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Beauty Killed My Mother

November 15, 2019 | Filed in: Your Brain

She wanted a tummy tuck, the narrowing of her nostrils, and a chin implant, and figured she would be home the next day with her beautiful new body. As the anesthesia sedated her, what she didn’t know was the plastic surgeon operating on her was on probation, had 24 lawsuits against him, and didn’t carry malpractice insurance. She was my 38-year old Vietnamese mother, an owner of a nail salon, and she never came home the next day—or any day after that.  

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Two hours into the operation, she lost oxygen to her brain. The human brain can go without oxygen for up to 4 minutes before permanent brain damage occurs. The surgeon waited 14 minutes before he made the 9-1-1 call, and after 5 days in a coma, she flatlined. I was 11 years old at the time.

The author’s mother.

Before my mother died, I spent my days after school and summers off in the nail salon. In between doing homework and taking nail polish off of customers, my sister and I would leaf through the latest editions of Cosmo and Allure magazines, noting beauty secrets and stashing the perfume samples. My mother enrolled us in the modeling school located above the nail salon, trading acrylic fills for reduced price lessons for us to master the catwalk to the Little Mermaid soundtrack. 

After she died, I rejected all beauty conventions. I bought pants from the boys’ section, I only wore make-up at weddings or school dances (even to this day, I only put on make-up for performances); and never wore a bra until my stepmother awkwardly pulled me aside at age 20 and took me to Victoria’s Secret. But as much as I was one of those “beauty-is-on-the-inside” evangelists, privately, I hated my belly. 

The author’s parents.

Since my mother’s death, I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror and squeeze my fat, fantasizing about losing a few inches. I had never worn a bikini in my life, and every time summer rolled around, I swore this would be the summer. Despite all my food and exercise journaling, I hovered in the same space—not too fat, but not too thin—just average but with “a little more” to love. This was hard to deal with before and after my mother’s death, when all my Vietnamese elders created an echo chamber with the same mantra: “No one will ever love you unless you lose weight.” I’d laugh it off, but their pursed lips and matter-of-fact observations were tiny cuts into my psyche. What if they were right?    

Four years ago, I got married (unbeknownst to Vietnamese people, size 8 women are still eligible for partnership). I still longed to be 125 pounds, justifying that I would be in a healthy BMI range, but really, I just wanted a beach-ripe-bikini tummy. Getting dressed in the morning and buying clothes were my least favorite activities, because they always reminded me that I still wasn’t enough—for my culture or for my own expectations, which were cultivated from my family and reinforced by the media. And, to be honest, there was always that hope that I really would lose the weight, so buying clothes now would just be a waste of money.

The author’s family.

It wasn’t until I was reading through depositions from my mother’s court case against the negligent doctor that my own body shaming finally started to shift. In the appendix, I saw pictures of my mother’s last day—the stretch marks on her belly where she wanted liposuction, an upward shot of her nostrils she wanted to narrow, a side shot of her double chin where she wanted an implant. She wasn’t fat. She was pretty average and had just a little more to love. On all her medical forms, she wrote she was 110 pounds, but a Medical Board document noted that she was actually 140 pounds, and they found this mismatch peculiar. 

As I was touching her handwriting on the forms that she filled out, I started to cry. For years, I’ve been on this obsessive journey to figure out who she was and what she was like, and then I realized she lives on in me. I’m 5’2” and 140 pounds. She was 5’1” and 140 pounds. If you drew our bodies as paper dolls and placed them on top of each other, we were almost a match. Up until this point, I had never seen my body as precious. I had just seen it as imperfect, delinquent, ugly. But my body was her body. It was not an eyesore; it was my mother’s last gift to me. 

The author and her mother.

These days, I don’t squeeze my belly fat anymore. The first reason is that I realized I am enough no matter my waist size. It never mattered to my husband, and I’m finally getting to a place where I realize it’s not worth the energy to make myself feel bad. Nothing good ever comes from it. The second reason is that my belly is housing a new life, nicknamed Cletus the Fetus. Like my mother gave it to me, I give life to Cletus through the miracle that is my body.  

In summary, I’m done. I’m done feeling small in my life because of the body I was born with. I’m done with thinking I’m not enough if I don’t look like airbrushed models. And I’m done with people trusting a medical system that isn’t designed to protect them. I don’t want anyone else to die a senseless death like my mom. Maybe you also feel like your body has a little bit more to love. And all I’ve got to say is: love the hell out of it, because you don’t know how long you’ve got it for. 

The author’s mother.

Photos c/o Susan Lieu.

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Susan Lieu is a Vietnamese-American playwright, performance artist, and activist. She is on a 10-city national tour for her one-woman show dramedy, 140 LBS: HOW BEAUTY KILLED MY MOTHER, where she plays 12 characters in 75 minutes. She gives birth to her first child March 2020. Ticket info here: Read more of Susan's posts.

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