Without a mother, who teaches beauty practices?

07 Jun

As visible from the episode of the Tyra Show posted further down this blog, mothers are seen as responsible for their young daughters’ participation in beauty practices; Candelario also touches on the continuity from mother to daughter in adult beauty practice. And earlier this term, even Adriana told me that most women have some experience of being taught to wear makeup by their mothers; I’m not entirely sure that’s true, but it sounds so. Yet one thing that stands out in several of the narratives we have looked at for this course is the relative absence of mothers: Pecola is separated from Mrs. Breedlove; Reina Agüero loses her mother at age 5 and Constancia, in a sense, even sooner; virtually the first thing we learn about Diana’s family is that her mother is dead. They demand the question of how to think about the transmission of beauty practices in the absence of what is portrayed as natural maternal teaching.

In the case of Diana in Girlfight, the story appears fairly straightforward. Diana opts out of most beauty practices employed by her peers; we first meet her in loose gray clothes. She does wear a few short braids in her hair, and these are an element of communal beauty practice in the film, since she needs Marisol to do them. Unlike Calendario’s women in the beauty shop, Diana has her hair done at school; but like them, practically in stereotype format, fixing her hair is a site for discussion of her personal life. Marisol sits above her like a mother, encourages like a mother, and braids her hair like a mother; this is the substitute relationship in which beauty and decisions about womanhood are negotiated in tandem, but with the significant distinction that Marisol and Diana are peers; Diana gives Marisol advice on her relationships as well at other points in the film. They must navigate these practices on their own.

Diana wearing gray and with her hair back in Girlfight

Apparently a Standard Life Experience, missing in The Agüero Sisters

Reina Agüero is older, and her story is more explicitly about her mother. Reina actively seeks her, requesting that her sister allow her “intimacies that Reina and their mother had shared” (174) and asking Isabel to let her breastfeed (241). Her mother’s death has also formed Reina’s body; she grows into her hands as a child, but they grow large again after Blanca dies (196). Yet Reina rejects the beauty practices on which Constancia, who notably prefers to escape her mother, builds her life. She believes in an extreme natural beauty, in confidence and natural smell (232), and she has it in spades.

Though she lacks a mother, she seeks to share the world with her own daughter (17). Throughout The Agüero Sisters, mother-daughter relationships are ruined, usually by death (154, 187), but she, Constancia, Dulcita, and Isabel come back together in a relationship of care and continuity, which, however, seems to exclude beauty practice. In asking for a grandchild especially, Reina demonstrates her desire for the continued flow of generations missing from her own life, but beauty practices are conspicuously absent from this process. (It is of course simplistic to suggest that motherlessness leads to a lack of beauty practice in these stories; Constancia is a counterexample. Her beauty production is heavily about exile, and her relationship in beauty to her mother is apparent. But I don’t have the space to talk about Constancia as well, and I find Reina more interesting.) Reina is never shown to have or share explicit practices to produce beauty, though sex could be argued as a beauty practice for her.*

Both of these women learn to negotiate their own beauty in some ways, Diana in producing it with Marisol and Reina in leveraging hers with a variety of men, and ignore or reject some others. The lack of maternal transmission means they negotiate it uniquely, individually, in their narratives, only using those practices they have chosen to take on. What do you think (perhaps also regarding Constancia) about the way maternal transmission of beauty practices matters in these stories or others we’ve encountered?

*In fact, both Reina’s and Diana’s lack of beauty practices are validated by their sexual desirability (to men) regardless. These relationships in which they have control are fundamentally different from the ways their mothers are shown as subject to their fathers, Diana’s mother in life and Reina’s in death. But they also validate the women’s beauty; if Reina were not so sexy, she might be more likely to perform for men.

Candelario, Ginetta. “Hair Race-ing: Dominican Beauty Culture and Identity Production.” Meridians 1, no. 1 (2002): 128-156

Garcia, Cristina. The Agüero Sisters. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Girlfight. Directed by Karyn Kusama. 1990. New York: Green/Renzi, 2001. DVD.

1 Comment

Posted by on June 7, 2013 in Uncategorized


One response to “Without a mother, who teaches beauty practices?

  1. harveymr

    June 7, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    This is actually an idea I have been thinking a lot about throughout this term in relation to this class. A lot of beauty ideals and standards come from societal norms, what our peers think and they especially seem to have a lot to do with each individual’s upbringing. I honestly think that the most carefree time in a child’s life (in relation to beauty and learning how to negotiate it on our own) happens when we are little kids, maybe around the ages of 4-7, when we are able to start dressing ourselves. We touched upon this in class awhile ago. I remember having a conversation about how if little kids seem to be too disheveled or sloppy, it looks as though the parents, especially the mother, doesn’t care or is doing something wrong.
    Speaking from personal experience, I know that my mom dressed me in hand me down clothes from her friends or similar types of clothes. I always had a bow in my hair and wore lots of pink and flowers. I was never allowed to dress myself probably because my mom did not want me to look too unacceptable. I do think that the pressure put on me by my mom and grandmother shaped my beauty ideals when I was younger but I also think that it helped me see what I actually wanted to have control over. I don’t think I have quite figured out what to think about it though. Maternal transmission of beauty seems to be important in many ways but also trivial as well, as we have seem in The Agüero Sisters. However, could it possibly be the case that without the guidance of a mother, young girls (and boys) will be more easily pressured by society in terms of television, magazines, etc.?


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