I went to the beach today.
Let me be more specific. I went to a crowded beach today. And there, for a whole hour, I lay in the hot, bright midday sunlight the intensity and tinge of which is unique to a Sydney summer. I lay on the sand, did some required reading, and enjoyed the ample people-watching opportunities the beach provides. But most importantly, and most unusually, I did all of this in a bikini.
This might not sound like a hugely momentous event. I mean, everyone goes to the beach, right? Social conservatives would have us believe that everyone wears bikinis and that it’s because of such skimpy clothing that the world is going to hell in a hand basket (well, bikinis and socialism). But it’s important to understand that, even though everyone goes to the beach, and even though this particular beach is only a few blocks from my house, it has taken me an awfully long time to get there.
As a child growing up in a coastal city with a subtropical climate, I spent most of my weekends and good stretches of my summer vacations at the beach. I took swimming lessons in a Speedo and spent endless hours doing gymnastics in a leotard, which is essentially a Speedo with sequins on it. I had no qualms about being seen in a state of near undress at the beach, by the pool or on the balance beam in front of hundreds of competitors and spectators.
And then, inevitably, puberty hit. Everything changed. My body was suddenly alien and out of control. There were no more sequined leotards and no more swimming lessons. Dance classes, unlike gymnastics, offered me the chance to wear long pants, and I gratefully covered up. And of course, overnight, the beach stopped being fun and became stressful. It was no longer a place to relax, but a place to suck in my stomach and push out my chest. I wanted to be skinny, I wanted to be leggy, I wanted to be tanned and sexy and all those things that women are supposed to be but that so few can achieve. And as I was none of those things (or so I thought), I spent my time at the beach trying to sit, stand and walk in ways that would flatter the body which, in my eyes, was endlessly flawed.
I longed to fill out the triangles of my triangle bikini, and I longed for my bottom to stop filling out my bikini bottoms. Soon, when the height of puberty made it clear that my mother had bequeathed to me a considerable endowment, triangle bikinis became laughably unrealistic. My swimsuits, on the rare occasions that I bought them, were feats of structural engineering.
I envied the girls whose bodies didn’t wobble or jiggle, the ones with taut, muscular stomachs and hip bones that protruded when they lay on their backs. I sought refuge in sarongs and t-shirts and any other garment that would conceal my “problem areas.” Every summer I would swear that this year, things would be different. I would wear a bikini. I would be insecure no longer. I would show my thighs and stomach and butt, and show them with pride, and to hell with what anyone else thought. And every summer, I found excuses to avoid the beach, and to wear board shorts over my bikini bottoms. I wore jeans in the steamy Sydney summer. From year to year, nothing changed.
But this summer, things are
different. This summer (or on this summer day, at least), I was insecure no longer. I showed my thighs and stomach and butt and I showed them with pride. I wore a bikini, and I wasn’t envious of anyone.
I wish I could say that the journey from one state of mind to the other was quick and easy, but that would be a lie. It took years, and it took a lot of hard work. I wish that I could give women (and men, of course) a step-by-step guide on how to get there. But that would be dishonest too, because I don’t exactly know how I got here myself. I know that I joined my campus eating disorders awareness group and invested hours of time and energy trying to ensure that other people didn’t fall into the same body image traps that I did. I wrote and spoke endlessly about feminism, trying to encourage women to value their minds and hearts over their bodies, encouraging them to reject images of conventional beauty and to love themselves exactly as they are.
There were moments when, even though I knew what I was saying or writing was true, I couldn’t practice what I was preaching, no matter how hard I tried. But somewhere along the way, the truth got to me. Somewhere along the way, I began to do that which sometimes seems almost impossible: I followed my own advice. Lying on the beach today, I looked up from my book and realized that I had been absorbed in it for almost an hour, too focused on using my brain to think about what my body looked like.
My body isn’t taut, and my hipbones don’t protrude, and, like most human females, there are bits of me that wobble and jiggle when I move. But I’m healthy, and my brain works rather well, and for one day, I was totally happy and comfortable with that once-mortal enemy, the swimsuit.
Who knows if this state of bikini-clad bliss will last beyond today? I guess I’ll have to go back to the beach again tomorrow to find out. Life’s tough like that.