There’s a photo of me in an adorable yellow bikini. My platinum blonde locks glisten in the sunlight, perfectly contrasting my golden tan. I’m posing poolside with a radiant smile and sparkling green eyes.
I was two.
The pool was of the plastic wading variety.
The year was 1976; before scleroderema desolated my body.
That cute bikini-wearing toddler had no idea that eight years later, a rare autoimmune disease would drag her through an unwelcome physical metamorphosis. The little girl in the snapshot has smooth elastic skin, free from red splotchy broken capillaries (telangiectasia) cascading down her back, sprinkling her face, and scattered across her limbs. Her arms, legs, and fingers fully extend without contractures. She looks “normal.”
The young smiling child can’t know that in 29 summers, she’ll barely escape the jaws of death. Nine major surgeries will leave sprawling scars across her midsection and a super sexy ostomy bag will permanently dangle from her stomach. She doesn’t know that she’ll never own another bikini and phrases like “Beach Body Ready” will make her want to catch a flight to Antarctica.
I’ve invested over 35 years waging a personal war against swimwear. Most of my youth and young adulthood was spent steering clear of beaches and pools like a politician avoids the truth. Only my mommy obligations resulted in an occasional cease-fire. Motherhood caused my disdain for donning swimsuits to be overruled by my desire to actively participate in my children’s lives. When my kids were little, I splashed in the pool with them, rode down water slides, vacationed (I use that term loosely) at water parks, and hauled them to the beach. Despite my disabled body and ostomy bag, I tugged on my one-piece suit, swim shorts and shirt for the sake of my son and daughter. Fulfilling my mom duties was the only exception I ever made to my bathing suit boycott.
My self-inflicted beachwear ban suited me just fine until a week ago. To celebrate 20 years of marriage, my husband and I went on a kid-free cruise to The Bahamas. Why would a swimsuit hater like me willingly head to The Bahamas in July? The truth is, once I’m there, I enjoy the beach. I love walking in the sand, hearing the lulling waves of the ocean, and relaxing with a good book in a lounge chair. I’m also stubborn as hell and refuse to allow my disabilities and altered appearance to further limit my life experiences. Clinging to that mentality motivated me to do the impossible; find a bathing suit that I would wear in public.
A woman on a mission, I scoured the internet searching for beachwear. After an exhaustive search, I hesitantly selected a quarter-length sleeved black swim shirt and a matching swim skirt from a site that caters to women who dress modestly for religious reasons. I’m not their target demographic, but it suited my needs. With the tags still on, I stared in front of my bedroom mirror while wearing my new purchase. All I saw were my perceived flaws. My skinny chicken legs looked ridiculous beneath the swim skirt and were a sharp contrast to my oversized belly bulging from the swim shirt. I was sure my ostomy bag could be detected a mile away underneath the thin lycra. Despite the quarter-length sleeves, my arms still resembled broken twigs…
A few days later, I caught a glimpse of that same reflection as we descended the cruise ship and headed toward a breath-taking beach along the Atlantic Ocean. Fueled by desire to overcome self-loathing tendencies and embrace the beauty of the day, I dared myself to avoid mirrors for the rest of the excursion. Once on the beach, focusing on the splendor of my surroundings rather than my shortcomings was simple.
Soon, my body was submerged in the warm, salty, water of the Atlantic. I looked around and saw hundreds of other vacationers representing a beautiful array of ethnicities, cultures, languages, shapes, and sizes. Very few of us fit the media depiction of “beach body ready.” Yet, there we all were, with our bodies at the beach.
The waves washed over me as did a realization; 13 years ago, I was lying in the Intensive Care Unit, delirious, temporarily paralyzed, unable to speak, eat, or breathe without medical machinery. A cocktail of gratitude and disgust rippled through me. I felt beyond grateful to have survived a near-death ordeal and be celebrating my 20th anniversary with the love of my life on a dream vacation. My renewed gratitude splintered into disgust as my mind unleashed an internal scolding…
Lisa — Get over yourself! You’re floating in paradise worrying about what other people may be thinking of your weird body and bizarre bathing suit.
News flash: you’re not that important!
Nobody is staring at you because they’re too busy having a good time. Your body isn’t detracting from their fun, so why should it detract from yours? Your arms may be skinny and contracted, but they’re the same arms that once couldn’t lift a toothbrush, and now splash in the sea. Your legs may resemble toothpicks, but they’re the same legs that doctors predicted would never walk again and now have carried you on this exquisite journey. Your midsection may rival Homer Simpson’s, but it’s the same one that survived nine abdominal surgeries, was torn open and hemorrhaged, and now bears a roadmap of scars signifying resilience. Your lips may be thin, but they are the same lips that remained unable to accept food or water for months and now can taste the salty ocean droplets…
It only took me 35 years, one dip in the Atlantic, and a hefty dose of self-acceptance to reach a fragile truce with bathing suits. I will never again be that cute care-free girl in the bright yellow bikini. But I can channel a sliver of her confident innocence and bring her with me to the beach.