I love to swim, but it’s been a long time since I’ve actually gone swimming.
The last time, I was in a sparsely occupied pool, on a girls-only vacation with my closest friend. This is a friend who actually watched me give birth. I’m fairly certain that after seeing my mutilated vag, she wouldn’t bat an eye at some cellulite. Even so, I kept my cover-up on until the last possible second, stepping into the pool until the water covered my hips and then lifting it the rest of the way off.
Fast-forward a few years, and here I am at a water park with my husband and four kids. It’s the perfect summer scenario: abundant sunshine, a balmy breeze, the smell of chlorine and coconut. All around me are the excited squeals of children, and their vigorous splashes send an occasional cool mist spritzing through the heat.
And here I am, watching all of it go on around me through tears, writing this sad, self-pitying soliloquy on my phone instead. Held virtual prisoner in my lounge chair by some bullshit sense of vanity or pride or whatever it is that keeps me back.
Because to me, putting on a swimsuit in public ranks right up there with giving an impromptu speech to a packed stadium: The mere thought nauseates me. As exposed as I feel, I may as well strut around naked with a glaring spotlight following my every move, people snickering at each dimple and stripe.
You don’t have to tell me it’s stupid. I already know it. I know, realistically, that nobody (but me) gives a shit.
I know how utterly ridiculous it is, and that just makes it worse — because as I sit here missing it all, the same scathing voice in my head that tells me I’m gross in a swimsuit is chiming in on this as well, slathering on a topcoat of Mom Guilt. You’re so superficial, it whispers. You can’t even put your own comfort aside to enjoy this moment with your family. Get over yourself. But as much as my logical side struggles to gain headway, it’s my broken self-esteem that wins the argument every time.
Why? How can something so battered and fragile always be the strongest force?
I’ve had four children, gestated and nursed them, spent a span of a decade when my body didn’t fully belong to me. When they didn’t need it any more, they returned it, a beaten-down, stretched-out version of its old self. It carried excess weight; but when I lost that, it carried excess skin. Skin that is drooping, sagging, tattooed with purple and white stretch marks, a roadmap of broken veins — like my “real” body has been draped in a fold of saggy flesh.
I grieved for the me I once knew, the firmer, flatter form I took so sorely for granted. It was gone, my confidence with it, and I never realized I should love it while it was here, and I was mourning. Still am, I guess, even years later, because how else am I supposed to explain why I’m sitting here sweating buckets in my tank top and workout pants at a water park?
I look around me at the variety of bodies. There really are all kinds. I see some with toned, muscular figures and surgically enhanced figures and sensual, curvy figures. Some with wrinkles and rolls and extra skin. I don’t know who I’m more jealous of: the women who have those perfect, enviable bodies, or the women who don’t care and enjoy themselves anyway. But I don’t fit into either category, suspended instead in some body-image no man’s land.
A large part of me just wants to slap some sense into myself. I’m healthy. I work out regularly, and beneath this skin that I hate are strong, capable muscles that I love. And also inhabiting this body is a brain that warns me, wisely and incessantly: You didn’t love your body before, and you should have. Love it now before it changes again. You’ll miss this. I back this up by reading body-positive articles and watching inspirational speeches from super-confident women who don’t fit society’s unrealistic beauty standards and don’t give a damn.
I try to convince myself with these affirmations, over and over: Your stretch marks are badges of honor! Your body is amazing — it has given new life! Its accomplishments should be celebrated! But if I had a dollar for every time I said these things to myself, you know what I’d do with all the money?
I’d get plastic surgery to change the things I despise. Because I’m a liar, and I have all the love-yourself faux-confidence in the world until you ask me to prove it by putting on a bathing suit and enjoying our family vacation at the water park.
I’m not sure how I can be so okay with myself when my clothes are on, yet be the complete opposite when it comes to an act as simple as swimming with my family. How many of other people’s body-image epiphanies will I need to read, how many motivational speakers will I need to hear, how many therapists will I need to see, what the hell is it gonna take to love — or at least accept — myself exactly the way I am?
These moments with my kids are fleeting, and I know it. From the bottom of my heart, I know it. You don’t need to tell me that I’m missing out because I already freaking know and it is killing me right now.
Yet here I sit in my clothes under the sweltering sun, watching them go.