There is little more fraught than a woman’s relationship to her own body. Our skin, hair, teeth and bones ARE often a source of pain, regret, worry, even terror. (Thankfully, Amy Schumer is helping us get at the roots of this profound and storied shame.
We can keep blaming culture (and I do), but at the end of the day all we have left is who we are when we are naked. It really helps when our mothers give us a head start on the quagmire of body weirdness we’ll eventually face. I’m the lucky beneficiary of such a start.
1. Always have a healthy fear of germs.
I learned to flush public toilets with my foot when my legs were still too short to reach the handle. My mother elegantly modeled the art of opening the stall door with tissue, pressing the soap dispenser with her elbow, lathering a long time, and turning the light on and off with her knuckles (that also goes for elevator buttons). I don’t often get sick, and I credit my mother’s hyper-hygiene routine for my state of solid general health. (You should see this lady wield a bottle of Windex.)
2. Sometimes you have to sit through pain (and/or boredom).
When I was about 5, my mother and I had an epic battle about the use of No More Tangles. I sat on the closed toilet squirming and complaining that I wanted to play—why did I need to sit through yet another combing session after I’d already assented to the bath I didn’t want to take in the first place? She told me a very scary story about a blonde princess who refused to let her mother comb her hair. At the end, the princess ended up bald. Duly terrified, I never made another peep. As an adult, I am damn good at handling a bit of necessary discomfort (just ask the lady who waxes my bikini line).
3. Vaginas don’t need nicknames.
In our house, there were no cutesy names for body parts. My vagina was just that—even if I couldn’t pronounce it when I first learned to form words at 9 months old. When I’d go to friends’ houses and the time came to urinate (another word I already knew), other mothers used words like “twinkle” and “sissy spot,” and I would come home very confused. My mother essentially told me that those moms were stupid—there needn’t be a pet name for your elbow, so why should there be one for your genitals? Fast forward 40 years: I’m a sex writer who’s plenty comfortable chatting about all manner of things that are quite embarrassing to the average Joe and/or Jane.
4. Periods are nothing to be ashamed of.
Around the age of 6, I happened upon a tampon sitting on the bathroom vanity. When I asked what this strange object was, my mother removed it from the wrapper and proceeded to teach me about menstruation. It was a total no-shame zone, and my introductory lesson in human reproduction. When the time came for me to get my period about seven years later, I was probably the least freaked out of my friends. We all had Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, but I also had my mom’s sane, practical wisdom. It didn’t necessarily help with the cramps and migraines, but it did help with the associated but very unnecessary fear and loathing.
5. Food is not meant to be feared or worshipped—it’s just meant to nourish.
I don’t come from a family of perfectly svelte women. My paternal grandmother was obese, and on my mother’s side, we’re all close to 5 feet, so we’re not exactly model material (I’m practically a giant at 5’3″.) There was some dieting in my house (it was, after all, the ’80s) but the message to be thin by all means necessary was not allowed under my mother’s roof. Countless friends suffered from eating disorders, but my mother’s message—if you feel ugly/fat/unloveable, just talk to me—gave me a truly healthy relationship with my body, no matter what my weight.
6. Beauty is an energy that resonates from within.
I realize this one’s not totally fair, because my mother was admittedly kind of a Jewish Grace Kelly. Maybe it was easy for her to bestow lessons about authentic beauty because she was that lovely. Even though she was a stunner (still is, at 70) she taught me that being beautiful is as much about being kind and radiating joy as it is about being put together. Oh, we coveted pretty things and we were regular visitors to Bloomingdales. But to this day I know that my mood dictates the attention I get on the street—not whether I remembered to put on lipstick.