“You’re getting fat. And why is your face breaking out?” my mom said, as soon as she saw me. She’s always criticized my appearance and although I know she loves me, it always made me uncomfortable around her.
As with most cultures, Chinese females are traditionally valued based on their appearance. It is so deeply ingrained as an unconscious expectation, that it influences how adults speak to young girls, which impacts how they derive their self-worth.
My mother was born in 1945 in Shanghai, the eldest of 4 children. As such, she was responsible for caring for her younger siblings. That included dropping out of school at 13 to work in a factory, so her siblings could afford to continue their schooling. She was also beautiful.
When my parents moved to New York in 1969, only my father spoke English. Mom taught herself to speak English and ran multiple small businesses. She raised 2 daughters who grew up to be an oil trader and a tech strategist. In her 70s now, she is a tai chi master and cancer survivor.
But when she spoke to me, it was always about my appearance. “Please stop focusing on the way I look” I said.
She was defensive and scoffed “I can’t even make a small comment? Stop being so sensitive!”
I took her hand. I had to help her understand.
“Mom, think about how unfair the world is to women. The focus is on our appearance, which we have little control over as we age. But we are worth so much more than that! I am a filial daughter, a hard worker, philanthropic and a loyal friend. Those are the things I wish you valued about me.”
She froze. As she looked at me, tears fell down her face — maybe the first time I’d ever seen my mother cry.
“This is why we must educate our daughters. So they can see the world more clearly than we did.”