Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Day 236: An Interview With My Mother-in-Law About (Her) Cosmetic Surgery

Michael and his mom, Sherry, dancing at our wedding.  He is SUCH a mama's boy. :)
A few weeks after Michael and I started dating he told me that I reminded him of his mother.  We'd been circling a parking lot for ages.  A spot opened up 50 yards behind us, so I hopped out of the car, sprinted to the space, and boldly (I think) "reserved" it for us, much to the chagrin of the other circlers.  When Michael told me this reminded him of his mother, I said I'd learned the technique from my mom.  I think he was impressed, but so was I.  With that, Michael's mom, Sherry, became a bit of a legend in my mind: strong-willed, opinionated, passionate about her causes, and always up for a good time.  (Gosh, she does sound a lot like me - except fun!)  Sherry is a former high school art teacher, and breast cancer survivor.  Again, kind of awesome, but - to be honest - I was also intimidated.  Michael is a bit of a mama's boy, and I worried that Sherry wouldn't approve of me.  After all, we also had some differences, mostly political, though I also knew that she hated tattoos (I have 2).  Another difference, which I'll talk about more below, is how we approach the the problem of not always being happy with our bodies: I say "change your mind," and Sherry says "change your body."  (Well, that's what she says about her body, anyway.)

To make a long story short, my fears of us not getting along were unfounded.  We like each other a lot, and have tons of fun together.  (It helps that we mostly avoid politics, and that we both adore Michael!)  Sherry's been my shopping partner-in-crime, and she made - yes made - the pearl necklace I wore on my wedding day.  We've grown closer over the past 3 years, so it's an honor that she's trusted me to interview her for my blog, on a topic many women don't feel comfortable discussing: her experiences with cosmetic surgery.

As I said above, with the exception of my anorexic era, I've tried to address my own body image woes by changing the way I think.  Sherry has tackled the same problem, but in a different way: by changing her body.  Cosmetic surgery is a tough topic for us body-image activists.  Much like dieting, it's one of those "patriarchal bargains" women make (see Day 98 for a definition & discussion of my dieting-while-feminist angst).  I kind of hate the idea of cosmetic surgery, while also sometimes wondering what I'd look like with bigger boobs and only one chin (they have an app for that!). As a feminist, I'm loath to tell other women what to do with their bodies.  It seems hypocritical to be pro-choice when it comes to abortion, but a condescending bitch when it comes to plastic surgery.  On this topic, I tell my students: "don't hate the players, hate the game." And I mean it.  Another thing I tell my students is, "if you want to learn, you've got to listen more than speak."  So that's what I've decided to do for the rest of this post.  Here's what Sherry - an actual "player" in this game - had to say.  I hope you learn as much as I did.

