Summer = swimming. That’s the equation that could sum up most of my childhood summer vacations. Whether splashing around in my backyard above-ground pool with my friends, zipping down a water slide, or diving into one of my province’s bounty of lakes, all I wanted every day, all day, was to swim.
My dad adored the water as much as I did, so did my sister. In fact, I learned to swim underwater by riding on their backs when I was little. Together, we’d dive under and hold our breath in harmony. It was like riding a dolphin and I would surface laughing and demanding more.
The only member of our family quartet that did not swim was my mom. Not that she couldn’t swim or didn’t want to swim—I know Mom loved the water. The reason comes down to one small factor: a bathing suit.
As long as I can remember my mother struggled with her weight. Fad diets came and went but the extra pounds stayed on. It didn’t matter to young me. I loved my big squishy mom.
But while I didn’t care how she looked, I did care that Mom wasn’t able to play with me like Dad would. Nowhere was her lack of participation most noticed and missed than in the water. I wanted Mom to swim with me. With us. I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t just throw on a bathing suit and come in.
Fast forward a few years…
I don’t recall the exact day a bathing suit ceased to be another article of clothing and changed into The Thing By Which My Body Will Be Judged. I do know that even after I had “filled out”, it would be a few more years before I equated a bathing suit or bikini with sexuality. A bikini, even to my thirteen year old self, was merely a means by which to tan the most square inches of skin while playing in the water.
And then it happened.
My bathing attire became a measuring stick. Are my breasts big enough? Is my butt small enough? Is my tummy flat enough? Are my legs long and thin enough? How do I compare to all the other female bodies next to me?
I was lucky that my genetics kept me thin but I was painfully aware of how much I lacked in my upper quadrant. Other girl’s breasts spilled out of the triangles of their bikini tops, endowing them with feminine charms. My breasts fit inside those triangles with room to spare. This didn’t keep me out of the water but it tainted the joy of the beach and swimming—this knowledge that I was meat on display and not measuring up.
It took me almost two decades to get past that feeling of being judged and return to an unspoiled state of water-love. I resent every single second I spent caring about what other people (men) thought about my curves or lack thereof. And it breaks my heart when I hear women talk about the pain of Bathing Suit Season. I want to grab them and shout, “WHO CARES? JUST GO SWIMMING!”
Prez and I have lived in several tropical locales. In these places, in the sweltering heat of summer, anything more than naked was too many clothes. I’ve lived in a bikini for months at a time. I spent so much time this way that I stopped wondering or worrying about how I looked. All I wanted was something I could wear in and out of the water, since swimming and snorkeling were the keys to sanity.
During that time, I also saw hundreds and hundreds of people in their own bathing attire. With a few notable exceptions (a German septuagenarian in a far-too-tight Speedo and a sun worshiper who spent hours with his Speedo tugged down just enough to tan that all important butt crack zone), I stopped noticing bathing-suited bodies at all.
I’m going to tell you a secret I learned from those tropical experiences.
Here is the secret: No matter what size you are, no matter what shape, tanned or pale, old or young, man, woman, child, you are never more beautiful than when you are immersed in the bliss that is water.
Back in the days when I trained at the upstairs gym at the Canada Games Pool, my workouts frequently coincided with the infant swim session. I loved running on the treadmill and looking down on those babies swimming as naturally as if they were still in the womb. All life came from the water; the connection is primal and instinctive. Humans are meant to swim and anything that prevents or diminishes our comfort in water should be looked upon with suspicion, at the very least.
Two nights ago, riding a spin bike at the community center, I looked down on a different group of swimmers. The local synchronized swim team was practicing their moves. My eyes were drawn to one young woman. She was heavier than the rest, not the svelte image you’d associate with a synchronized swimmer. But in the water she was the picture of grace, gliding through the liquid with ease. In every leap and dive, you could see her love shine through.
I wish my mom had known that feeling. In all the years she lived, I never swam with my mother. Her self-consciousness about her weight and her body robbed us of happy memories. I’m sure some people would have looked at her disparagingly, would have made some nasty comments to their friends about the fat woman splashing in the water. So what? What matters more: the opinions of strangers or the joy of sharing an experience with your child?
I’m not going to tell you to learn to love your body no matter how imperfect you think it is. And I’m not going to give you some pep talk about diet and exercise. Each of us needs to come to terms with body image in our own way.
I will tell you that when you can give Bathing Suit Season the finger and return to the beach or the pool with the same glee you did as a child, the water will be waiting for you. When you surrender to the experience, and when you are at last floating and splashing, your weight lightened by the hand of the element that surrounded you in the womb, you will be beautiful.