This article was originally published on Role Reboot, you can read it here.
At the grocery store on Sunday, my heaping cart included enough food to last the four of us for a week as well as enough stuff to help feed my daughter’s swimming and diving team on Friday. Two women in their 40’s were in the checkout lane in front of me. They had shared a cart, and I thought, how nice it would be to shop with a friend or sister to make this huge, weekly chore seem easier.
As one of the women put a tower of Lean Cuisines on the belt I heard her say to the other woman, “You didn’t hear that she’s getting a divorce? He cheated. Which is horrible. But I do have to say, she really let herself go.” I looked down at myself. I stood in the grocery store wearing black yoga pants, a T-shirt, and a fleece pullover.
I hadn’t showered. My medium-length brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. I wore no makeup. I am susceptible to bouts of depression and I gain and lose huge amounts of weight with those mood cycles and right now I am very heavy. I stood there, a poster child for a wife and mother who had “let herself go.”
Thus far, on this Sunday, one of my “days off,” I had made my family pancakes and eggs for breakfast, and then wrote and edited for three and a half hours. I had scooped the cat’s litter box, fed the pets, updated the Google calendar with various practices, tournaments and concerts, helped arrange a carpool for an evening I had to work, taken my son (and picked him up) from his music lesson and dropped him back at home and then headed to the grocery store.
My husband’s day had consisted of cleaning up after breakfast, paying the bills, taking our teen daughter out to practice her freeway driving and then dropping her off at a special weekend swimming practice (during which he checked his work email on his phone).
My husband and I have been together for over 24 years. During this last quarter of a century, both sets of our parents separated and his parents divorced. Three out of our four parents are now dead, all of them requiring care before they passed.
In 2009 alone, I was in graduate school full time, my sister died, my brother-in-law died, and my mother-in-law died. My husband and I both have careers, the children, a house, a dog, and a cat. Amidst all of this, my personal appearance hasn’t been foremost in my mind. My health has definitely been a consideration and I struggle every week to fit in exercise and healthy eating.
The comment by this random woman brought me up cold—both the “old-fashionedness” of what she had said, but also its unshakeable truth.
My husband has never made me feel this way, but I realized that even my poor bloated mum body is still a commodity in this culture. I have two college degrees, have read thousands of books, written millions of words, raised two happy and well-adjusted teenagers, and still I am stuck eternally in high school, being judged by my appearance.
And the stakes were high—I could be divorced (with justification from my own gender) for being too ugly. This truth was not unknown to me, but the fact that men are held to a different standard, that men still deserve physical beauty regardless of the realities of life, stress, and aging—this thought sank in more deeply than it ever had before.
There is the stereotypical trophy wife and the money-beauty exchange, which is so well-documented in our culture, but I wanted to unpack this judgment from my checkout lane eavesdropping.
There was no doubt in my mind that the woman speaking referred to someone who had let her physical appearance go—shorthand for gaining weight, not coloring her hair, not wearing makeup, etc.
But what struck me there, while unloading three bottles of juice and three dozen eggs, is how much a woman has to “let herself go” to be a mother and a wife.
From my prejudiced point of view, being a mother, and the domestic care surrounding being a mother, are beautiful things that help the quality of life of everyone on the planet. But it is hard to maintain a sense of self when so many times a day, you are not the only person to consider. So you let things go.
You certainly aren’t going out to happy hour with your friends every night. So you let that go, too.
If you and your spouse both work, there is a constant negotiation of who stays home with a sick kid, who is going to make the dentist appointments and check the homework, who is going to give the bath to the younger child, who is going to unload the dishwasher, who is going to take your cancer-ridden parent to chemo.
So you let go of exercise. Or of reading. And sometimes even your dream to act or paint or be a biochemist.
I stood there piling groceries on the belt and I was full of empathy for this woman whose brief story I overheard.
I can vote. I can work. I have access to birth control. But my society in no way values my contributions that have no monetary impact on the economy. Tits and ass have both marital and marketable value. The ability to sit through a school board meeting so they don’t cut the music program when no one is watching? Well, that in no way ensures that you will not go home to an empty bed.
If you let yourself go physically, your value as a woman in our society is nil.
But if you don’t let yourself go, you will never survive the journey of motherhood. This form of letting go can lead to personal growth and an expansion of self as we have to decide for ourselves what is important to hold onto, and what can take a back seat to other priorities.
But mums can also let too much of themselves go and the self can be obliterated. I think this is a more worthy conversation to have than one about the upkeep of personal appearance.
Telaina Eriksen is an essayist, poet, and assistant professor in creative writing for the Department of English at Michigan State University. She lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband, her two teenage children, and her Shetland Sheepdog Sprite.
Can you relate to Telaina’s experience?