We inherit many things from our mothers. From physical similarities that are gifted to us through our genetics to personality traits and notions of self that we mimic and learn as we grow up in their shadows, our moms pass a lot of things down to us whether we like it or not.

My mother passed on to me many physical characteristics, like the shape of her face, her petite physique, and her sturdy legs. And from my mom I learned that what other people think of your appearance matters more than how you feel about yourself.

No, I don’t believe that statement to be true anymore. At least, intellectually, I know it’s not true. But at an early age it was implanted at the core of my being and I find I have to fight against that thought every single day.

It’s taken me years to get enough perspective on my upbringing and see my mother as not just my wonderful mom, but also as a woman battling her own insecurities. I’ve had to think hard about the self-conscious, self-centred attitude that I inherited so that I could start to find self-acceptance and joy in my own body.

This is a difficult subject to write about, as it’s been only nine months since my mother passed away. I can’t say enough good things about her, particularly when my heart still aches to see her again. She was a wonderful, patient mother who sacrificed so much for her four children and a creative soul who excelled at many pursuits. I miss her so much.

But — and I hate to say this out loud — she was also incredibly vain. Not in a “look at me, I’m gorgeous” way. Exactly the opposite, actually. Her vanity was of the “I’m not beautiful enough. Everyone is looking at me and I’m sure they think I look awful” variety. She constantly worried what other people thought of her appearance.

When I was young, I watched my mom do her hair and makeup almost every day, even if she wasn’t leaving the house. She didn’t even like to venture into her own backyard unless she was dressed, her hair was curled, and her makeup was done. God forbid the neighbours see a woman without makeup on.

She suffered from severe eczema on both hands, which understandably added to her negative views of her own body. But because of those hands, she often didn’t want to go out or eat at restaurants because she was certain people would stare at her red, itchy hands. “No one is looking at you!” I’d cry in exasperation. But she felt all eyes were on her. If we did go out, she needed to sit in a back corner of the restaurant where hopefully no one could see her.

Her vanity, I believe, was rooted in her insecurity. She was strong and assertive when she needed to be. But when it came to how she viewed herself and her body, she was not very compassionate.

I know that she never felt beautiful; she told me so many times. She never seemed comfortable in her own skin. She didn’t like having her picture taken, didn’t like smiling in photos, and sure as hell didn’t want to look at the photo of her after you took it. The sad result is that I don’t have many pictures of my own beautiful mother to remember her by.

Photo of my mother kissing me when I was three years old
My favourite photo of my mother and me, circa 1976.

This is the self-loathing legacy she unknowingly passed down to me. I also don’t love having my photo taken. Selfies are pretty rare. But I’m working on it. I don’t want my own kids to have thousands of digital photos of their lives but no evidence that mom was there too.

What do you do when you’re raised by a strong, caring mother, but an insecure woman? How do you break that cycle, for yourself and your own daughter?

Let me tell you, it’s hard.

For starters, I remind myself that not everyone is looking at me. I mean, how self-centred is that belief? And if someone is looking at me and judging me for what I am wearing or how my hair looks that day, so be it. That’s their issue, not mine. I’ll probably never see that person again anyway.

I also try to choose experience over appearance. For example, for years I didn’t feel comfortable in shorts. Looking back, I realize that I never once saw my mom in a pair of shorts, except in photos of her as a girl. And so as I inherited her negative body image, I inherited her dislike of shorts. But my god, it gets hot here sometimes! I’ve chosen to work through my fears of what others think and be comfortable in shorts, rather than be an uncomfortable sweaty mess on a hot summer day.

Last summer, I spent a day at the beach with my family. But before we left I had to give myself a little pep talk. “This trip is about memories, not your body-image baggage,” I told myself. I threw on my two-piece bathing suit, hit the waves with my husband and kids, and we had the BEST day ever. I would have missed so much if I had stayed back on the beach towel, worrying about what others were thinking about my body.

A photo of my mother on the beach
My mom, carefree and confident on the beach as a teenager.

I don’t have any memories swimming with my mom, because it never happened. I don’t even know if she owned a bathing suit after I was born. Where did that confident young woman on the beach go?

I wonder if my mom had the chance to do it over again, if she would have chosen to care less about what others think and enjoy more of what this life has to offer. Did she realize how much she missed out on because her fears got the better of her? And did she wish that she hadn’t passed her own insecurities on to her daughters?

My own daughter is almost twelve. She’s at a critical age for girls, when self-esteem begins to plummet and negative body image can take over — something only exacerbated by social media. So I’m careful what I say and do around her. I don’t use words like “diet” or “fat,” or comment on her changing, pre-teen body. I cheer her strength when she makes it across the monkey bars, and her perseverance when she comes in 75th place in a cross-country meet. She knows I go to the gym because it makes me feel strong and healthy, and good about myself — not to lose weight. And we go swimming together, ride our bikes, and go on mother-daughter walks…in our shorts.

How has your mother shaped the way you feel about yourself and your body? Positive or negative, I’d love to hear your stories.