05/10/2013 06:31 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

What My Mother-in-Law Taught Me About Beauty

Kjerstin Gruys

A few weeks after my now-husband Michael and I started dating, we were trying to find a parking spot at Target (hot date, I know). We'd been circling for ages when a spot opened up 50 yards behind us, so I hopped out of the car, sprinted to the space, and boldly "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. 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. Sherry is a former high school art teacher and breast cancer survivor. Again, pretty amazing, but, to be honest, I was also intimidated. Sherry and I have plenty in common, and we're both -- of course -- quite attached to Michael. And, like me, Sherry had dealt with some serious body image issues during her life. However, our approaches to being happy with our bodies couldn't be more different: I say "change your mind," and Sherry says, "change your body."

Sherry dealt with her body issues through dieting and a smattering of cosmetic surgeries, and I'd recently taken my psychological approach to a new extreme: I swore off mirrors and any other reflective surface for a year, which I chart in my book, Mirror, Mirror Off The Wall, and relied instead on my family and friends to help me gauge both my appearance and my outlook on life. Eight months into my no-mirrors project, life felt pretty good. I'd conquered the mother of all vanity triggers, my wedding, and in its wake, I was enjoying a heightened sense of calm and purpose. I thought very little about my looks and this made me happy and proud. But I experienced a major vanity relapse when I became anxious about visiting Michael's family for the winter holidays. OK, not his family, just one family member: my mother-in-law.

Knowing how much Sherry cared about her own appearance made wonder what she thought about mine. She'd always been so kind, but every so often, she put her foot in her mouth regarding my appearance, usually by presuming that I was on a diet or at least wanted to lose weight. I felt certain that she wished her son had married a thinner woman.

I constantly wondered, Do I meet the Sherry standard? But Michael angrily pointed out that as an advocate for women and body image, I had built his mom up in my mind to be an enemy to everything that I stood for. "She didn't have plastic surgery to spite other women; she just wanted to feel better herself," he told me. After a huge meltdown involving a botched hair dye job that I couldn't even see, I realized two things: First, Michael was right that his mother couldn't possibly care as much about my looks as I had insisted. Second, my feelings about Sherry were actually rooted in jealousy; I was jealous of her seemingly carefree and confident life, and her unapologetic manner when it came to investing in her appearance. She didn't appear to feel nearly as conflicted about beauty and her values as I did. I knew then that I had to talk to her and keep an open mind while doing so. I had made some harmful assumptions and it was time to challenge them.

Later that day, I called Sherry and asked I could interview her for my blog, to learn more about her experiences with cosmetic surgery. I was nervous about talking to her, but calmed myself by going into research mode. I'd conducted dozens of interviews for my blog and for my dissertation, asking women about their experiences with our beauty culture. I needed to stop thinking of Sherry as my mother-in-law and instead as another interesting woman with a unique story to share.

"Most women try to hide any cosmetic procedures they get, but you don't. I think that's really interesting and cool," I explained, truthfully. Sherry didn't hesitate before agreeing. She explained that she wasn't at all embarrassed to discuss her plastic surgeries, and felt that telling her friends and family before each procedure was important. "I don't want them to feel like they can't mention it or for people to act like they don't notice. Telling people is more about making them feel comfortable."

I thought about my husband's fears for his mom's safety as I asked the next questions. "Michael thinks you're already beautiful, and he worries about you when you have surgery. Have you ever thought, Gosh, this isn't worth it?"

"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 had with my cancer, and on my feet since then -- my foot bones are brittle from chemo -- well, I'm used to medical procedures, and at least these are ones I want to be having!" She had a point there.

My final question was for my own sake: "Have your surgeries made you more confident about your looks?" Did changing her body change her mind, much like my no-mirrors project had been changing mine?

She responded with certainty: "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. Youthfulness is important to me. I think about how other people see me."

She paused for a second before sharing something completely unexpected.

"I don't know exactly how to say this, but my mom never once 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 buckteeth, the whole deal. I always had low self-esteem, starting from my mother's comments. It wasn't intentionally mean or spiteful, it was just the way she was raised by her mom. 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!" She laughed at this last comment, as I scribbled her words into my notebook. I didn't want to miss a word of what she was telling me.

"Wow, I didn't know that," I exclaimed in surprise. I knew Sherry would be happy to talk openly about her opinions and experiences, but I'd not expected this story. I imagined Sherry as a little girl and felt a surge of emotion. "So, did this change how you approached being a mom?"

She took a deep breath. "When Michael's sister, Mandy, was born, I didn't want a repeat of my past. 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 how pretty she was, and how beautiful her curly hair was. I didn't want the first person to tell her she was 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. All girls deserve to feel pretty and loved."

I was practically speechless. I'd run out of my planned questions, so I just stammered my thanks and promised to send Sherry a copy of my blog post before I published it.

I sat for a while after we hung up. Everything was so much clearer: Sherry's surgeries, her concern with appearance, the proud way she always complimented Mandy's figure, clothes, hair and makeup. I'd been right about Sherry not feeling the least bit guilty about her plastic surgeries, but I was wrong to have assumed that she made her decisions thoughtlessly. It only seemed this way to me because she'd dealt with her issues long ago; she knew herself well enough now to feel certain about her choices, despite the costs and risks. Didn't every woman deserve to know herself this well? Sure, my mother-in-law had made different decisions than I hoped to make for myself, but she'd clearly led a very different life from me, and had different values and different things to prove to herself.

The lessons I'd learned from my conversation with Sherry felt like the final pieces to the puzzle I'd been working on since the beginning of my no-mirrors project. The most important piece was the reminder to recognize my feelings of jealousy and criticism toward other women for what they were: remnants of a destructive disease and perpetuators of a dangerous culture. I'd learned to ignore my anorexic voice when it picked on me, but I needed to apply this same reaction when that critical voice turned to others.

I decided to go ahead and stay jealous of Sherry's lack of angst about her decisions, but admit it to myself. Both of us had embarked on quests to make peace with our bodies, but we'd taken different paths. Her confidence was built from self-knowledge, and her choices were shaped by her unique history, values and priorities. I wanted to be confident in my own decisions, and it wouldn't hurt to have a stubbornly self-assured role model for inspiration.