It’s Monday evening, and Ali, a husband and father of four, is watching the news. He glances into the kitchen where his wife, Amal, is cooking dinner. With one hand she stirs a pot and with the other she comforts their youngest child who has bumped her head.
Ali can’t help but notice that his wife is looking frumpy. When he married her fifteen years ago, she was slender, fit, and always made efforts to look fresh and attractive for him. Now she constantly wears baggy clothes to hide her chubbier figure. Her hair is usually gathered in a messy bun. She gives almost all her attention to their children, whose requests seem never-ending. The brightness Ali used to see in Amal has dimmed. Some women her age manage to look youthful, attractive, and physically fit. Why can’t his wife? How can Ali be attracted to a woman who no longer cares at all about her appearance?
This may be a fictional scenario, yet it is a realistic reflection of many couples’ lives. A common complaint among men is that their wives “let themselves go” as they get older, particularly after having children. When women no longer prioritize their fitness or appearance, it can be disappointing and unappealing to their husbands, who married them, at least in part, because of physical attraction.
Are these men selfish? Are their feelings justified? Do women have a duty to look good for the sake of their husbands? What can husbands do if their wives have become less attractive?
I spoke with several Muslim women about this phenomenon. Among them are a life coach who specializes in working with women of school-aged children and a licensed clinical therapist. A couple of the women I spoke with acknowledge that they have “let themselves go” at some point in their lives. Others say they’ve made a consistent effort to maintain their looks and health despite their busy lives. Their opinions are divided. Some put the responsibility of self-care squarely on the wife, while others believe a husband’s attitude has a major impact on a wife’s self-image.
Self-care Is a Duty
There are some Muslimahs who firmly believe it is a duty to maintain one’s fitness, appearance, and health as much as possible. This obligation, they emphasize, applies to women and men.
Shaylene Haswarey is a wife and mother of five who, despite her busy schedule, has always made fitness a priority in her life. She believes self-care requires a team effort between spouses and is a lifestyle that the whole family should embrace. “Whatever gender you are, it is important to take care of yourself,” Shaylene says. “After getting married and having kids, it’s hard to get ‘me time.’ No one wants to let themselves go, but it happens. Both husband and wife need to make time to take care of themselves. If the husband is complaining that his wife has let herself go, it helps if he takes care of the kids while she goes to the gym. If the wife is complaining, it helps if she makes healthy food. It’s nice when both husband and wife can work out together, follow a nutrition plan together, and include the kids.”
Estela Rodriguez Jebril is a licensed clinical therapist. She sees self-care as a sacred obligation. “As Muslims,” she says, “our bodies are a gift from Allah, and we have a responsibility to stay at a fitness level that keeps us healthy and energetic. Having babies and getting old is not an excuse to let our fitness go as women.” To Estela, the complaints of a husband like Ali are valid. “Yes, a man can ask his wife to take better care of herself, in my opinion, just like a woman can ask her husband to take better care of himself.”
Some of the women I interviewed said that instead of focusing solely on external, physical changes, it is important to investigate the internal issues that led to the wife’s downtrend in health and fitness.
For instance, husbands might not realize the uniquely high degree of sacrifice that motherhood entails. Women whose days and nights are consumed by needy children often lose sight of their own priorities, health, and motivation. “There are seasons in every woman’s life,” explains Aasma Maqbool, a mother of five. “Sometimes we are just barely surviving, taking care of everybody else. It is a privilege and a blessing to have the time, energy, and ability to take care of yourself if you are a woman.”
“When a person, man or woman, lets themselves go, I think they need to investigate why,” says Michelle, an IT architect, wife, and mother. “Is it because they don’t care how they look? Are they depressed or their self-esteem is suffering? Do they no longer feel they need to look good? Do they still care, but just don’t have the time? Are they struggling with their weight – even though they are trying – and just don’t know what to do? I don’t think it is a simple answer. But in general, I don’t think anyone wants to look bad and probably needs help: mental, emotional, or physical.”
Danielle LoDuca, a life coach certified in nutrition and fitness, does not immediately sympathize with disenchanted husbands. In the case of a wife who has let herself go, Danielle perceives an underlying problem of unmet needs on the wife’s part, and self-centered thinking of the husband. “If a husband’s main concern is about how his wife appears to him,” she says, “this points to a sense of entitlement and a lack of real love and concern for her well-being.”
“This,” she adds, “is one of the most toxic situations for a woman to be in. In my opinion it indicates a kind of neglect on the husband’s part. It would be preferable for a husband who is a caretaker and leader to investigate which needs of his wife are not being met. Is she happy? Is she sleeping well? Is she eating well? Does she have adequate alone time, time with friends and family? Does she have time to pursue her own hobbies and pleasures? Does she know she is loved and cherished by her husband? Does she receive kindness and attention from him?”
Whether they sympathize with husbands like Ali or not, it seems that everyone agrees that a woman who has neglected her own health and appearance needs some kind of support. What can be done?
“I would advise a husband in this situation to tell his wife he loves her regularly,” says Danielle. “Make sure she feels loved for who she is, not how she looks. Let her know how much you appreciate her and why. Start giving more: your presence, attention, and things you know she likes. Also, let her know she is beautiful too. Find ways in which you see her as beautiful and tell her and show her. Maybe her eyes are sparkling. Maybe her laugh lights you up. She needs to know. No one wants to let themselves go. Women want to be loved for the person they are, not how they look. And often women want to feel beautiful before they do anything to look beautiful.”
“Criticism is not a motivator,” adds Shaylene. “It causes hurt feelings. Being diplomatic and coming up with a healthy plan for the whole family is definitely a better, and hopefully, a more successful approach.”
In summary: All of us – male and female – should remember that our bodies are an amanah from Allah, and we have a responsibility to take care of our mental and physical health. If there are obstacles that are keeping us from self-care, we can seek support from doctors, psychologists, or life coaches. Our spouse should be our number-one supporter. Some advice for husbands:
- Do not criticize your wife hoping that will change her; it will backfire. Instead, focus on her positive traits. Make sure to point out things you admire about her. Your sincere praise and support might motivate her to care more about her health and fitness.
- Enable your wife to have time to exercise and take care of her body. In addition, encourage her to pursue her interests and invest in her well-being.
- To understand a wife’s circumstances, observe how she spends her days. Is she rushing around constantly, with no time for herself? If so, help her carve out regular “me-time.” This might entail hiring help or taking on some household tasks yourself.
In Islam, husbands and wives are meant to support each other and fulfill each other’s needs. When they only consider their own needs but ignore their spouse’s, it is a recipe for resentment and discontent. If, on the other hand, they each give 100 percent to their role while always considering their spouse’s happiness, they will both find themselves thriving.