When my husband and I moved to L.A. a few years ago, we started a tradition that’s as exciting as it gets for a city couple with a few kid-free hours: We’d drop our daughter off with Grandma in the suburbs, and ravage her local J.Crew factory store.
But I’d rarely come out of the dressing room for the requisite “How does this look?” conversation. It’s not that I have body dysmorphia or because my husband has terrible taste in clothing (he doesn’t). It was because I was abiding by my mother’s marital advice: Don’t comment on the other person’s appearance.
My parents — God help them — have been married for 51 years. For 40 of them, my father had a mustache. One day, while vacationing in the Galapagos, he realized that with all that hair on his upper lip, every time he put on the snorkel mask he got a mouthful of water. So off it came, without warning.
“What do you think of dad with a clean-shaven face?” I asked my mom when they reported the news.
“I thought there was a stranger in my bed!”
“But did you like it?”
“Did I like it? What does it matter? It’s his face!” she said, aghast that I would even ask. “Do I want him commenting on my face? No, I don’t. So I don’t comment on his.”
I’m pretty sure this started as some sort of ’90s-era feminist rebellion — a declaration that her looks and her choices would in no way be shaped by my father’s gaze. Not that they’d ever been, and not that my mother has ever been particularly bold in her fashion choices — she mostly wears sweatpants and leg warmers around town. (On further thought, perhaps this is why she wanted no comments. ) In any event, her only signature fashion move has been her silver crew cut, which she pulls off so effortlessly that women are forever asking for her hairdresser’s phone number.
But in order for my mother’s philosophy to work, it had to go both ways: She didn’t want my father telling her what looks he preferred, so she never picked out my father’s clothes, haircut, or facial-hair choices. She said little about his picks, and expected him to stay mum about hers. This wasn’t borne out of some sort of equality pact, but rather on the staunch belief that our respective opinions about our own bodies supersede anyone else’s.
I want to be clear: my parents do compliment each other. My dad regularly tells my mom how beautiful she is, she regularly thanks him for his cooking, and they have a very happy marriage. But her message to us, her daughters, seemed to be: It’s your body, your choice. The end.
This seems to fly in the face of two fundamental things that happen subliminally in marriage — first, that you try to please and make things easy for and compromise with and occasionally impress your partner. And second, that you feel entitled to comment on, well, everything: the person’s tone of voice and the way he walks across the room and the way she answers the phone and the ugly shoes he pairs with those pants you hate and the caftan he thinks looks a little too much like a bathrobe. My mother seemed to be saying: just stop it.
Your husband doesn’t like your haircut? It’s not his hair. He doesn’t like his lipstick? Not his lips. He doesn’t want you to get a nose ring? Not his face. And guess what? You aren’t doing it for him. You’re doing it for you! Even if you’re married, be your own woman! Let him be his own man! Everyone leave everyone else alone!
Now, as a married woman, let me tell you: this is not easy to do. Like every other person on the planet — save my mother, apparently — I want my lover to tell me how good I look, so shoot me. And I do, on occasion, tell my husband how great he looks. We also support and encourage each other in all sorts of other ways (thank you for doing the dishes, picking up the kid, sending me such a sweet email). But I do try to adhere to the core of my mother’s message: Ultimately, my gaze, my view, is the only one I should take to heart. I am not here to please anyone else, even if said person needs to be seen with me in public.
This meant I cut off all my hair without warning my husband it was coming. That I regularly don’t shave my legs or armpits, and don’t care whether this bothers him. That I wear sandals and necklaces he disdains. That I stop myself from saying, “I love your beard, don’t shave it!” even though I really do prefer him with a five o’clock shadow. Yes, I have been caught begging him to throw away pants from 1998, but mostly I restrain myself. My husband is not my doll to tool with; nor am I his.
Now we are trying to do the same with our daughter, which — as anyone with a girl will tell you — is virtually impossible. “Look how pretty you are!” is the most commonly voiced sentence from any person anywhere, followed closely by, “What a beautiful dress!” This means we do the best we can to say little to nothing about her fashion choices.
“Do you like it?” we ask.
In a perfect world, it would be the only thing that matters.