Vanity No Longer Bonds Me to My Elegant Mother

The author as a baby, with her brother and stylish mom. (Photo: Courtesy of Mariko Zapf)

In honor of Mother’s Day 2017, Yahoo Beauty is running #MyMomStyle essays on how notions of beauty, style, and motherhood mix. 

On the rare occasion when I get dressed and dolled up, my 7-year-old daughter stands on the toilet seat for a bird’s-eye view of my mascara wand in action. She has a preference for my shimmery eyeshadow palette and thinks no fancy look is complete without lipstick — which she is able to retrieve, within minutes, from some drawer or purse pocket when I mumble that I have no idea where it is.

These are tender moments, as I was once the little girl watching my own mom with fascination.

But this is where the similarities fade. My mother made all the magic happen at a proper, well-lit vanity with three-way mirrors. And it wasn’t just once in a while — it was daily. To this day, few have seen my mother without makeup, heels, and perfectly coiffed hair. She doesn’t leave home without a lipstick case that’s as beautiful and substantial as any wallet — or a travel-size shot of perfume that she spritzes throughout the day.

Vanity bonded me to my supremely elegant mother when I was young. Friends would come over, and I would proudly share that she never wore pants — only dresses and skirts — and that, yes, she did always look like that, and “did you notice she has no wrinkles?” For my own part in the vanity game, I was 9 years old when I began to put Vaseline on my eyelashes to make them darker, and never had I felt more grown up.

The author’s only existing photo of Nana, seated. (Photo: Courtesy of Mariko Zapf)

My paternal grandmother, meanwhile, was another influential feminine role model in my life. Although she never waved a mascara wand in her 86 years (and would never have dreamed of waiting for someone to open a door for her), Nana epitomized womanhood. She was an immigrant, and a young widow, and she was a single mother to my father for 14 years, working tirelessly for most of her lifetime.

I remember visiting Nana one Sunday afternoon after she’d just finished mowing her two-acre rural property, grass bits stuck to her legs as she brushed off my father, who scolded her for not leaving the task to him. I followed Nana upstairs and watched her transform: Standing in just her slip, she gave herself a full-body wipe-down with a washcloth, gave three strokes of a brush to her thick gray hair, and replaced her single-color frock with a patterned one. She completed her look with a string of pearls and, voilà! She was ready to prepare the Sunday roast.

Like my mother, Nana didn’t wear pants, and she wouldn’t have dreamed of socializing without wearing a broach. But where my mother demonstrates a single perfect façade, Nana’s elegance was more … robust.

The writer, right, and her mom. (Photo: Courtesy of Mariko Zapf)

Eventually, I ditched the faux mascara for the real stuff and cultivated my own style. From my proclivity for chunky shoes (that I had the audacity to pair with a college graduation gown) to my unrefined way of eating, my lack of poise and formality bubbled up to the surface of the underlying differences between my mother and me. But her judgment of my personal expression made her infamous high standards seem superficial, and as I matured, my mother fell from grace in my eyes.

Now it is my turn to influence my daughter’s perspective on beauty standards. Like my grandmother, I only have a dinky mirror over the bathroom sink, which I lean over as I contemplate and manipulate my reflection. I still love substantial footwear and eye makeup, but on a daily basis, I can only commit to the former. And it is the rare morning when my routine isn’t truncated, and primping ends up being sacrificed for timeliness. On some days, I’m the mom in sweatpants, and it bothers me. Other days, the kids and I yuk it up about how the only glamorous thing on Mommy is her clean teeth.

But mornings when the stars align, when I’m able to emerge with both ease and mascara, can be just as fraught as feeling disheveled. I don’t want my daughter (though this goes for my son as well) to view elegance and femininity as something that can only exist among palettes of sparkly eyeshadow. I want her to eschew perfection. I also hope she will feel confident enough to wear heels and big hair if they make her heart and confidence soar. And if the present day is any indication, my daughter might prefer a refined sense of beauty, like that of her grandmother. And I’d welcome it.

My mother and I have never retrieved a sense of closeness. But for 40 years, she has worn (among a dozen other treasures) a pair of timeless Ferragamo heels, and she’s turned it into a lesson. She taught me how one expensive, elegant black skirt will last a lifetime, and how it’s always superior to a handful of cheap impulse buys.

And then there was my grandmother, who influenced me to be earnest, hardworking, and proper.

As I take in my middle-aged reflection, I accept value in all the advice and examples, and finally learn to not judge my mother as shallow for her shared wisdom. (In fact, I treated myself to a gorgeous pair of No. 6 boots that I fully expect to have for the next 40 years.)

I am trying to parlay their ideologies with elegance and grace, in my very own imperfect way.

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