How My Mother Affirmed My Beauty As A Black Woman
Her Voice

How My Mother Affirmed My Beauty As A Black Woman

My thighs and I used to need couple's therapy.

My early high school days in South Korea (military brat) were spent looking woefully at my thighs reflected in the glass doors of the metro, comparing them to thin, milky legs to my right and left. Not to mention when I actually sat down and the fat spread out, filling in the negative space between. I used to wish my legs twirled around each other like the girls whose legs crossed easily and unsweatily at the knees (bonus points went to the girl whose ankle also wrapped around her calf).

My mom changed my perspective one day with a weird joke. While she was sorting through laundry on her bedroom floor, I gazed at my reflection in her floor length mirrors. Choosing to invite some relief into the disapproving thoughts swirling behind my eyes, I reached out for her sure affirmation. "Mom, do I look fat?" I asked. Without looking at me long, she said, "Yes, you look like a hippopotamus."

Shaken, my head whipped toward her so fast that my deprecating thoughts were abandoned altogether. My eyes were so wide and laid on her face in shock. Before I could gather my gaze into an appropriate scowl, the mischievous glint in her eye coupled with her sharp sense of humor shredded my moody disposition into ribbons of laughter until I was a pile of joyful tears on the floor. My mom took my episode as permission to send her own laughter scraping through her nose in a prolonged snort, joining me in tears. Any last attempts to bait any remorse from her were aborted, as I simply couldn't stop laughing. That day, my silly mom introduced a wonderful alternative to descending down a spiral of body hate:

Choosing to be happy.

I'll never forget the moment my mom's goofy, off-hand joke threw me from the center of my orbiting thoughts long enough to imagine what I looked like from her perspective. I tried to grasp how a 14-year-old who hadn't fully developed yet, who put on a cheerleading uniform every Friday night, looked to a woman who carried and pushed out five healthy children over the span of fifteen years. Not only did she bring us into the world, but she guided us safely to the other side of childhood. She was up with me in the early hours of the morning working on far-too-elaborate projects; she made me every meal that I ever turned my nose up to and pushed away; and she drove my five siblings to each of our after-school activities.

In the passenger's seat, it's really easy to find the time to ponder a healthy pair of thighs — or any body part — to death. Watching my mother, I first realized that perhaps bodies weren't meant to be pondered, compared, or forced into discriminatory denim, but rather, to function. To run, to swim, to perch a toddler on my hip. The time I spent obsessing over me, my mom spent thinking of others. She is beautiful, but the value she has added to herself over the years has more to do with how she has applied herself to life in a way that has multiplied grace, patience, courage, and so many other virtues.

Her outward beauty is so much more meaningful because it shines through the prism of those attributes.

I've since come to think that my body is beautiful, especially the way my legs are shaped. That probably has a lot to do with the way going to a predominantly Black school has renewed my standards of beauty, but that's another story. Even now that I admire the way I look, I still try to limit the extent to which I think of myself in a purely superficial context. Not that it's wrong, but body perception can flatten so easily when it's forced to carry the weight of a multifaceted person's self-worth. Self-esteem can't sustain itself on such a small part of our being.

This is not to say that I never put my body down, but my convictions hold me to a different standard. Since my mom laughed at my self-image angst, effectively telling me to lighten up, every time I've reduced myself to the sum of my cellulite, I've known that I was falling short of the joyful person I want to be. In the scheme of things that threaten my happiness, choosing to be kind to myself seems like such low hanging fruit.

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Featured image by Getty Images.

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