Every month we invite our readers to pitch us articles on a theme revealed in our regular newsletter. Find out what our next theme is by subscribing to our newsletter below. This month’s theme was ‘Glamour’ and Sumitra Mattai has written about the times when she doesn’t feel so glamorous and, in turn, so feminist…
I was making dinner when my twenty-two-year-old live-in babysitter came into the kitchen wearing a thin, cropped, flesh-colored tank top with no bra and spandex shorts. As a mother of two heavy with forty years of my own body issues, I promptly fell into an existential crisis. I wanted to ask her to change, but shaming was a parent’s dirty work, and I wasn’t even related. My kids were asleep and she was technically free to dress like an off-duty superhero. As she told me about my kids’ antics that day, I felt like a spiteful villain grimly stirring a boiling pot.
Soon, I was eating pasta alfredo with the babysitter’s boobs. I had only just stopped nursing my baby daughter, and my own boobs were small and slack in a bra that had been washed so many times, I couldn’t tell what size it was. Across from her, I felt frumpy in the same button-down and wrinkled trousers I’d worn to work, one of the few ensembles left after a brutal reckoning with my wardrobe. All the clothing I loved but couldn’t fit into, the remnants of my former self, now lived in the purgatory of a bright blue IKEA bag. I was exhausted and didn’t feel like thinking about my boobs or her boobs. Annoyed with myself for not speaking up, I stuffed my face with pasta and tried to avoid the confrontational gaze of her nipples.
Live-in caregivers had been a part of my life on and off for a few years, since a new job, a new house, and my husband’s travel schedule left me too often in the lurch. But I wasn’t used to outsiders in my home. Growing up, my sixty-something-year-old Guyanese great aunt, a mother to eight children of her own, kept me and my baby sister alive while watching a full lineup of soap operas. Every night, she applied cotton balls soaked with rubbing alcohol to her varicose veins. In the morning, I watched her change before her prayers. Her boobs were the longest I’d ever seen, resting on her belly like partially deflated balloons.
But this was a different time. I was barely in contact with my own aunts, and there was no world in which any of them was going to stay in my house and take care of my kids so I could “have it all.” I needed help, even if it came in a crop top.
I felt trapped that night and burdened with my own insecurities. I had been a chubby kid, a bulimic teen, and a sexually repressed young adult. I never wanted to be the kind of woman who was threatened by the body of a twenty-two-year-old girl. But even feminists have blind spots.
Ultimately I knew that everything – my kids, my marriage, my job – rested on me having faith in myself. There was no glamour in shame and self-loathing. I had to make peace with my age and my body – and if not now, when? At fifty? Sixty? My metabolism was slowing down, but time was speeding up. At least modern bras ensured that my boobs would never be as long as my great aunt’s. If that’s not progress, I don’t know what is.