Last summer, I finally relented and agreed to buy my daughter, then 8 years old, a two-piece swimsuit. She had been begging for one since she was old enough to express an opinion, which means since she could talk.
That’s not exactly true. When she was younger, she wants the ruffliest, most blinged-out swimsuits she could find. You know, the kind completely and totally unsuitable for swimming. The kind that look cute but are completely impractical if you wanted to actually swim; those ruffles and sparkles, when wet, weigh a ton and limit your range of motion. So, I said no, and insisted on the most practical, swimming-enabling suit I could convince her to wear. Often, it still had a lot of sparkle.
My issue with getting her a two-piece were the same: I wanted her to have swimsuits that allowed her the full range of movement and activity when it came to being at the pool or the beach, and most two-pieces just didn’t cut it. And, most suits that were appropriate were way more money than I was willing to spend.
I just used the word “appropriate.” I don’t really like using it to talk about buying my daughter a two-piece because the default assumption on what I mean by the word are things like “modesty” or even “age-appropriate.” I thought, and still think, that it’s appropriate for my then 8-year-old to feel good enough in her own skin that she wants to wear a two-piece. I want her to feel confident, comfortable, and, above-all, like she can do all the things she wants to do in the water.
We settled on a neon-floral print tank-style two-piece. Thick straps, minimal ruffles, solid fit. She wore it out. And I decided I had to buy my own two-piece.
Growing up, for a long time, I didn’t have issues with my body. I swam and I was good at it and my body was the thing that made me a good swimmer. It’s not that people didn’t try; one time in elementary school, I was told that I was going to have ugly broad shoulder from swimming, and at a school where the most popular girls with ballerinas and figure skaters, this was the worst insult they could find for me, the weird, slightly smelly, girl who swam.
No, it wasn’t until the equivalent of middle-school that I finally was burdened with the knowledge that my body was not my own to love. Standing in the bathroom with some friends, we were taking turns listing all of the things they would change about themselves (read: their bodies). Except, when it was my turn, I said that I was pretty happy with myself and wouldn’t change anything. They all turned and stared at me, in stunned silence, before one of them finally spat out, “Well, that’s the most arrogant thing I’ve ever heard,” and then they all rolled their eyes at me and walked out, leaving me, and my “arrogance,” behind.
But I never, ever felt uncomfortable or self-conscious in a swimsuit. Pool parties or class trips to pools or water parks were a brief reprieve for me from usual tween and then teen anxieties. Years of swimming (and years of being exclusively in a swimsuit) made it easy for me to walk around in front of everyone in a small layer of Spandex. And while I understood my friends who were more self-conscious in their suits, I didn’t understand the ones who just sat around in their bikinis, somewhere between mortified and bored.
In a lot of ways it was easier to be in a swimsuit around my friends and classmates, rather than other swimmers at swim meets. As I aged, and puberty hit, my body no longer looked like a “swimmer’s” body. There were two basic types for girls: tall and skinny as rails – lean and mean and sinuous, or broad and built – large and hard and thickness. I was curvy and (even worse) chesty. There were so many fat deposits on my body I could never get rid of. I felt betrayed by my body.
My body continues to betray me. I stepped on the scale this week, and it was official: 30 pounds overweight. I haven’t been this heavy since immediately after my son was born. I was doing ok with my weight, surviving the job transition and living without my family, the move, the holidays, but it couldn’t endure a major depressive episode. I slid, and the weight piled on.
My body will continue to betray me. If the research wasn’t depressing enough, my genetics will ensure that I won’t ever be thinner or lighter, at least not without the kind of effort that would encompass my life in a way that would be as destructive as the depression. I look exactly like my grandmother and my aunt, from our faces to our coloring to our body types. I look at my face and see theirs, I look at my body and I see theirs. It is too much.
It is terrible to say, but if I am grateful for anything, it’s that my kids both got the genetics of my mother and my brother; my son is in the second percentile for weight despite eating nothing by cheese and bread, with some bananas thrown in for good measure, while my daughter, the ballerina, can out-eat everyone in our house and keep the shape needed to get anywhere in her chose activity.
But I also know that this doesn’t guarantee any less stress when it comes to body issues for my kids as they grow up, as they age. I work hard to make sure my kids have a healthy relationship with food. No being made to feel guilty about seconds (or thirds), no insisting they clean their plates either. Eat until you are full, eat good foods to fuel you, eat delicious foods to feed you, don’t deny yourself the pleasure of the foods you like. Listen to your body. No being made to feel self-conscious about how their bodies are shaped, formed, or looking. Embracing that all bodies are good bodies, capable of many different things.
Which means practicing what I preach. No more talks of diets, or calorie counting, or working out to lose weight. Dad runs to help his blood pressure, Mom does yoga to get strong again. We make better choices about snacks and meals, because our bodies need different fuels, and some fuels are better than others. I try so hard not to show how much it hurts me when a dress doesn’t look right anymore, or I can’t get pants done up. I try to hide the pain and the shame I feel when I look at myself in the mirror and wish I could change my body, melt away all of the extra fat around my middle, which keeps expanding and stretching.
The first time I ever wore a two-piece, it was when I went away to Florida for training camp with my college swim team. I didn’t have one, and I was the only girl on the team without one. I bought one when I got there, wearing it the entire time. I was the only one who didn’t have a bikini to change into when not training.
