“This car is pretty old,” my 6-year-old daughter said on our morning drive to school. She paused for a minute, and I could tell she was wondering if what she’d just said was rude. “I mean… it’s also a pretty car?”
Her blooming self-awareness is awesome to watch, and I find her white lie adorable. Because while her first comment is accurate, my car is anything but pretty.
In truth, I drive a beater: A dark blue 2008 Nissan Versa that’s scratched up, dented, and beaten. The front bumper cover is held on by zip ties. The hub caps fell off long ago, leaving the rusting wheel exposed for all to see. It’s clocked just under 150,000 miles to date.
I took a deep breath as some faint embarrassment, shame, discomfort stirred. I wondered what, behind those comments, my daughter was thinking. Did she feel embarrassed about our car? Did she think we were poor because it’s old? Did she find it dirty, uncomfortable, unsightly?
Or, oh my God — was I thinking all those things?
The beginning: before my car became a beater
In 2011 when I bought it, the Versa was used, formerly a company car, well taken care of but with
But the price was right, we needed a car, so we bought it. And I was actually happy with this smart, practical choice.
We weren’t paying for fancy features we didn’t care about, and the model is reliable. I didn’t feel so guilty the first (inevitable) time I scratched the paint.
When I landed a job with an hour-long commute each way, I didn’t stress about putting miles or wear and tear on the car
In short, I’ve liked
But it’s been a good car, and what reasons could I have for wanting more?
I’m happy with my low-cost car… right?
Somewhere, somehow, my contentedness with my car changed.
It started a few years ago, with me in Los Angeles and working at a mid-sized company that hired a lot of young 20-somethings. I was also a young 20-something, but I felt out of place. I was married and pregnant, yet surrounded by single, carefree Angelinos.
I couldn’t shake this feeling of social displacement, including what my coworkers seemed to have and spend money on that I didn’t. It seemed
And this gap I noticed in what I had was even more obvious when comparing our cars. I felt self-conscious about my car, easily one of the least valuable in the employee parking garage.
Driving a cheap car can make you feel, well, cheap
Putting the Versa up against my coworker’s bright orange hot rod felt like too apt a metaphor for how I saw myself in comparison to my peers. Basic, lacking in fancy features, and looking older and more worn down than you’d expect for my age.
My coworkers’ cars and clothes and lifestyles were a sharp reminder of how my life stage and responsibility forced frugality and limits on me, while around me my it seemed everyone was enjoying more financial freedom and few limitations.
The difference in our cars painfully highlighted the wide gulf between our lifestyles, how my life decisions had closed off my money choices, too. I wasn’t exactly dying to upgrade my hair, my wardrobe, or my car — I just craved having the same space in my budget to do so if I wanted.
I rarely volunteered to drive to lunch, citing the carseat taking up space. But the real upside for me was not having to point out which vehicle was mine. If my coworkers didn’t see my car, I could avoid feeling judged or self conscious.
It made it easier to bury the deep insecurities I felt in the choices I was making, and the fears that occasionally arose that they might have been stupid or wrong. After all, who gets pregnant and becomes a mom at 24? No on who I knew or saw around me.
Bumping up against my car insecurities
The pangs of self-consciousness over my unimpressive wheels themselves were mild and momentary. Most of the time, it was easy to remind myself that it was just a car and nothing worth feeling upset about.
Until, earlier this year, the front bumper cover fell off. I reversed my car to go pick up my kids from school — but my front bumper cover stayed stuck in a snow bank before me.
Losing a bumper did next to nothing to make my car less functional. But it did markedly worsen my car’s appearance, taking it from “beat up” straight to “trash on wheels.”
Suddenly, the self consciousness I had felt driving my beater around my bougie LA coworkers was back in full force. Only now, I was worried about being judged not by my peers who had more freedom than me, but by those who had similar responsibilities: other parents.
All at once, the thought of being seen in my raggedy, no-bumper car by the moms or dads of my kids’ classmates made my skin crawl. I could just imagine Evalinsey’s mom eying the Versa, seeing the scratches on the paint and the rusty wheels and the open-to-the-air metal bumper gaping beneath the
She would give it a once over and then make eye contact with me and I’d know: she was judging me and assuming that she now knew something about me, and that thing was that I, like my car, am trash. Oh, and definitely a bad parent to boot.
Viewing my car as a reflection of myself
I can’t pretend that any of this is really about the car because I know straight up — it isn’t. It’s always about what else I get (or don’t) from my car that has nothing to do with its basic utility.
My vehicle, like many things I own or purchase, reveals things about who I am: my tastes, my socioeconomic status, even the car seats reveal I’m a parent. The state of my car speaks to my character, how responsible I am or am not, or how well I can take care of the things I own.
So while driving a beater serves me perfectly well in terms of getting from one place to another, it sometimes contradicts the ideas I have of myself and that I’d prefer others have of me, too. That I’m responsible, organized, clean, well-maintained. That I have my shit together well enough to change my oil when those little window stickers say, and not after a timeframe twice as long has passed.
In short, the something “more” I want from my car, maybe have always wanted from my car, is that it be not just transportation — but to be armor. To shield me from judgments, to hide my embarrassments, to be dazzling enough to distract from or even offset my downfalls.
I don’t care what people think of my car, necessarily, but I always care what they think about me. And for better or worse, the trappings of life such as my wheels, short hair, or unmowed grass, those are all data that feeds into the judgments and ideas others form of me. Which leads to those moments of anxiety over the gap between who I like to think I am and who my car says I am.
Separating my identity and emotions from my car’s make and model
But am I really my car? Buying a vehicle is one of the most expensive ways I can think of to bolster my own sense of identity, and I’m not even sure it would work.
Ultimately, a new nice car doesn’t change who I am. I might be more careful when driving, but I’ll likely still collect minor scratches and dents along the way. This new car might stay cleaner for months, maybe even years — but it will eventually get as messy or dirty as any car that’s used on the daily. It’d require the same level of maintenance and attention or more, and I’d still be someone who doesn’t care to spend much time on that vehicle maintenance.
After the bumper cover fell off, it was a couple of months before I worked out how to get it back on. In the meantime, I got to drive a beater around and confront all the ways
Even more uncomfortable than facing my falling apart car has been facing the falling-apart areas in myself.
It hurts to look at and try to fix my internal messiness, so I’d often project it onto external things: the car, the house, the clothes, the gadgets. But I can’t buy my way to a healthier and balanced internal world; it’s something I have to build.
The car still gets the job done
“You know, this car is old and I don’t think it’s very pretty. But that’s okay to me, because it’s job isn’t to be pretty. It’s to get us where we need to go safely and easily.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” she replies cheerfully. “It gets us everywhere we need to go. Can you turn on ‘Sunflower’?”
And I have to explain to her for the millionth time that my car only has an AM-FM radio, and I can’t control the songs on the radio, and then she’s singing “Sunflower” over my explanation.
I drop her off, and to get back into the car I have to open the passenger-side door and clamber across because the handle on the driver’s side fell off weeks ago.
And then I drive myself and the car off of a cliff.