With no guidance from her own mother, Cate Clother has been on a journey--from "student of femininity" to mother of a daughter herself--to discover what loving her body has to do with loving herself.
Self-care was a foreign concept to me as a child. My own mother never wore a stitch of make-up or styled her hair. I never saw her working out, taking a bath, putting on lotion, or caring for herself in any way. She rarely ate in front of others, and when she did, she would stuff her mouth so full and so fast, it was as if she hadn’t eaten for days. A victim of sexual abuse as a child, she despised her body and the fact that she was tethered to it.
I watched her spiral out of control in my adolescent years, using alcohol and drugs to further distance herself from the prison of her body. She was haggard, neglectful, violent, suffering from undiagnosed mental illness, addiction, and eating disorders. I soaked her up like a sponge. I longed for her to love me, to see how beautiful I was becoming, to hold me and brush my hair with love, but she was incapable of this, as all of her energy was being channeled into one direction only: escape.
Throughout all of this, I spent a lot of time bunking at friends’ houses, watching their mothers with intense curiosity. I listened to their lilting feminine voices on the telephone, studied the way they put on bright lipstick in the rearview mirror. I ate their delicious food and laughed with them in backyard gardens. I also snooped through their medicine cabinets—not because I wanted to steal anything, but because I literally wanted to know what “normal” moms kept in their bathrooms. I was a student of femininity, wondering what it was, and who, exactly, it was for.
By the time I left for college my relationship with my mother was all but completely severed. I thought I had worked through the pain of our relationship, that I was ready to step into my new life and leave her behind for good. And yet the trauma of this loss hit me harder than ever. I felt undeserving of friendship and embarrassed around my peers- what if they found out who I really was? Who my mother really was?
I tried to cover up as much of my body as possible with ill-fitting clothes, and rarely, if ever, worked out or went to the beach (too many bikinis). On multiple occasions my roommate came back to our dorm to find me crying alone in the closet. I cried for my lost childhood, for my absent mother, for the shame and guilt I felt for not being able to save her. I didn’t want to be seen, and absolutely did not want to see myself.
It wasn’t until my daughter was born, when I turned 30 years old, that I finally decided enough was enough. I didn’t want to pass this inheritance down to her. My mother taught me to hate my body; I have been teaching myself to love it. It hasn’t been a cake walk, that’s for sure. But with a newfound courage I’ve opened up about my issues with other women. I’m learning more about what’s right for my body, and what sort of woman I want to become.
Practicing self-care with playfulness and joy instead of with guilt and impatience has been essential to this learning. Taking a bath used to seem so inconvenient and narcissistic—now I hop in the tub with my daughter and play in the bubbles. Working out felt like a complete waste of time—the mind-body connection made no sense to me. Now I enjoy doing a bit of yoga each day and my mind and soul reap the benefits.
I still consider myself quite boyish, and like to feel relaxed and comfy with jeans and t-shirts on most days, but I can enjoy wearing make-up sometimes or a finishing an outfit off with a sparkly set of earrings. I’m trying to wear brighter colors, and am not so afraid of standing out in a crowd. I want my daughter to see me loving myself, as I grow into a wise and wonderful woman.
I see flashes of my mother in her sometimes, especially in her large, dark eyes, and I feel proud that these beautiful aspects of our lineage can live again through her, without the generational pain. One minute she is smashing my lipstick and stomping about in my yellow dress shoes, the next, she tells me she wants to be a boy when she grows up, like her brothers. I'm grateful that my daughter can play and experiment with gender roles and that she can choose what fits her skin the best, all with the freedom that only deep, abiding self-love can bring.
Cate Clother is the founder & creative director of Cordella Magazine, an online quarterly featuring the work of women creatives from around the world. She is passionate about art, ecology, spirituality, social justice, and feminine wisdom. With her roots in Mt. Shasta, California, Cate currently lives in an intentional community in Pennsylvania with her husband and three young children.
Connect with her @cordellamag.