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When mum is no longer the last word on looking good

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 9:53am

"No offence, mum, but I need to let you know that you are not dressed appropriately for a trip to the IFC Mall," Ilya hissed at me in hushed tones. She even spoke in Hindi so that no one else would understand the level of her embarrassment.

My 14-year-old daughter is now criticising me about the way I dress? Is this what life has come to? It usually happens the other way around. I have always reserved the right to point out that her outfit is mismatched, or that her hair needs to be less hooligan-like if she is to be seen in the outside world. But until last year, my words meant nothing to her.

When she reached 13, Ilya began to compensate for her slovenly dress sense by slathering her nails with a wide variety of attention-grabbing colours. Any expression of my disgust only led to her using deeper, darker colours to make a more "Goth-like" persona.

But this year, after she went to summer school, everything changed. Ilya's public image is no longer a statement of her free will, but rather of her conformist view of society. I don't know what she did for those five weeks, but now she wants to look picture perfect at all times, and her opinions have become very clear.

For many years, whenever Ilya said something, it would always be followed by a standard question - "Right, mum?" Many mothers might be flattered at the thought of their children having their parents sign off on their thought processes, but to me it was a cause for concern.

As a fiercely independent person who believes in the importance of nurturing "free spirit", it worried me that Ilya needed me to endorse every thought. When would she be able to trust in her own ideas? And when would she develop her own voice?

In June, I sent this girl who cared about little more than the last episode of Glee to summer school. She returned a fiercely independent young lady with a strong opinion about the ethical impact of honour killings in India and Pakistan, and religious expression. She began to question our family values - religious, cultural, educational, social - and form opinions about her place in society.

What amazes me most is that Ilya came out of the summer programme with a strong sense of "place" and "purpose". Although she is 100 per cent ethnically Indian, she considers herself to be a Hong Kong Asian first. In fact, her peer group this summer consisted largely of Asians and Asian-Americans, who had clustered together for the summer programme.

In terms of purpose, she has made up her mind that she wants to go to boarding school, as this is where she can best represent her Asian values in a global context.

Last weekend, I agreed to meet her at the IFC after my morning exercise to indulge her in some window shopping. Ilya, clad in her signature skinny jeans and a stylish blouse, glared at me as I approached in sweat pants, T-shirt and sneakers.

So, how dressed up does one need to be for a trip to the mall? The truth of the matter is that my life is a pair of sweats, physically and metaphorically. This doesn't mean that I dress badly, but, rather, that I dress casually. I don't deny that mall shoppers define the epitome of style, but we were simply off to the mall, and not a day at the races.

When I think about my daughter, I envisage a bedraggled pre-teen who has pulled out the first thing from her closet just for the sake of wearing something. I have not yet come to grips with the fact that this scruffy child I used to know is blossoming into a confident teenager who takes pride not just in how she looks, but in how she presents herself to the world.

With this newfound belief in her own opinions, she's set to spread her wings and soar through an independent life at boarding school - even if the hillbilly style of her mother should stay in the hills rather than the mall. Right, mum?

Reenita Malhotra Hora is the author of Ayurveda: The Ancient Medicine of India and producer/presenter of Money for Nothing, RTHK's morning business/finance show

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