U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus gives the thumbs up with his wife Holly at his retirement ceremony and Armed Forces Farewell, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., August 31, 2011. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)
After I wrote about Holly Petraeus’s role as a military spouse for The Daily Beast, I was saddened but not surprised to see several disparaging comments about her appearance, something that has come up as well in social-media discussions of the recent scandal involving her husband, David Petraeus, and his affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.
Holly Petraeus is not a fashion model or an avatar of style. But who said she needs to be? While her appearance is not fashionable, it is wholly professional. Holly Petraeus is a wife, a mother, and an executive.
Here are the facts: Holly Petraeus is overweight. She does not dye her hair, which is cut in a simple pageboy. She wears modest, contemporary, but not particularly becoming clothes, mostly square-cut jackets and trousers. She wears little, if any, makeup. Nothing that she does requires anything else.
Wait, you say. Holly Petraeus looks older than her husband. She didn’t “keep the sexy.” She “let herself go.” She should have “tried harder.”
How, pray tell, is any of this anyone’s business but Holly and David Petraeus’s?
I don’t think it is. I do believe, however, that I can tell you some of my business to explain why we should all stay out of this woman’s. Like Holly Petraeus, I am a military spouse, and I am overweight. Considerably so, to some people. That is not my point, but I want to be as clear and unbiased as possible about my own business.
Some years ago, I went to a college reunion and spent some time palling around campus with a former roommate who has long been a ballet dancer and teacher. She has always had a superb athleticism, as well as a beautiful figure and an intense interest in her own appearance. The night of a reunion dinner, I dressed carefully in clothes I really loved and felt comfortable wearing, excited about going to see other classmates. As we passed the library, my former roommate said, out of the blue: “Tell me, is J. [my husband] okay with how you look? Is he still attracted to you at this weight?”
I almost passed out then and there, not because she was calling me out for avoirdupois—I was well aware of that—but because I had never, not for one moment, ever had cause to doubt that my husband was attracted to me. I still don’t, and I emphasize that so that I can emphasize that my body-conscious friend asked two related questions: Was my husband still attracted to me, and was his attraction to me affected in any way by my weight? I was sure that my husband was still attracted to me sexually (please; don’t make me go into detail. Draw a veil! Draw a veil!), but I had no idea if he was “okay” with my looks.
Since that reunion evening, both my husband and I have aged and changed, lost and gained weight (mostly gained), had different hairstyles (mostly mine), and experimented with new clothes (mostly his, after he retired and starting wearing suits to work instead of fatigues). Through all these changes, we’re still attracted to each other, but that doesn’t mean one of us won’t cheat.
I hope neither of us does cheat. We love each other and we actually believe in the vows we exchanged in a religious ceremony. But that is no guarantee of fidelity.
Neither is “staying sexy” a guarantee. People cheat on all kinds of spouses, not just the ones the public believes are dowdy. For heaven’s sakes, Arnold Schwarzenegger cheated on Maria Shriver, an undeniably fit, beautiful, polished woman. As one commenter noted, “Affairs you can quit any time either of you get bored. Marriage is supposed to be a contract that trumps that, with obligations that outrank the inevitable loss of perfection.”
However, it was what that commenter said next that will stay with me for much longer, and I believe we should all think about it long and hard as we think about what all marriages mean: “… by that kind of reasoning a veteran who comes back wounded and too depressed to play sexy deserves to have his or her spouse start cheating. After all, if s/he’d just made the effort.”
Not every married couple recites the Christian vows that call for staying together “in sickness and in health / For richer, for poorer,” but all marriages do imply a contract—and military marriages test that contract in ways that not all others do. (Those married to police officers, fire fighters, and in other professions that require a life on the line will recognize this.)
A spouse who cheats has broken the contract. That’s because marriages are based on trust about intimate communication, not on trust that anyone will stay the same.
A person who is dissatisfied with his spouse’s appearance doesn’t cheat. He or she does honorable things—he can make her feel so loved that she wants to look as good as possible for him and for herself. The couple might sit down and have a compassionate, honest conversation about one spouse’s dissatisfaction, and there might be a request for change. He can also admit that their relationship is over because he wants something different. But a person who truly respects a spouse ends one relationship before beginning another. Because that is ultimately what marriage is about—respect, not perpetual attraction. Bodies and appearances can and do change. Taking an oath or making a vow involves respect for another man or woman’s personhood—and that’s sexy.
About the author: Bethanne Patrick (@TheBookMaven) is a writer and editor focusing on books and culture. Her work has appeared in AARP, O The Oprah Magazine, and The Washington Post. Her husband is a retired military attorney who now works for the Department of the Army. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.