March 2010 Issue --> Family Article
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Unattainable Perfection for Both Mothers and Daughters
By: Linda Gordon and Susan Shaffer


Beauty remains one of the most pervasive and principal standards by which women are judged, regardless of their age. Both mothers and daughters struggle to meet what the media and our culture defines as beauty. Of course, these narrow standards are impossible, especially when we are expected to have bodies that nature never intended.

The unattainable standards of beauty and youth dominate women's thoughts, self-assessments, and relationships, including those between mothers and daughters. One mom said she remembers events, weddings, and trips by how well she felt she fit into her clothes and looked in the photos.

Before the development of mass production technologies-daguerreotypes, photographs, etc.-women rarely saw images of idealized beauty except through the Church. Today, for the first time, people think bodies can be perfected; in previous generations bodies had practical use. Media has made us all think that beauty is a possibility for everybody and if you aren't born with it you can buy it, diet and/or exercise your way to it. Images of idealized women are everywhere, urging us to believe that if we could lose a few pounds we would have a perfect marriage, loving children, great sex, and a satisfying career. We are either good or bad depending on those 5-15 pounds.

Failing to achieve this perfect vision creates anxiety and insecurity, which fuels conflict between mothers and daughters. Rita, a 26 year-old daughter, tells us, "I notice whenever I enter the room, my mother literally looks me up and down. I know she is doing a review in her head about what I am wearing, my weight, my makeup, and whether or not I measure up."

Many daughters feel they don't quite measure up to their mother's expectations for looking "good," and this doesn't end when they enter adulthood. One daughter tells us, "I found out that my mother was taken to the hospital. Without thinking, I grabbed my daughter, packed a quick suitcase for her, left my clothes at home, and went to the car and drove to Pennsylvania from my home in Virginia. When I arrived at the hospital, I found my mother looking scared and ill.

While her first reaction was that she was happy to see me, her second was, 'What happened to your hair? It looks awful.' Without a beat I started to explain how I had run out of the house the minute I heard she was in the hospital. Then, even after I stopped myself from defending my appearance, my mother went on to say that even my father had commented on my hair. At that point, I told my mother that my father couldn't care less, especially under these circumstances!" Mothers need to be sensitive to how their behavior affects their daughters. A mother's inappropriate behavior can often create a feeling of insecurity in her daughter and distance.

But even an appropriate mother can have an unintended impact on her daughter. Nikki, who has a thin mother, created an uncomfortable contrast to her own body. She says, "My mother and I have different body types. She is short and lean with no hips and I'm short and curvy. I always felt bigger than life next to her.

By the time I was thirteen years old, I couldn't fit into her clothes. I always hated feeling bigger than my mom. I tried to take up as little space as possible, and now that I'm older, I understand that I couldn't look like my mother unless I ate cotton balls and gave up food entirely." Nikki says that her mom was always supportive about how she was built. Yet she still compared herself with her mother. Regardless of whether her mom was accepting of her, Nikki couldn't help avoid unfavorable comparisons.

A mother's perspective can help her daughter to realize how fleeting youthful beauty is for all of us. As we get older, we should be gratified by our accomplishments, intelligence, generosity of spirit, and abilities as caregivers. Instead, we feel often inadequate. This preoccupation takes up too much space in the lives of women. This beauty ideal is so insidious-it is ironic that even those who write and lecture about this topic struggle constantly to break free of it.
  • Express your own body image problems and other related anxieties about beauty and aging to your friends, not your daughter.

  • Your approval is important, and your judgments can cause damage to your daughter and conflict in your relationship.

  • We need to stop referring to our age in degrading terms. We suggest that we create a "no complaint zone" with our women friends and our daughters.

  • Put youth in perspective for your daughter. It is so fleeting!

  • Tell the world your real age. The coy notion of saying that you are "39" perpetuates the lack of acceptance about who we really are.
Beauty is multifaceted; it includes a healthy lifestyle, an inquiring and curious mind, and finding peace with how you look.

About the Author:

Linda Perlman Gordon, MSW, and Susan Morris Shaffer, MA, are the authors of Too Close for Comfort? Questioning the Intimacy of Today's New Mother-Daughter Relationship, now available in paperback from Berkley Books in bookstores and online. They are available to speak to parents, educators, and mental health professionals. To get more information and proven strategies for staying connected with your children visit
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Unattainable Perfection for Both Mothers and Daughters by Linda Gordon and Susan Shaffer
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