little girls beautiful? She has always rushed to reassure me that this is absolutely the case. With every new operation, each new procedure, it inched me a little bit closer to a “normal” face and a touch closer to achieving true beauty.

“Does it look better mummy?”
“Yes, you look beautiful!”
“Is my nose less crooked now?”
“It’s lovely!” 
“Are my teeth straighter?”
“Yes, they look great!”
“Is my lip still wonky?”
“No. You are beautiful.”

My mother’s motto when I was growing up, whether she was dragging a brush through my waist
length hair, or pulling it into tight rollers to achieve a true late eighties poodlesque perm, and I was complaining and whining as only a ten year old can, was always, “You have to suffer to be beautiful.”

Looking back, I can honestly say that I have.  We have both suffered for me to be beautiful.

My mum is a warrior of a mother; she would do all in her power for me to be happy, and isn’t happiness for women and girls utterly bound together with the notion of being beautiful? We’re taught this from the cradle, through a frothy, frilly preponderance of pink and prettiness.  Girls are beautiful. End of.

The consequences of not matching up to this standard are well known, and well documented. Anorexia and bulimia, appallingly low self-esteem, comfort eating, depression, crippling anxiety, general misery and unhappiness.  I look at my girls and I know I would do anything to spare them from any of these things, of course I would. Any mother would.

Are my girls beautiful? Yes. They are my children; I gave birth to them forty-eight hours apiece in screaming agony, and have marvelled and delighted in every inch of their peachy soft, delicate little bodies ever since.  They are wholly, unutterably beautiful to me, which does of course make me wonder then, would it matter to me at all if anyone else never thought the same thing. In other words, does their value come from how the world perceives their beauty, or from how they themselves perceive it?

I know some incredibly attractive people.  I know some people who are unusual and unconventional looking, and I know some people who would be considered unattractive, and/or possibly ugly – I hate that word! Here’s the interesting thing though: If I asked each of these people to rate their “beauty” or to tell me how happy they were with their physical appearance, the answers might surprise me.  People who the world views as beautiful don’t always agree with the world, and the more I hear of people who are dissatisfied with their appearance, the more I’m convinced that seeking beauty as a goal in life is totally pointless.  Even if you did manage to eat the right diet, do the right exercise, wear the right clothes, have the right hair, wear the right make-up, be the right age, etc, etc, life and the passage of time have a way of trying to lay you low.

You’re going to get older. You’re going to get ill from time to time. You might have a baby.  You might have a disfiguring accident.  Life isn’t full of many certainties but I know this for sure; nobody is beautiful forever.

Why then do we invest so much time and effort on pinning our happiness to something so fleeting? Something so hard to define anyway? Something which is actually far more subjective than we give it credit for?

No answers on a postcard please because this was, of course, a rhetorical question. I’m well aware of why women need to be beautiful (*cough* patriarchy) but that’s a blog post all of its own.

I don’t want to push the notion of beauty at my daughters. I want this to be the last word they use to describe themselves.  They are smart.  They are funny.  They are kind and imaginative and spirited and adventurous and thoughtful and loyal and fierce and a thousand other things that they’ve not even learned to be yet. I will not limit their potential by pinning their future happiness on something as nebulous as beauty, for as soon as you set this as your goal what you’re actually striving for is the approval and validation of others. Self worth has to depend on more than what we see in the mirror, but unfortunately it so seldom does.

In my efforts to be more God centred, it is to Him I look when seeking approval and affirmation. Why do I not look to myself? Well, I’ve proved time and time again that I am no judge of my own behaviour, or of my own esteem; I regularly find myself wanting or paradoxically, I rate my own efforts too highly.  My opinion of me can’t be trusted.

How then does God see me? How does He see my daughters?

Psalm 139, verse 14, tells us:

You are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Or, in the NLT version:

Wonderfully complex.

When my daughter’s ask me that dreaded question: Do I look beautiful Mummy? I will think twice before enthusiastically answering with a resounding yes. Instead, I will answer with this:

Darling, you are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are too complex to be merely beautiful. You are unique and you are eternally precious. You are loved. And despite what this world will try to tell you, you are enough.
 Are you beautiful?
You are so much more than that.


I Hate Mother’s Day

Here we go again! Flowers ! Cards ! Chocolate ! Pink ! Pink ! Pink ! Yes it is Mother’s day!

Yet another commercial made-up holiday. This one is designed to make us spend money in order to demonstrate our love to our mothers. And we all have this ONE day to express our affection and gratitude ! Hurry !

It is always nice to receive a card, I suppose. In the early years of our children’s life, this card is bought by our dear hubbies from the local corner shop. And don’t they have a lot to be grateful for !

I’m not going to lie. I hate mother’s day. Not because there is no hubby in my life to buy me flowers and a card. I am a political lesbian. I have chosen not to have one of those around thank you very much.

No. I hate mother’s day because of the hypocrisy of the whole thing.

We all know motherhood is hard work, right?

Yet we are made to believe that flowers, card, chocolate, perfume and other useless items wrapped up in some tacky pink packaging are supposed to make up for 24/7 of unpaid and undervalued housework and endless childcare duties. Flowers erase the 1825 times we have changed nappies since last mother’s day; the sleepless nights; the toddler’s tantrums in the middle of the supermarket; the daily school run; the many baby illnesses; all those trips to the GP; the balanced meal cooked with love that baby is going to chuck on the floor; the hours spent in front of the sink washing the dishes. Day after day.

Mum has not been feeling too well since baby has arrived? It’s ok! Flowers make us forget our Post Natal Depression; better and cheaper than antidepressants! Flowers erase these long hours of loneliness and isolation; daily trips to the playground; hours gazing into space at baby-group; weeping uncontrollably in the street; the rage; the hopelessness; the guilt; the death-wishes.

Buy flowers and women will not notice how much society hates us as women, and as mothers. Hates us so much that they demand that we lose our pregnancy weight in just a few weeks.As if there is nothing more shameful than having given birth. Let’s get rid of the evidence as soon as possible.

Buy flowers and women magically forget about the discrimination we face at work; a promotion we didn’t get, it went to an incompetent guy; that time we got sacked for being pregnant; that time we didn’t get the job because we have a two year old at home so the recruiter decided we wouldn’t cope; those flexible working hours refused by your manager.  Just because.

Buy flowers and women will forget how poor we are and dependent on the men in our lives.

Buy her flowers and she may forget that the first and last time you agreed to “baby-sit” your own two year old for an hour was because she needed a trip to the dentist. Buy her flowers and she may not remember how you spend all your evenings at the pub, drinking your wage while she has to buy food for the family on the little savings she has left.

Buy flowers, gents, and your wife will forgive you for the emotional abuse you have been subjecting her to, the manipulation, the control. More flowers and she will forgive you for that time you threatened her. More flowers and she will say you are such a nice guy even though you’ve been beating her since she was pregnant.

Buy flowers and she will end up being grateful !

I hate Mothers Day because it is yet another world-wide patriarchal propaganda machine designed to bribe us into submission. Mother’s day successfully promotes compulsory motherhood, and emotionally blackmails women so that we keep on working for men for  free and in silence.

We all know motherhood is hard work.

But don’t we dare to dream of a world structured around our needs as women who have children? Don’t we dare to demand our rights to prevent discrimination against us? Don’t we dare to ask and get the support we actually need? Don’t we dare to demand free universal 24 hour childcare?

And don’t we dare to think that the man we live with, the one who claims to be in love with us, will take on that fight with us?


Instead, you’ll have a bunch of flowers (if you are lucky) and a pink card.

Come on! Have one!