“If you want people to like you,” my mother said. “Be quiet and smile.”
“People love a mystery,” she advised. “And when they don’t know who you are, they fill in the gaps with good stuff.”
That was her advice to me. And for her, it certainly worked. She was a cheerleader in high school. Five seven, so tall but not Amazonian. A dead ringer for Cher. With waist length ruler-straight black hair.
Immaculately dressed in spite of her family not having any money. She’d taught herself to sew. She’d figured it out.
She was a vision. The quiet pretty girl that everyone wondered about. She was cool, popular. And as she told me, that popularity came mostly because of what she didn’t say. It came because she held back.
It’s hard to believe sometimes that I’m her daughter. I suppose it should have been a sign that my hair was curly like my father’s and never behaved. When I was a little girl, she’d become angry brushing it. At how unruly it would get within a matter of hours.
“You have the worst hair,” she’d complain. “It snarls when you turn your back on it.”
I had (and still have) thick hair. My ringlets were cute, but I was also always in danger of forming what my mom called “rats’ nests,” tangles that refused to come out, not without incessant brushing.
And then they didn’t stay out.
My mother, conversely, had thin straight hair. Sometimes she’d bemoan her lack of options with it. But it always behaved. Mom could probably go three days without brushing her hair, and no one would be the wiser.
But my unruliness didn’t stop at my hair. As I grew older, out of girlishness, I would possess a distinctly different body type than her. I could see my paternal grandmother’s genes shining through. I was curvy, solid. Not waifish or built like a fashion model. My body trended towards something lewd. And when I piled on clothes to obscure those curves, I read heavier. Modesty was a kind of a catch-22 in my family. It was bad to look like a “slut” and bad to look “dumpy” or “fat.” And those were my choices. Show the curves and look scandalous or hide them and appear chunky. Either way, my mother disapproved. Found it embarrassing.
I did excel in academics, in school. But that wasn’t considered an asset either. “You’re not doing yourself any favors,” my mother would tell me. “Boys don’t like girls who are smarter than them.”
She encouraged me to hide the fact that I was intelligent. Again, this involved not opening my mouth. And if possible, pretending, throwing them off the trail by saying incorrect, misguided things, giving them an opportunity to correct me and feel smart.
I did try. But it never worked out. It was a constant push-pull within me. In spite of all my efforts, I grew up into someone very different than what she had planned for me — and even what I tried to be.
It’s Easier to Be Liked Than Understood, But I’d Rather Be Understood
The funny thing is that I’m quite happy with who I’ve become. In general, I have a very good life. I’ve been able to get close and connect with other people in a way that my mother never has.
I’m sure that putting myself out there first has scared a lot of people away. I failed fast.
But without that, I wouldn’t have had so many close friendships. And without that, I wouldn’t have connected with my husband — who thought I was crazy when we met and spent considerable time trying to figure out whether it was the good or bad kind of crazy. (Apparently, it’s the good kind, according to him at least.)
My mother’s advice, to be quiet and smile, has made it easy for people to admire her over the years (particularly because she’s attractive) — but people usually admire her from a distance. And there’s been a continual pattern that the more someone knows her, the less they actually like her.
Anyway, it’s risky to speak your mind. Can be scary to put yourself out there.
And for a lot of folks, it’s easy to be liked if you just do — or don’t do — certain things.
But me, I think I’d rather be liked for who I actually am, not for whatever fantasy is projected onto me. Even if it means that most people won’t like me at all.