Ask Ugly: now that I’m a mother, I’m mourning my old, ‘pretty’ self. Is this normal?

Hey Ugly,

I was always beauty-obsessed. I knew I looked good, and I didn’t have to put much effort into it. Because of my looks there were many lovers, opportunities, and experiences. Recently I became a mum. I have zero time for myself, and it shows. So does the lack of sleep. For the first time in my life I am confronted with the fact of how much I identified with my good looks, and how much I depended on them. But for the first time in my life, I need to let go, and be truly myself. I cannot hide behind my “pretty mask” anymore. I am confronted with reality, aging, being a mother.

On one side I don’t care about looking “beautiful” anymore – all that matters is a healthy, happy baby. But on the other hand I mourn my old, “pretty” self, the one I relied on for so many years. Is it normal to feel this way? To go through such a deep transition?

– Used To Be Pretty

For most of my life, beauty was my obsession, my passion, my entire personality.

I’m not exaggerating. At age seven, while other kids were playing baseball, I was shoving baseballs down my shirtfront and begging my mom to take “supermodel pictures” of me with my big, hard honkers. One time in college, the fire alarm in my dormitory went off in the middle of the night and, instead of evacuating, I snuck into the bathroom to cover my acne-spotted skin in a layer of Dermablend Professional Cover Creme Foundation – lest the other students catch sight of my face in the light of the flames.

It was only a drill, thankfully. Still, I was so attached to my (false) self-image that I was willing to let my actual self die in a dorm fire!

I did not realize this was a problem until I was 26 and a half years old.

That’s when my dermatologist prescribed topical steroids to treat a flare-up of dermatitis, and my continued use of the steroids caused my skin to atrophy. Flesh began falling off my face – sheets of oozing, peeling, unstoppable flakes. I couldn’t use skincare or wear makeup. I looked something like a zombie. I behaved like one.

When my skin was at its worst, I refused to date, go to dinner, go to the gym, go outside. I called out sick from work. I canceled plans with friends. For weeks I sat in my apartment alone, weeping and filling my Amazon cart with “miracle moisturizers” that never delivered. I didn’t feel worthy of participating in life. Without beauty – or maybe, more accurately, without the hope of becoming beautiful – I had nothing. I was no one! I was an empty, aching, ugly abyss of a person!

You seem much more mentally stable than I was then – congrats! – but what I’m trying to say, Used To Be, is that while it definitely isn’t healthy, it is normal to 1 identify with your looks and 2 have an identity crisis when you lose them. Beauty culture all but ensures you do.

Consider all the marketing messages that present the construction of the body as the construction of the self: L’Oreal’s tagline “Because you’re worth it” frames external appearance as a portal to internal worth. CoverGirl’s tagline “I am what I make up” riffs on the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am” and frames makeup as proof of existence. Alicia Keys sells serum and calls it Soulcare. One of Glossier’s best-sellers is a fragrance simply named You.

The body-as-self problem goes beyond brands, though. News organizations report on skincare as “self-care”. People say you “let yourself go” when you gain weight or go gray. Even human rights movements perpetuate the idea that to be beautiful is to be human, with mottos like “Black is Beautiful” or “Trans is Beautiful”. These mottos are meant to invoke beauty in the less tangible, more poetic sense, of course, but since the dominant cultural idea of beauty in the west today is purely physical, it doesn’t quite land.

Modern society doesn’t really equip us with the skills to understand our inner selves – our personalities, our values and goals beyond the material, our roles in our communities. It instead equips us with the skills of consumerism. This, in conjunction with the above, makes for a population that often confuses the aesthetics of mass consumption for individuation.

It doesn’t surprise me that motherhood is making you question this conflation.

For one, birthing a baby is a direct challenge to the belief that you are your body. I mean, your body just created another body equipped with a separate consciousness that you can’t access. (Whoa.) On a less esoteric level, new mothers – whether or not they carried their child – are often in the midst of major body changes, from post-baby hormonal acne to sleep-deprived dark circles. This makes them ideal marketing targets.

I’m willing to bet that lately, you’ve been inundated with ads featuring the beauty industry’s favorite appearance-as-identity agitprop: “Feel like yourself again!” Which, of course, means: “Look the way you used to look.”

This phrase pops up everywhere – ads for under-eye concealers, Botox procedures, weight loss programs, Mommy Makeover surgeries, and more. It perpetuates the idea that you, as you are now, are not the true you. It capitalizes on the innately human quest for personhood and proposes that you are not real unless you are beautiful; preferably, beautiful in the way you were before. It convinces you to pursue the past in lieu of living in the present (which, to my limited knowledge, is kind of the whole point of life).

“In this narrative, the body must be constantly modified to remain true to itself,” philosopher Clare Chambers writes in Intact: A Defence of the Unmodified Body. How convenient for the industry selling the tools of modification!

Here’s where your experience is not typical, Used To Be Pretty: You aren’t buying it.

You are sensing – rightly! – that your previous, pretty self is no more you than the current you. Maybe you’re sensing that your previous, pretty self wasn’t your self at all, but a surface-level stand-in. (To which I say: same.) Maybe you’re realizing you are real, regardless of how attractive you are – and you were real the whole time.

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You’re right to say you’re in mourning. Maybe you’re mourning the person you might have been if you hadn’t sacrificed so much of your time, effort and attention to beauty. (I still wonder what my life would be like if I’d spent my 20s learning Italian or studying philosophy or reading Joan Didion instead of reading Reddit skincare boards…) Certainly you’re mourning your value system and your sense of self. These are profound losses. You should grieve them.

You should also get used to the grief. If all goes well, you will continue to age and change and grow and shrink and sag for years to come! Over and over again, you will realize you no longer recognize your physical form. This is normal, necessary and human, and it usually hurts. Writer Jayne Mattingly calls the experience “body grief”.

One way to move through body grief is to continue doing the hard work of separating who you are from what you look like. I did this by asking myself what, exactly, I believed beauty provided for me – then I incorporated that thing into my life instead. For instance, I used to insist that physical beauty was a form of expression. In valuing beauty instead of expression, though, I set myself up for an identity crisis. I’ve since realized there are many ways to express my thoughts and feelings that don’t involve manipulating my face or body (or cost money, for that matter). I sing, I dance, I paint, I write, I have two-hour phone conversations with my sister while making soup.

(Also, if physical beauty truly is a means of self-expression, what are the odds that all of our diverse, dynamic, inner selves are asking to be expressed with a red lip, hmm? Just a thought.)

Finally, I have to say: all the “lovers, opportunities, and experiences” you had back when you were a beaut? You can still have those. Trust me. Ageing women take lovers, too.


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