My kids were looking through a Lands’ End catalogue the other day. They were circling beach towels they wanted. They were asking about water shoes, rash guards, and bathing suits. Each of my three kids put their initials next to the many items they wanted.
“Can we get these please, Mama?” I glanced at the boardshorts my son was pointing to and panicked. My anxiety skyrocketed in a matter of seconds. My breathing changed. I wasn’t stressed about the cost of buying three kids new summer gear—I already know they’re not getting all of the things they bookmarked. This fear was about me. If my kids were ready to pick out and put on new bathing suits, that meant I would have to put one on soon too.
I am all about body positivity and embracing our bodies where they are. I encourage this for my kids, my friends, and strangers. I don’t judge others for what they choose to wear to the pool or beach. I don’t believe in phrases like “beach body” or “bikini body.” All bodies belong on the beach and all body shapes and sizes can wear a bikini. The sentiment behind telling people, women especially, to just put on the suit is a nice one, but it just doesn’t work for some of us.
Of course, no one should give a fuck what another person looks like or chooses to wear to the pool, and there is a lot of freedom in letting go of what may seem like superficial insecurities.
But it’s impossible to find freedom when you feel trapped in your own body. My fear of bathing suits is not just about weight and how I look–it’s about crippling body dysphoria. I am not at home in my body. And my discomfort is always present and ranges from agitation to severe depression.
I am a nonbinary person. I have female body parts but don’t identify as female. I don’t identify as male either, but I present myself in a masculine way in terms of hair, clothing, and yes, swimsuits. My breasts complicate things when it comes to a day in the water. They complicate things on all of the other days too. I hate my breasts, and when I can afford it, I will have surgery to remove them. I don’t love the curves of my hips either, but boobs are obviously feminine features and convince others (when they are not sure of my gender) that I am a woman. I’m not.
I wear men’s clothing and find ways to hide or minimize my breasts. But I can’t just buy a men’s bathing suit and call it done. I wear boardshorts, but I need something to wear on the top part of my body—the public watering holes insist. Women’s bathing suits may be made for “women’s” bodies, but these suits add to my dysphoria. I try not to let my body parts define me, but bathing suits are one of the places where I am very much forced into the binary. The last thing I want to do is wear something that is made to cover, yet not support or hide the things it is covering.
I used to wear sports bras to swim in and sometimes a T-shirt too. But thankfully there are now a few companies that sell suits for people with female body parts who don’t wear suits marketed to women. There are enough butch women, transgender men, and nonbinary folks who want and need more options than bikini tops, tankinis, or full suits that there is a market for alternative and more inclusive swimwear.
I wear a compression top—think tight sleeveless T-shirt—with my boardshorts. And while this is my most comfortable option and I am thankful for these alternative companies, I am still miserable and can’t afford to buy more than one top. Alternative often means expensive.
Alternative usually means outlier too. It’s one thing to be the mom in men’s clothing at the school board meeting. It’s another to be at the public pool. I stand out even more because I am not wearing what females are “supposed” to wear, yet I need to cover up the female parts that alert everyone to the fact that I have female parts.
And the compression top that keeps my boobs in check isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world either. Yes, it is specifically made to be swimwear, but it’s thick and hard to get on and off. It takes a while to dry and feels heavy on really hot days.
Being nonbinary is something I am proud of, but people’s perception of me, my gender, and how they think I should identify magnifies the fact that I don’t feel like I belong in most places. I already don’t belong in this body. Some clothing helps, but the idea of putting on a bathing suit does not bring me the same joy my children feel while flipping through the summer catalogue.
Putting on a bathing suit is really fucking hard. It is talking myself into it. It is convincing myself that everyone isn’t staring. It is telling myself I have every right to be exactly who I am, even if it means being a hybrid gender wearing a hybrid bathing suit. I can’t just put on the bathing suit. I have to plan, prepare, and then find ways to take care of myself after spending hours in a heightened state of discomfort.