As I mentioned yesterday, I spent last week at the beach. I grew up in a tiny beach town, and nothing could be more beautiful or perfect for me than the ocean. Sun, sand, salty-air, an entirely unstructured day. There is, of course, one dark shadow looming over the beach for most adult women–bathing suits. I largely stopped wearing two-piece bathing suits late in elementary school. The site of my shame has shifted over the years: My thighs in pre-teen years because of the confusing stretch mark, my breasts, large and victim to gravity in middle school, (I was almost 30 before I discovered bathing suits with underwire and bra-sizing. Get on that shit, people.) and later of course my belly.
When I got married, I wanted to take the upper hand on the cruel narratives playing on loop in my head. (My family calls these “old tapes,” an adorably out-dated turn of phrase, sure to confuse the young millennials.) Wearing a bikini at our pre-wedding cookout and the honeymoon–events centered around people loving me!–seemed like the ultimate safe spaces to tackle on these shitty narratives. So I rocked and (mostly) loved being plump in a bikini.
Eighteen months later, heavier, those two-piece suits felt more like a taunt. Wearing my bikinis felt impossible–gross. And wearing my one-piece felt like acknowledging my own failure–like a scarlet letter of gluttony and laziness. But some small part of myself knew that was bullshit, an old tape.
Fuck it, I thought. I’m wearing the bikini.
And so I did. Those first few days were fraught with insecurities and over-thinking and a few misplaced tears when my husband compliment my one-piece. (You mean you hate my bikini?!) And so I started writing a post in my head about the pressures of having a “bikini body,” the double standards for men and women, the pervasiveness of perfectionism, and the messed up ways that perfectionism prevents us from experiencing things–like a care-free day at the beach.
But an interesting thing happened. Day after day I lathered on sunscreen and pulled on my bathing suit, sometimes a one-piece and sometimes bikini, and gradually the post in my head started to grow stale. I still felt vulnerable with an exposed belly, nervous as a plus-size woman in a bathing suit. Who was I to jiggle and take up so much space at the beach? But the fierce narrative about the bullshit surrounding women’s bodies and bathing suits? Bit by bit, it somehow felt less raw.
I was still trying to find a way to speak to my experience throughout the week when I stumbled on a quiet passage in Yoga and Body Image that tore me open. In this book, Kate McIntyre Clere writes a moving essay about navigating the baggage we all carry about our bodies, and the desire to carve out a healthy and happy space for her young daughter. Contemplating a beach day with her daughter, Miro, she summarizes a possible conversation:
I am not feeling great about my body this morning. I don’t feel so great about wearing a bikini today. You know, Miro, sometimes my mind really believes these thoughts and it makes me feel really bad. So then I have to say to myself, it’s okay. Bodies change shape all the time. I’ve got a choice and I’m not going to let these thoughts ruin my day at the beach. Let’s go and enjoy ourselves!
Upon reading this passage, I started scribbling in the margins frantically. What if you could acknowledge the pain of living in an body, a body that may never be officially “good enough,” but still go on to love your day at the beach?
Sometimes, in an effort to confront negative body image messaging, it can easily feel like we’re left with two options: love your body or hate your body. And so we tell ourselves we will love our bodies–once they are perfect and we no longer hate them.
But what if there was a middle way? What would happen if we acknowledge the moments or the days that we struggled to love our bodies? What if we said to ourselves: I know this is hard right now, but there’s a whole world out there to enjoy and, fuck it, I’m going to enjoy it?
Wearing bathing suits for eight days straight was at times intense. It started off raw, sometimes painful. But gradually, somewhat unconsciously, I found my way to a truce. I know I don’t want to hate this body, but I don’t know if I can yet love it the way I want to. But what if I embrace this in-between–to neither love nor hate this body, but let both co-exist? And to let myself be in the midst of this messy soup of feelings and fears and joy. This new kind of vulnerability didn’t necessarily come easily in Mexico, but gradually the allure of a pleasant day at the beach overpowered the old tapes playing in my head. And the scales tipped–in my favor.