It was my Freshman year, my first time living away from home, and I wasn’t fitting in on the swim team. My schedule had me in class during practice just about every day, and I no longer had the motivation to get up and do morning workouts. I didn’t really get along with any of the other girls on the team, and I was acutely feeling how mediocre a swimmer I really was. I had been sick, as well, off and on, the entire semester thus far, due to taking poor care of myself.
But there is a picture of me, at the end of the camp, with my training group. I’m standing in front of the four guys, hands on my hips, tanned, hair bleached light from the sun and salt water, smiling. And, there, where I had never noticed them, were four clearly delineated ab muscles. I had abs. I had never noticed my abs, too embarrassed about my gut to ever show that part of my body.
I quit the team soon afterwards, unable to find the motivation to keep swimming. That summer, my last one lifeguarding, we had the choice of purchasing a two-piece alongside the usual one-piece Speedo we would always get as a part of our uniform. I got one, but I was freshly embarrassed of my post-swimming, Freshman-weight-gain body. I didn’t know how bad it would get, weight-gain wise, for me.
When I decided last summer that I would get a two-piece, I didn’t realize how complicated a process that would be. But then again, I should have; shopping for jeans has long been a fraught and complicated affair. Why would getting a two-piece be any different?
I didn’t want to just go with a straight up Speedo-style two-piece. For one thing, the style now was thin straps, and thin straps just weren’t going to offer enough support. Because, I had suits for real swimming. I wanted a suit for hanging out at the pool or beach with the kids not doing much more than ensuring they don’t drown.
So many of the suits, as well, are modeled and marketed for women much thinner and…flatter than I am, making it almost impossible to see if the suit would provide enough coverage (those lovely stretch marks my son gifted me) and support. And, because I started mid-summer, many of the styles I was interested in were already sold out in my size.
My size. This was also a bit of a challenge. Not quite plus-sized, but just outside of the size-range of many traditional brands. It’s fabulously frustrating. It’s also why I own many, many dresses from a small handful of brands and designers that actually make a size that fits me well. I mean, for now.
I took to Twitter (as I do for most things), to try and find little-known or boutique brands. The Canadian small label Nettle’s Tale was suggested to me, and I immediately knew that these were suits I would wear, but also a business I wanted to support. The women in the promotions are of all shapes and sizes, ages and races, wearing the same suit, to show how it looks on all types of bodies. They have honest sizing that is easy to understand, and recommendations for different suits for different body types.
I now own the equivalent of five of their suits, including a lovely one-piece.
I live-tweeted the whole ordeal of finding the suit, and so I also quasi-live-tweeted the wearing of said two-piece suits to the pool. They were jokey, largely: “Wore my two-piece today at the pool. No one died. Apocalypse averted for another day!” One day, a girls, maybe 11 or 12 shyly came up to me to compliment me on my suit, telling me it as pretty.
Maybe it was the way I carried myself that summer – fresh off of four months of yoga, where I could now do a push-up for the first time in forever, and was feeling stronger in my body than I had in a long time – that made it so easy to wear that two-piece. Even when my mom turned her nose up at the suit when I took it out of the box to show her. You’re going to wear that, she asked? And as I wore it, she kept subtly giving me a hard time about it.
Never mind that she used to always wear a two-piece when I was growing up. I have a picture of her in one, from a vacation, where is is probably the same age as I am now. It was ok for her to wear a two-piece, the message was then, and it still was today, because she had the right body for a two-piece. She no longer did. I never had, and certainly did not now. But last summer, it didn’t matte to me.
This summer, it’s a different story.
We went to the beach yesterday. I put on one of the two-piece suits, but all I wanted to do was hide under a giant cover-up. But I love the beach, and I spent a lot of money on these suits, so I was going to wear the suits, to the beach, and I was going to smile and sit in the sun and splash in the water and enjoy the time with my family, even if I wanted to hide away and never come out so that no one ever had to see my body.
Of course, no one care. No one gave me a second look. And, there were so many different sizes and shaped bodies wearing all kinds of suits. The beaches closest to where we live right now are distinctly working class. And I realized how much class has shaped my view of whether or not it was ok for me to wear a two-piece based on my body.
There was always an implicit (and sometimes explicit) message about the kinds of women who would wear a two-piece “when clearly they shouldn’t.” That they were low-class, with all that that implies. Growing up, that was also wrapped up with the issues of language, with low-class Québécois being seen as less-than for wearing two-pieces. I realized I wasn’t just ashamed of my body, but ashamed of how I might be perceived as low-class. Low-class because I am clearly unhealthy. Low-class because I should know better. Low-class because it looks trashy. Low-class because it looks like I’m lazy and don’t care. There are rules about bodies, beach bodies, and I wasn’t following them. Only low-class people don’t follow the rules.
This particularly weight – the weight of my upbringing, my biases, my perceptions, my deep-seeded need to be seen in a certain way – is far heavier than the extra 30lbs or so I’m carrying on my body. This weight, these expectations, so deeply ingrained from being alive in this body in this world for almost 39 years, is even more difficulty to lose, to shed. No diet, no exercise plan, no disciplined regime will rid me of this weight. That is the weight I see and loath when I look in the mirror.
It became more important than ever, for me, to show my kids that it was ok to wear whatever kind of swim suit that they wanted, to be comfortable in their own skins. That my body hadn’t, in fact, failed me. I am working so that they don’t have that extra weight of what society wants them to think about their bodies, policing their bodies and their attitudes towards their bodies.
And so I wear my two-piece. I walk around in my two-piece. I swim in my two-piece. No one died. Least of all me.