by Esther Choy
On my wedding day, I sit in a rental house atop an ocean cliff in Maui. A surly hairstylist maneuvers a hot curling iron around my face while cursing the humidity. A cheer erupts out on the lawn. As I peer through the window, I glimpse my soon-to-be in-laws lugging heavy boxes toward the garden where our friends gather. My in-laws’ boxes contain gifts for all the guests— and for us.
Suddenly, I find myself staring at my reflection and tightening my jaw.
Months earlier, my future in-laws had created photo books as gifts for all the guests. They weren’t anything fancy— you could tell by the bookbinding’s homemade quality— but they were made with love. Squeezing every last ounce of muscle from the copier in their attic office, they had made black-and-white editions for all the wedding guests. I was touched. But I also noticed something odd.
The book represented each stage of Bernhard’s young life: the naked toddler washing windows with his sunhat, the little boy immersed in an obstacle course, the teenager competing in triathlons. But while there were shots of me from infancy to young adulthood — sitting on a tricycle too large for me, driving cross-country with friends — there were no pictures of me between age twelve and twenty-two, even though the gift was meant to portray our lives in parallel since we were born exactly one month apart.
My mother had supplied the pictures of me. Months later, I asked her about the gap. She responded with a “don’t-you-know” inflection: “You weren’t very pretty then.”
All parents love their children, though that love can be expressed in vastly different ways. In the old days, some Chinese believed that if they told their babies, out loud, that they were ugly, evil spirits wouldn’t steal their fragile souls. In modern times, some Chinese tell their children they’re ugly even if they’re not, so they won’t become arrogant. My mother’s approach is more nuanced. Praise is useless, especially for things like physical appearance, about which little can be done. On the other hand, she firmly believes that only those who truly love me will point out my flaws. She makes sure I’m aware of all the ugly truths about myself, whether I want to know them or not.
My mom isn’t alone. A dear friend’s mother once told her, when she was about twelve, that since she wasn’t pretty, she needed to be very smart. Our mothers want the best for their daughters. They grew up in a world where a woman’s appearance was paramount— determining her marriage prospects and predicting how much her husband would treasure her.
I have tried to give my mom a different perspective. Yes, I have shortcomings. Yet I have strengths, too. For example, I can break the ice with strangers by making a sad-old-lady face that often gets people laughing out loud. We grow by appreciating our strengths as well as noticing our weaknesses. But, she asks, how can you direct all your energy toward self-improvement unless you scrutinize your shortcomings? She protects me by relentlessly focusing on the version of the truth that matters most to her.
Before the wedding, my mom’s reasoning went like this: It would have been one thing if my in-laws had made one private copy of the book, for Bernhard and me. We could look at my ugly pictures all we wanted. It was an entirely different matter to distribute hideous photos of me to every single wedding guest. She was going to preserve my reputation, even if my in-laws weren’t looking out for me.
I have never dared consider myself beauty-pageant material. My eyebrows aren’t thick enough, my skin tone isn’t light enough, my legs aren’t long and slim enough. But I hadn’t realized I’d been so unpresentable during that ten-year stretch that I needed to be excluded from my own wedding album. The irony is that I had no reputation to preserve among my twenty-five wedding guests. At least half of them had been my closest friends from age twelve to twenty-two! My looks had never diminished our friendship.
Still, what my mother thinks of me wields outsize power. I’ve always hoped to be worthy enough for her. If I wasn’t enough for my own mother, how could I deserve my fiancé — even if I fooled him into marrying me?
On my wedding day, as my stylist fussed with my hair and those book boxes made their way toward my friends, I couldn’t help wondering: Am I worthy of this marriage? Of any marriage?
Fifteen years later, I am still married, now with two daughters of my own. It’s spring gala time in Chicago, and Bernhard and I are attending our children’s school fundraiser. I chat with a mom who chaperoned a recent class trip to the Field Museum. After recounting funny stories, she pauses and says, “Alina looks so incredibly like you!”
This isn’t the first time someone has told me that my oldest child and I are the spitting image of each other. Complete strangers and lifelong friends say the same. Often, these strangers and friends add: “Alina is very beautiful.” To this, I usually demur or put on my proud-mother smile. Sure, my child is pretty, but I’m biased. I stop short of fully basking in the moment’s glory. But this time, something gnaws at me. And suddenly, a simple mathematical equation occurs to me: if A = B and B = C, then A must = C.
After the gala, I ask Bernhard a question so uncomfortably personal, I’d be embarrassed to utter it to anyone else.
“Most people think Alina looks a lot like me, right?”
“Most people think Alina is really pretty.”
Again, he agrees.
Then, the awkward bit: “Does that mean most people think I am beautiful?”
“Yes,” he says. “That is the only logical conclusion.” He smiles his gentle smile and assumes his own don’t-you-know inflection. “Alina is not just pretty,” he continues. “She is gorgeous.”
If A = B and B = C, then A must = C.
I think of my mother: her fierce loyalty and relentless desire to protect me, sometimes at the cost of squashing my self-worth. I consider what kind of mother I have been to my kids. Am I loving and protective enough? Too loving, too protective? I think of the kind of mother I am evolving into. When my daughters grow up and reflect on the kind of mother they had, what will they say?