The Skin We Live In (Part II)

My mom stopped working when she gave birth to my older sister. I’ve never known my mom working. I’ve known her dropping me off at school and picking me up in the afternoon. I’ve known her making me breakfast, making me lunch, making dinner. I’ve known her standing beside the washer and dryer, pushing a vacuum, and dusting places that don’t really need it. There have been times in my life when I have resented my mom’s choice to stay home. It has been a point of contention between us—the woman married at nineteen, pregnant at twenty, and her daughter, now twenty-six and single, pursuing a master’s degree and wanting nothing more than to write and make a career out of it. My mom’s mom wanted her to work, but some things skip a generation.

Summer SkinThere are some things moms and their daughters can talk about, like crushes and bad dates, and others that they can’t. For us, it is having a career. So we talk about the sun—whether we saw it today, when it will be back, how unusually warm it was for a January or a February day. We follow it like amateur meteorologists, like pagan worshippers. We make plans around it when I visit—we’ll go down to the community pool in my parents’ neighborhood or we’ll take a walk on the nearby nature trail or if my sister’s kids are over we’ll head to the park. In the summer, in the backyard, I follow my mom’s lead and move my towel with the path of the sun, feel its heat beating down on me, wondering if any of it will be absorbed through the sunscreen and prove I spent some time outside the office.

My mom is beautiful. Sometimes people tell me I look like her, and I see it in the mouth. I have my father’s blue eyes, but the rest of me I don’t think resembles them much. I think my siblings and I look more like each other than our parents, like we dropped out of the sky and into their lives. I envy that that my mom doesn’t have to spend time in front of the mirror painting herself with foundation to cover acne scars and inexplicable red blotches. Her answer for acne: the sun. Since I was a teenager, she has told me that if I spend a little time in the sun, it will dry my oil right up. This has yet to prove an effective cure for me, so instead I buy expensive face washes, invest in pore strips and oil-blotting sheets, and try my luck with natural, muddied facemasks.

I stare in the mirror at my skin and wage war with it, taking sadistic pleasure in squeezing out blackheads. I start the day evaluating my skin like an exam. Because for all I do to try and prove I’m an independent woman, I’m career-focused, and I don’t need to be defined by a relationship, in the end, I still possess the insecurities of a teenage girl, I still lose confidence at the sight of a new pimple.

The one item my mom feels naked without is eyeliner. This is still a mystery to me. I think it also shows a confidence she doesn’t realize she has. I don’t know any other women who enter the world with bare faces. I certainly don’t. It’s a big effort for me to leave the house and go to the gym, a bus ride away, bare-faced and exposed. Whether they are, I feel others judging my skin because it’s one of the first parts of the body we notice. It covers us; we can’t escape it and it takes a lot to cover it all up. But my mom, a stay-at-home mom, a sun-worshipper, someone who hates being in crowds and is shy around new people, she enters the world without a mask. This is one of the bravest things I’ve seen a woman do. Women are judged for their appearances, from their weight to their haircuts. We do not live in a culture that is unaffected by physical appearance. We live in a culture that worships it.

My mom and I disagree on a lot of things. We also live very different lives. She will continue to sunbath stubbornly and refuse to heed my warnings about skin cancer. I will continue to push to build a career and maybe never have a family. But she will always be there for me when I need her most. I know that she will always be the most beautiful woman I know; I know she will tell me not to worry so much about my appearance. When my back is reddened from overexposure to the sun, I know I can find a tub of Noxema in her cabinet to soothe me.

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