Scents, Gestures And Advice: The Bond Of Beauty Between Mother And Child

The beauty secrets and preferences that are passed from mother to child are just as resonant as tradition and family lore.
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Beth
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The beauty secrets and preferences that are passed from mother to child are just as resonant as tradition and family lore.

Editor's Note: All this week leading up to Mother's Day (May 11), xoVain is focusing on moms and how they've influenced us beauty-wise. Because regardless of your mom situation (complicated, easy, nonexistent, BFF), we wouldn't be here without 'em.

You may not remember the exact date, but there was a day that you realized that your mother was the most beautiful woman in the world. At least, she was to you. 

It started in preschool. You drew her, one giant head and fingers like chicken feet, with fat crayons on satisfyingly scratchy construction paper. You sat on her bed, digging through her costume jewelry, her mother’s rhinestones, and imagined what kinds of wonderful experiences would accompany adulthood. Maybe you tried on her perfume or experimented with her makeup. By the time you’re ten, you spend hours looking at her pictures from college and marveling at her kicky fashion sense. You compliment her senior portrait, telling her that she reminds you of Jackie Kennedy.

My radiant mother, age 24, being cute in San Diego.

My radiant mother, age 24, being cute in San Diego.

Of course, it started long before then, and for some of you, the bond was with your father, or grandmother, or older sister, or with whomever it was who cared for you when you were soft and helpless. 

Long before she let you try on her lipstick, she was tenderly bathing you and applying lotions to your new, sensitive skin. She was trimming the tiny, papery half-moons of your fingernails. She was touching you, holding you against her heartbeat, imparting to you her scent, her comforting presence. The grooming was part of the bonding, the vehicle of nurturance.

When you brought your own son home, you were focused on making a secure attachment with him. You fell into a role that was at once alien and familiar. You were driven by hormones and biology and ancient history. It was messy and wonderful all at once. While you knew that your mother had cared for you in this way, you didn’t realize the importance of such little gestures until you practiced them yourself.

Last year. He didn’t even care about the poorly executed highlights. (Pro tip: Don’t make rash beauty decisions the day before a photo shoot.)

Last year. He didn’t even care about the poorly executed highlights. (Pro tip: Don’t make rash beauty decisions the day before a photo shoot.)

These days, you sit in the dark, singing bedtime songs to your boy, and you can’t help but remember your mother coming into your room to kiss you goodnight. Specifically, you remember her smell: Original ChapStick, cold cream, a faint whiff of mint toothpaste, and faded Liz Claiborne perfume. You wonder how your children will remember you, what your scent memory will be.

You catch him stealing lipstick out of your purse. His favorite might be Maybelline Baby Lips in Grape Vine. He uses your blush brushes as make-believe drumsticks. Some days he asks to use your hairbrush. You may be astonished by his behavior, and you may become wistful for the days when he relied on you to clean and dry him. He’s becoming independent and stubborn and curious right before your eyes, and he wants to play with your “face tickler”--your Clarisonic.

Making roads out of bottles of nail enamel.

Making roads out of bottles of nail enamel.

Your mother laughingly reminds you that you once dabbled in novice beauty experiments. Social learning fueled your adventures, too. You wanted to play with the exotic creams and lotions that you associated with your mother’s daily routine. 

And I did. Much better than naptime.

And I did. Much better than naptime.

And who wouldn’t? You recall friends’ stories about lipstick smeared into carpets, or children begging to have their nails painted just like mommy’s.  Children learn by watching and reproducing what they observe in their environments, after all.

Maybe your older brother fake-shaved at grandpa’s house, too?

Maybe your older brother fake-shaved at grandpa’s house, too?

At some point, years after you stop playing with her cosmetics and copying her gestures, you might ask your mother for real beauty advice. She might recommend the same cold cream that you played with over 30 years ago. It’s the cleansing technique, she notes, of the grandmother that you never got to know.

Your mother might stress the importance of moisturizing and not over-plucking one’s eyebrows. She might say to you, “Stay away from magnifying mirrors. They’re horrifying and you’ll only be tempted to pick. Or over-pluck your eyebrows.” She prefers plumy shades of eyeshadow and lipstick, you note. 

Her advice is different, perhaps simpler, than the advice that other women get from their mothers, but it is still valid. Your mother is not the ex-beauty-queen mother of your best friend, but she is wise about beauty in a different way. Clean. Basic. You appreciate it. This will be what you pass on to your children, should they ever ask.

Perhaps you write a few articles for a beauty website. You learn from the other women in that community. Perhaps your son, after watching you take pictures for your articles, crashes a shot.

Best outtake ever.

Best outtake ever.

And insists on his own close-up.

mother_hisnibs_beth.jpg

That’s when you may realize that this child is attached to you, and that he wants to be like you. He may very well be asking for advice one day, beauty or otherwise. 

This cycle--attachment, modeling, advice-giving--continues with each generation. Your mother patiently trimming your nails gives way to you grooming your son’s fades into you wearing the perfume that your grandmother gave to your mother turns into your granddaughter one day reminiscing about how lovely your skin was, even when you were in your eighties.

You may write for a site called xoVain, but beauty, the concept of grooming oneself, is so much more than vanity. The bond that occurs when a mother cleans her child is just as important as the bond that occurs when she feeds or dresses him. The beauty secrets and preferences that are passed from mother to child are just as resonant as tradition and family lore. The beauty you see in others can run so deep, especially when you’re recalling the sound of your mother’s laugh, or the way your child’s skin smells after a bath. 

There’s a reason that your mother is the most beautiful woman.