Says the grape to the raisin...
KJ: Thanks for talking to me about this stuff.  A lot of women have cosmetic surgery, but keep it a secret.  You've always been very open about your surgeries.  Why?
Sherry: Well, first, it's nothing I'm ashamed of.  So I'm not ashamed to tell people I'm having it done, and then afterward they won't be shocked about it.  They'd know anyway, and nobody would want to say anything.  I want people to feel comfortable around me, including after a procedure.  I don't want them to feel like they can't mention it or for people to act like they don't notice.  For me, since I'm not embarrassed, it's more about making other people feel comfortable.
KJ: So, what cosmetic procedures have you had?
Sherry: Well, I had maxilloficial surgery on my jaw almost twenty-five years ago.  It was for my bite - I was wearing down my teeth!  But it also changed my look.  I got breast implants about 20 years ago, but I removed them with my cancer surgery.  The radiation and surgery had really deformed my left breast, so they did reconstruction. Since then one of 'em shrunk up again, but it's fine.  I don't care.
KJ: Ummm... what do you mean, "shrunk up"?
Sherry: Well radiation treats your boobs like the oven treats a roast.  When you cook them, they shrink and harden a bit.  It's not the same piece of meat after it comes out of the oven, right? It's like that with radiation, even after the reconstruction surgery and new implants.
KJ: Yowza!  I get it now. Did having breast cancer change the way you think of your body?
Sherry: I feel like I'm supposed to say yes, but it just didn't.  I was relieved about my breast reconstruction, but I mostly just tried to get on my life.  I survived cancer but I don't think of myself as a cancer survivor.  It's not my identity.  It happened to me, but didn't change the direction of my life.  By the way, I saw my oncologist today and got the green light for another 6-months!
KJ: That's fantastic!  Congratulations and thanks for sharing the news! 
Sherry: Yeah, it feels good.
KJ: Okay, so getting back on topic, what other procedures have you had done?
Sherry:  I had a brow lift and got my eyelids done.  That was several years ago.  And then just a few weeks ago I got a lift for my lower face and neck.  It was called a something-a-plasty, but I don't remember the exact word!  I'm still healing from that.  Everything feels really tight and swollen, but I think it'll look great in about a month.
KJ: I hope so!  Having surgery can be dangerous, and I know that the recovery is painful.  Have you ever thought "gosh, this isn't worth it!"? 
Sherry: No, I've always been pleased with my results, and I don't dwell on the procedure. I just think of the outcome.  Frankly, after all the surgeries I've had with my cancer, and on my feet - my foot bones were destroyed by the chemo - well, I'm used to medical procedures and at least these are ones I want to be having!
KJ: I know Michael thinks you already look beautiful, and he worries about you when you have surgery.  How have your other family members reacted?
Sherry: Well, after my brow lift my dad told me that I didn't need to be doing all this stuff to myself.  I actually didn't tell my parents about this last procedure because I didn't want them to worry about it.  Their health isn't great.  I wasn't planning to tell the kids, for the same reason. I don't want them to worry either.  I'm not afraid that they'll try to talk me out of things since that's pretty impossible once I've made my mind up.  Doug, my husband, knows that I'm very hard-headed and that I'm not gonna let it go.  So after listening to me for months he just says "go ahead and do it if that's what you want."  Since he's busy and not particularly happy about it, I haven't asked him to do anything for me while I'm recovering.  I even took a cab on the morning of my surgery.  He was there for me with my cancer, but I do this on my own.  I'm very independent.
KJ: So I have to ask: have your surgeries made you more confident about your looks?
Sherry: Absolutely.  I'm very vain about my personal appearance and how I look.   I like my face, I don't want to change my nose or eyes or features, but I like to look younger.  I love my husband very much; it's not like I'm going out to find a new man or anything like that!  But youthfulness is important to me, and I think about how other people see me.
(she pauses)
I don't know exactly how to say this, but my mom never gave me a compliment on my looks.  I was painfully thin my whole life. We'd go shopping together, and she would sigh and complain that 'oh the clothes won't fit you."  Nothing I ever did looked good enough for her. Nothing.  I had buck teeth, the whole deal.  They paid for braces, thankfully.  Anyway, I always had low self-esteem., starting from my mother's comments, I think.  It wasn't intentionally mean or spiteful or anything like that, it was just the way she was raised.  She just never made it a point to help me feel pretty. The first time she told me she loved me I was 40 or something.  Anyway, I was always out looking to prove that I could be pretty.  And then, once I realized I was pretty, I just kept going with it! (laughs)
KJ: Wow, I didn't know that.  Did that shape how you think of being a mom?
Sherry: When Michael's sister, Mandy, was born, I didn't want a repeat of what my past was.  I mean, I think that's a big part of why I am the way I am.  When Mandy was a little girl I made sure to tell her all the time how pretty she was, and how beautiful her hair was.  I didn't want the first person to tell her she's pretty to be some guy trying to get down her pants.  I wanted her to already have that confidence coming into adulthood, from her family.
KJ: That's really cool. I'll have to talk to Mandy about some of this.  Okay, last question: when have you felt your most beautiful?
Sherry: Hrmmm... that's tough.  Probably in my 30s, when Doug and I were in those first years of being in love, and when my children were little babies.  I felt really beautiful then.
KJ: It sounds magical.  I wish I knew you then!  Okay, is there anything else you want to tell me - and my blog readers - that I haven't thought to ask?
Sherry: Nah.  I'll just say again that I think its so important for mothers to build self-esteem for little girls at a very young age, so they have confidence and feel pretty.  They shouldn't have to hear some boy telling them that to take advantage of them.  All girls deserve to feel pretty and loved, even if they have flaws.
KJ: I couldn't agree more!

THE END. Thank you for sharing your story, Sherry.  
You're everything Michael told me about and more! :)

So, readers, tell me: what are you thinking?  
We've covered a lot of topics here, including: 
- relationships with our mothers-in-law 
- plastic surgery
- being secretive vs. open about having plastic surgery 
- and (of course) those things our mothers tell us that we never forget.  

I'd love some feedback on this post, and your thoughts about these important topics.  Just remember: in my house we critique ideas, not people!
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  2. I think it's great that she made sure to tell her daughter how beautiful she is from an early age. I also think that the way we talk to young girls is very important and we should be telling them how funny, intelligent, and fun they are too!

  3. Wow - this is a really great interview about a topic most women with plastic surgery would not want to talk about. Your mother-in-law's experience of not feeling pretty as a child is sad. I'm guessing she also received the message that being pretty was an important measure of self-worth. Well, I guess we all learned that in our youth - and not just from our parents. The lucky girls are the ones whose parents have tried to instill a sense of self-worth based on many more qualities than appearance: like sense of humor, kindness, uniqueness, intelligence, physical and emotional strength, etc. Because even with supportive parents, it's an uphill battle feeling good about yourself in a media culture that constantly reminds girls and women that appearance and sex-appeal are what really matters. Bravo to you for taking on this topic!

