Friday, May 2, 2008

My Narcissistic Mommy

From our friends, the fabulous Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D and Sharon Lamb, Ed.D, over at the Packaging Girlhood blog:
In 2007 plastic surgeons performed nearly 11.7 million cosmetic procedures in the U.S. alone, 91% of them on women. That’s a lot of women, and since 67% of the procedures were done on 19-50 year olds, that’s a lot of mothers. Enter the new children’s book, My Beautiful Mommy, aimed at answering all sorts of questions that children 4-7 may have about mom’s operation.

It’s understandable that children would be confused by their mom’s plastic surgery. But there’s something both disturbing and bizarre about the messages in this book. It reminds us of the extreme makeover show, The Swan, where “ugly duckling” women cried with joy at being chosen, saying things like, “as a child I was just an easy target for kids to pick on.” The point of such remarks was not to blame those cretins cruel enough to tease others about their appearance, but to justify why those victimized by them would want to spend thousands of dollars to conform to impossible beauty ideals. By the season's end, we all saw the results. A lingerie beauty pageant of Stepford women -- white, Black, Asian, it didn't matter -- they all ended up with the same hair extensions, noses, and boob jobs.

What angered us most about the show was not the “24-7” regimen and personal trainers who shouted “You’ve got to think military!” or the therapists who shamed participants who ate butter, or even those gleeful plastic surgeons circling body parts like they were football plays, saying things like “we’ll give her a killer body”. No, what really got us were the horrifying moments when the rebuilt mothers met their young children for the first time post-surgery. Little children were paraded into the studio to see their mommy after a three-month separation and the shock on their faces was heartbreaking. They were confronted with a stranger who pulled them into her arms, and cried real tears of joy from Bratz-doll eyes. We don't know about you other mothers out there, but our young children protested when we cut our hair. Imagine if mommy came home with a new face?

According to author Dr. Michael Salzhauer, My Beautiful Mommy is not meant to indoctrinate kids or idealize beauty but to “allow parents who are going through this process anyway to have a vehicle to explain it to their kids."

But idealize beauty it does. Mom’s “after” picture looks like the Little Mermaid in a belly shirt, and the smiling surgeon is built like Mr. Incredible. Worse is the dialogue: “Why are you going to look different?" the little girl in the book asks, and mommy responds: "Not just different, my dear — prettier!" Dr. Salzhauer’s explanation of why mommy has bandages, sleeps a lot, and can’t do the laundry or dishes (don’t get us started on that set of messages!) might make sense in Swan World, but as he acknowledges, real kids are “very perceptive” and they can read between the lines.

Which means that no kid will settle for this answer. Most will insist, “But you’re pretty to me.” They may protest, “I don’t want you to change!” The implicit question is: Why isn’t that enough, Mom? It’s a much harder question to answer because, unlike those bullies out there, a child young enough to understand this book is the one person a mother can count on to love her for who she really is, for the things she does, the way she makes her child feel, the time she gives, and yes, the information she imparts about how to treat other people and how to develop and feel good about what’s on the inside. Why isn’t that kind of love enough? We all know the answer why.

Not a child psychologist, Dr. Salzhauer might be surprised to learn that kids are also perceptive about parental narcissism. When the daughter says to Mommy after her bandages come off, "You're the most beautiful butterfly in the whole world," she knows at some level this is what her mom needs to hear. When parents are insecure, children respond by taking care of them, making them feel better, and putting their needs first, sometimes at their own expense.

What makes this book really awful isn’t the mother’s decision to have plastic surgery, for whatever complex or simple reason. Nor is it the way the book could work for plastic surgeons to troll for future clients. It’s the damaging message it gives to children everywhere, and especially to daughters who will grow up to face similar bullies someday. No mother in her right mind, or rather no mother who has given this issue more than a minute’s thought, would tell her daughter it’s her problem to fix.

Lyn Mikel Brown
Sharon Lamb
Developmental psychologists, and authors of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes

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