Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Feminist epiphanies, by Ani DiFranco

by Jordan Kisner

Part 3: There’s Nothing Wrong with Your Face

Lately I’ve been staring into mirrors, picking myself apart.

So begins “Present/Infant,” the song that DiFranco wrote in 2008 for her newborn daughter, Petah Lucia. Though DiFranco always introduces the song live as one written for her daughter, it seems at first to be a song about her own ongoing insecurities about her physical attractiveness: I fear my life will be over and I will have never lived it unfettered; always glaring into mirrors, mad I don’t look better, she writes, articulating a state of anxiety that many American women know all too well. But why, we wonder, would DiFranco begin a song for her daughter by describing her frustrations with her face?

Now here’s this tiny baby and they say she looks just like me.

Ah. There it is. In this meditation on the tangled interconnectivity of a mother’s relationship with her body and her relationship with her daughter, DiFranco addresses in her own way an issue that is receiving attention from sociologists and bloggers alike: the communication of body image problems from mother to daughter. It seems increasingly clear that mothers play a much larger and more intimate role in the development of their daughters’ relationship to her body than other factors like peer pressure or the media.

In a very insightful post published earlier this summer, our very own Chloe Angyal wrote: “Before a girl is exposed to media images of incredibly thin women, before she is pressured into dieting by girlfriends, she is carefully taught that her body is always imperfect, but always perfectible, by the most influential woman in her life: her mother… [Our mothers] were also taught to hate their bodies, not just by their own mothers, but by a society that told women then, like it tells us now, that their worth as people would be measured by the curve of their hips. If they passed that lesson on to us, it wasn’t because they wanted us to hate our bodies. It was because hating your body was, and is, a major part of being a woman in this culture.”

I was particularly struck by this paragraph from Chloe, and this song from Ani, because I am a product of just such a mother-daughter relationship. My mother is a naturally slim woman, as am I, and she made it clear from very early on that she felt it was important that I remain so, often in ways that I did not appreciate. As a teenager, I responded to this dynamic with anger and resentment. As a young adult with fewer insecurities about my body, more perspective and a much greater understanding of my mother, my resentment has faded and I’m left wondering how to reconcile the way my relationship with my mother has complicated my relationship with my body, and the way that has complicated my relationship with my mother.

Much of the writing about this topic that I have encountered has great analysis of this phenomenon, but little advice for the daughters in question. Those who do mention it talk about breaking the cycle: it’s too late for us, but we don’t have to damage our daughters the way we were damaged. But those of us who learned to feel bad about our bodies from our mother either by example or through criticism need more than to break the cycle for the next generation; we need to end it now.

And I think Ani might just have the trick.

Faced with a daughter whose face looks just like her own, whose happiness she would defend “to the ends of the earth,” she can no longer look in the mirror with so much frustration. DiFranco’s insecurity doesn’t transmute onto her daughter; rather, the love she feels for her daughter inspires self-acceptance. When she sings the final line of “Present/Infant,” her voice rings with a joy that comes from knowing the line is both for her daughter and for herself: Love is all over the place. There’s nothing wrong with your face. In the end, this gift for her daughter is really a thank-you for the gift her daughter gave her: the ability to break the cycle for the both of them.

I believe this transformation of insecurity and frustration into love and acceptance can work in both directions. Daughters of this cycle, we can end this just like Ani, and without waiting another fifteen years to do it. We can look at our mothers, our sisters, our friends and their mothers and recognize their beauty, see how nonsensical their dissatisfaction with their bodies and faces is, and how nonsensical our own must be. We can tell them, and ourselves, and our future daughters, every day.

Love is all over the place. There’s nothing wrong with your face.


At September 21, 2009 at 8:35 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post - but you know? When I see mother blaming I always get suspicious. Of course my mother was not immune to the societal expectations surrounding her, and has undoubtedly passed some of her anxieties over to me (example: she is an extremely successful, ambitious woman, but struggles with her weight). And there are specific dynamics in the mother-daughter relationship that need to be accounted for. But then again - to me it fits also into a trope that mothers are always deficient; can never do it right; will ruin their kids, etc...


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