  4. Love the interview!

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  5. Just wanted to say I think this is great--there's so much judgment about plastic surgery (I'm sure I've played Judge Judy myself on this front) that to hear it directly and thoughtfully from someone who's done it and *isn't* disavowing it is fascinating, and will help me not to lapse into judginess in the future. Great post.

  6. I liked her approach to telling people. I consider myself a beautiful person, something I don't feel ashamed to admit probably because of something my mother did right. For years in my twenties and early thirties I always held a fairly strong objection to plastic surgery but, I have nursed four children now and my beautiful "not big but perfectly shaped breasts" have tuned into saggy baggy skin tags that hang miserably from my body. Now, I would jump at the chance to have implants. It probably won't happen any time soon (4 kids are pretty expensive) or maybe not ever but, it's made me way more accepting of plastic surgery as a whole. When we are young, which I still am, it's easy for us to look at woman in their 60's getting face lifts and say it's unnecessary or even young woman getting boob jobs and call them superficial but, sometimes to change your mind you do have to change your body.
    My husband could care less about my breasts and in general I still have a great self esteem but, I truly feel like a part of me is gone and I want it back. Old gals, lift your faces, low self esteemed gals, get some ta tas and walk with pride in your tight tee shirt, as long as it's for you!

  7. I applaud you and your MILaw for a fantastic interview. I am in awe of her for being so open and for not caring what people think...bravo!

    But if I may, there are two sides to telling a girl that she is pretty all of the time. I heard it often enough that I began to believe it was the most important thing about me...not a good thing. It became an expectation, a "high" if you will. But deep inside, I just wanted someone to tell me I was funny, or intelligent.

    My daughter gets a compliment on her style choices, her smile or how she did her hair. She knows we think she is pretty, but hearing us exclaim over good grades, laugh at her humor or place her art on the fridge in the place of honor is so much more important.

    If she looks back on her childhood and can say she felt secure and loved, well I just can't think of a better compliment for me.

  8. Sherry is so right about creating confidence at a young age. I felt similar when I was younger and even into my early 30s. I didn't want that low self confidence issue to crowd my daughter and from a very early age I've told her she is beautiful. I just try to balance it with comments about how I think she's smart. :) And she's really doing amazing.

    I actually lost 70 lbs in my early 30s. I came out of a really needy relationship and wanted to be an independent woman and this is something I did for myself. After I was left with a lot of loose hanging skin on the stomach, some from the weight and some from post-pregnancy. I had surgery. I feel so much better about it. So free to wear a bikini. And so much more comfortable with myself.

    I told only my family and a few select friends but not all my friends. And it's funny that I've not told any of my female friends.

    Great post. Love reading this.

  9. My mom is a great person, but she was a lousy role model when it came to giving me body confidence. When I was a little girl I vividly remember her frequent complaints that her thighs were too fat. (In retrospect, no, they weren't.) She said plenty of other negative weight-related things, but that's what really stood out. As a teenager, I became anorexic partly in response to the fear that I had inherited my mother's "freakishly" fat thighs. My weight very dropped quickly, and low enough that I didn't have a period for about a year. I managed to recover on my own.

    It's been more than ten years. I ended up losing some weight without trying just because I was living a much healthier lifestyle than I had as a teenager. As soon as I lost a little weight--even before I knew I'd lost it--I started getting compliments all over the place about it. This has sent me into another fit of weight-related anxiety, something that I really hoped I was done with. Back to the mom thing: last summer, I was at the grocery store with my mother while visiting her, and wanted to throw some cookies into our cart. She told me that she hated buying them because I'd lost so much weight and looked so great. Old habits die hard, I guess. I did call her out on it, for what it's worth. Anyway, sorry this is so long. I just wanted to vent, I guess. :/

    Anyway, your MIL is completely awesome and I really enjoyed reading your interview with her! But I do agree with what Anonymous said (the one who posted at 9:01 AM on Nov 17) about giving your daughter confidence about her body, but not telling her how pretty she is to the point that it becomes, in her mind, her main attribute. We cannot forget to tell our daughters (frequently) how brave, smart, creative, athletic (etc) they are.

  10. What a cool MIL you have! I admire her self-awareness and honesty.

    I've thought a lot about the work I put into my appearance. It's very closely related to not feeling loved and/or lovable. I married a man much like my parents, who finds me funny and interesting but not lovable at all. Man, what a boon for the cosmetics and restylane industry that's been!

    I kind of hope girls are being raised today in such a way that there will be no demand for plastic surgery in 50 years.

  11. I thought this interview was wonderful, but I would love to offer a different perspective on telling little girls how pretty they are (see below)! By the way, Kjerstin, your blog is amazing. I am so impressed and excited to have had you as my first TA at UCLA :) I can't read it fast enough!

    1. Rachel, you rock! I LOVE the article you linked to here. I might find some way to use it in my blog to get people to read it. :) Hope you are well! I have such great memories from our class.

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