Author Lisa Taddeo on the Beauty Standards We Inherit
"I had such a strong consciousness around beauty and I’ve tried to do the opposite with my daughter."
Welcome to On Beauty, a series where we take a deep-dive look into one person's relationship to beauty, how that relationship has transformed over the years, and how they experience being seen. This week, we're talking to Lisa Taddeo, the author of bestseller Three Women and the novel Animal. Her debut short story collection, Ghost Lover, was released on June 14, 2022. Below, in her own words, Taddeo discusses how her consciousness around beauty has been shaped, the ways in which women see one another, and more.
All of the growing changes everybody goes through during puberty was really hard for me. We didn’t have Instagram when I was young, but I was so aware of what was in magazines. I was constantly thinking about looks. My mother would say things about other women like, "Oh, she’s really beautiful’ or "She’s not very pretty." The comments were very low-impact, but nonetheless, they were things that definitely stuck with me. I had such a strong consciousness around beauty and I’ve tried to do the opposite with my daughter. I don’t talk about the way anyone looks in front of them.
My mother would put on makeup every morning—even when she wasn’t leaving the house. My nuclear family was pretty small; it was just me, my dad, my mom, and my older brother. My mom was the only woman who was regularly in my life. She was very conscious of how she looked and conscious about caring too much about the way she looked. She called herself vain a lot. She was always considered beautiful by others and I think she agreed with it, too. The aging process for her and losing her looks was very hard for her.
I grew up feeling like I didn’t have what my mother had. I don’t know where I got that idea from. But I do remember a time [when we were shopping] and I came out of the fitting room in this beautiful dress and my mom says, "Well, you look cute." And I remember thinking, oh, well I don’t want to look cute. It wasn’t like she would say, "You’re cute, you’re not beautiful," but I was just very aware of her word choice.
In middle school, I was at the public pool in our town and this boy that I did not have a crush on was talking to me about my best friend, Maddie, and how beautiful she was. Then he said, "Well, you know, you’re really pretty too when you’re all dressed up," and that really stuck in my mind.
When I was 10, I was on a beach in Puerto Rico with my parents and I was wearing a flex bikini with neon butterflies that I loved so much. And while I was sleeping, a man did something inappropriate to me. I remember thinking that I wanted to be pretty so the boys my age would like me, but I didn’t want to be sexy so that men my father’s age would approach me.
The fact that women have to pretend that we don’t see each other in certain ways is terrible. We don’t want other women to think we’re looking at them, judging them, and mentally comparing ourselves to them. I find myself doing it and it’s always negative toward myself; it’s never really negative toward others. I also don’t spend that much time thinking about those things now, especially now that I have a daughter. I’m much more conscious of helping her not feel those emotions. But I still reflexively do them. It’s funny, the other day, I was putting on makeup, which I don’t usually do, and she asked me, "What do you need to be pretty for right now?" I didn’t know how to answer that. Then she asked me if she could put lipstick on and I thought, oh God. I’m constantly worried about how she’s picking up on the things I’m doing. Then I’m like, am I thinking about it too much? Also, she watches TV and she has friends—things can just get planted in her head. You can’t stop the outside world.
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