If my body in a swimsuit offends my fellow beachgoers, screw ’em.
The constant reminders that there are ONLY THREE MONTHS LEFT before bikini season reminds me of last summer when I was packing for a trip to the beach. I was a little worried about the effect my un-toned body would have on fellow beachgoers. Why had I left this until three days before the trip? I should have been working out way more strenuously. Now people just trying to enjoy the beach were going to be grossed out and annoyed by me. I thought my body might ruin their vacation fun.
I wondered if it was possible to lose 30 pounds in three days. No, clearly impossible. I should have started the previous February. Could I at least make my waistline several inches smaller then? Or my ass less puckery?
My brain was racing down this line of thought for some time before I took stock of how odd it was. I was literally concerned about people on the beach being bummed out by the sight of my body. It wasn’t so much vanity as a fear of being thought selfish and rude for bringing my ordinary body to the beach and exposing it in a swimsuit.
I felt a perverse delight at this manifestation of weirdness within myself, like when you discover an ingrown hair and can’t wait to get to work digging it out.
So I started to excavate.
First, I reasoned, people at the beach were not going to care about me and my body. They would be swimming and boogie-boarding and building sandcastles and reading magazines and mystery novels and getting sand in their sandwiches.
Second, I told myself, if they were grossed out by my body then, you know, f**k ‘em. Why on earth should I care about the fragile sensibilities of people who were being judgmental dicks?
And third, I had to remind myself, my body was not gross. It was beautiful and useful and it brought me joy. Sure, not 24/7 joy—sometimes it annoyed and betrayed me, but I loved it when I was dancing or swimming or cuddling my kids or having sexytimes with my guy.
That these three points were not already ingrained within me, and instead required a deliberate and self-conscious recitation, will not surprise many women. That my first idle thoughts, colored by body-hatred, were of concern for the way other people would be affected by my appearance should also seem familiar.
When I told a friend, she laughed because she had had a similar experience. Though she had saved for some years to take her family on a vacation to Hawaii, she had also been pondering, before coming to her senses, not going swimming—ON A TROPICAL BEACH VACATION THAT SHE HAD SAVED HER HARD-EARNED SHECKELS FOR—because she felt her body was too objectionable.
We cackled together at the ludicrousness of this kind of self-loathing. But we also laughed because it is necessary to possess hilarity and grit to not go crazy in a culture that demands that girls and women think constantly of their appearance.
I don’t really care that it’s a cliché to hope my daughter will grow up to live in a better world. That is what I want. I want for it never to occur to her to deprive herself of a day at the beach out of concern for other people’s “feelings.”
Sometimes, I wonder whether the world is improving. Recently, reading aloud with her an otherwise sweet storybook about bunny detectives and their encounter with a human girl, I had to repeatedly skip over the string of jokes and comments about the girl’s “bottom,” which was described as “very large,” “enormous,” and “humungous.”
I don’t need for my 6-year-old to start a running loop in her head about the size and shape of her body, or anyone else’s for that matter. I shouldn’t have to stay alert for these body-shaming messages coming at us rapid-fire from the most innocuous-seeming sources.
One heartening sign, however, is a recent ass-kicking video produced by the “This Girl Can” campaign, which aims to get more girls and women involved in sports. The antithesis of encouragements to self-loathing, its rapturous portrayal of women’s bodies in action gave me goosebumps.
The video features women aglow in the jiggly, sweaty ecstasy of movement. Swimming, dancing, running, boxing, kicking balls, they are each doing their thing, absorbed in the moment, hearts pounding, muscles throbbing. “Damn,” I thought, “these women are beautiful.” And then I realized, “Hey, I look like that.”
That I sometimes need help seeing that beauty, and not just skipping over it while my eyes are drawn to the glossy images on magazines; that I need to stop myself from engaging in idle self-loathing is not something I will beat myself up about. It is not an exaggeration to say that I, like most adult women, grew up programmed to see our bodies as objects for others to look at, rather than the subjects of our own movement and activity. It will take some counter-programming to undo that indoctrination.
So many comments responding to the “This Girl Can” video on YouTube display that blithe ignorance about the culture women grow up in, asking, in tones alternately bewildered or aggressive, why such a statement of empowerment is necessary. This line of thinking is soaked with that same misogynistic hatred of women’s ownership and enjoyment of their own bodies that the video is attempting to undo.
Even feminist men may not understand why such messages of empowerment are so necessary. When I told my significant other what I’d been thinking while packing for the beach, he looked at me in shock. His surprise seemed mixed with sadness. I couldn’t tell if he was wondering how messed-up and neurotic I am in particular, or whether he realized this was a kind of universal aspect of growing up a girl in this culture. Whatever the case, I could tell it was something that he hadn’t experienced.
My guy has almost no vanity, and he doesn’t compare himself to teenage celebrities and GQ models. He doesn’t measure the gap between his looks and what he sees on television the way I do my own (without even meaning to or sometimes even realizing that I am). His body is beautiful and attractive to me (as he tells me that mine is to him), and that is enough for him. That there are younger and fitter bodies on the beach is both obvious and irrelevant to him.
That’s what I want for myself, for our daughter, for all women: to be able to enjoy our bodies, in movement and at rest, in ecstasy and in stillness, without giving a fuck about what other people think.
Look out beach, here I come.
Laurence Dumortier is finishing a PhD in English at UC Riverside with a focus on gender and sexuality. Her short stories have appeared in One Story as well as smaller magazines. She’s at work on her first novel set in the early 1960s in California.