How I Finally Learned To Accept Myself At The Walmart Self-Checkout

by Caroline McGraw
Originally Published: 
A woman carrying a red shopping basket filled with groceries to the Walmart self-checkout

So I was at a Walmart in Alabama, doing my best not to be a Jersey girl. That is, I was trying not to rush and dash and move at twice the speed of other shoppers.

Every checkout line was long, so I headed to self-checkout. My pragmatic husband loves self-checkout: The efficiency! The autonomy! The lack of interaction! I would rather go to a cashier, though. I like cashiers. They’re people, which means they’re like family.

Self-checkout and I…we just don’t get along. I try to be careful, but I always set off the threatening red light. Then I get flustered, because I feel like I’m in trouble.

In trouble is the kiss of death for me. Here’s my rap sheet: A-student, team captain, president, honors graduate and rampant perfectionist. You’d think I’d be able to handle self-checkout. But no. The harder I try, the worse it gets.

Once, I scanned a bottle of wine and the machine went off. I was paralyzed. What had I done? Am I under 21? No…Willie is 25…ergo, I must be 27. That was the day I learned that you cannot buy alcohol in our county on Sundays.

This time, self-checkout is—dare I say—going well. But then the machine says, “There is an unauthorized item in the bagging area.”

“What?” I say. “There’s no unauthorized item! No wine! This isn’t even a Sunday!” My hands are on my hips. I am talking back. Then I see it: a tube of Dora the Explorer toothpaste—not mine—jammed in the corner.

Exasperated, I push the tube to the floor. I try to keep scanning, but the machine sees this as an act of aggression: “Please wait for assistance.”

“I do not want to wait!” I exclaim. I wave my hands, because I’m part Italian and I can’t not wave my hands. “I didn’t do anything wrong!” I feel injustice in the pit of my stomach. This machine is insane, and it wants me to go along with the insanity, but I refuse. I have had enough.

I’m not really arguing with the machine, though. I’m arguing with all the contradictory messages I’ve ever received in my life.

You’ve heard them too, I bet: Be perfect, but be real. Don’t get noticed, but shine. Tell your truth, but not when it might be poorly received.

I cajole the machine into scanning the rest of my items, but then there’s the coupon. “Drop coupon in slot,” the machine says. I obey, but then I see a written notice that says not to drop coupons, because they must be approved by a cashier.

The red light goes off. Despite my best efforts, I’m still in trouble! The machine still doesn’t approve. I nearly cry. But instead, something remarkable happens: I smile. I laugh. All at once, I am free from the tyranny of trying too hard.

You see, I can’t win. Not with the self-checkout, not with the people-pleasing, not with any of it. And what do you do when you realize you’re playing a game you can’t win? You surrender.

This ridiculous machine has given me a beautiful gift: clarity. I see the futility of trying to earn self-acceptance. I can’t. I can’t! It’s so wonderful to fail, because now I can stop running. I can find what’s been here all along.

The clerk comes over. “Did you drop a coupon in the slot?” she says, a note of accusation in her voice.

“Yes. Yes, I did,” I say, peacefully. She’s just doing her job, after all. I don’t have to internalize her tone. I can relax and take the pressure off. I can be free. Once we resolve the matter, I carry my groceries out.

The sky above has never seemed so wide open.

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