On a brutally hot Friday in July, I’m standing in a condo in Denver. My husband Thomas and I just closed it, and we will be renting it to a good mutual friend. My closest friend, actually, who just moved from Oregon to Denver for a fresh start after her divorce.
I’m overheated and sweaty, but it’s not related to the outside temperature. Instead, it’s cause for overwhelming concern because this building has an absolutely amazing pool, and I’m wearing the first swimsuit I’ve owned in over three decades—31 years, to be exact.
For almost any woman, this would be terrifying. As a fat woman, I found the idea suddenly terrifying and terrifying.
It’s not just a swimsuit. It has two pieces.
I haven’t worn a two piece since I was 2, I tell Thomas, though it’s definitely not a bikini. It’s similar to sports bras (but with zippers) and some bike shorts, except they can be cinched at the sides with a tie.
It’s honestly a lot more modest than the last bathing suit I owned, which was leopard print, high cut at the thigh, and even had a zipper – but one at a much lower neckline. Still, I haven’t felt this revelation since my last pap smear.
I’m thinking about Fae, my friend, I can’t do this. But she was going to a pool party the next day, and this was it his How to get used to the idea of going public in a swimsuit. Plus, she just told me she’s on her way, she’s having a beach ball (at my request), and I know, if I give it a chance, we’ll have fun. I don’t want to disappoint him, and I don’t want to disappoint myself.
So instead of letting my anxiety win, I pull on my improvised cover-up in swimwear (a knit nightshirt), take a deep breath, adjust my messy ponytail, swipe on some lip gloss (everything is easy with lip gloss), and. Then goes down to meet the Fae.
Once she’s there, I instantly feel better – still nervous, but not nearly as much. It helps that the pool is almost empty. There is a man using the attached hot tub, and a woman with her grandchildren. On a deck chair, a very small fat person reads a book, and they are also in swimsuits in public. Maybe I’m overthinking can Finally do it.
We’re entering the pool area, and I remember when the smell of chlorine hit me…
My grandparents had an above-ground pool my whole life, until the summer of 1999, when – after decades of faithful service, and fondest memories from my childhood – it finally got old and tired and collapsed in strong winds. New Jersey summer storm. My grandfather loved that pool, and I think the only other person who loved it as much, if not more, was me.
He didn’t talk much, but one afternoon shortly after the collapse, he was cleaning up the remains of the pool and dismantling it. I was visiting, and I took off my flip-flops and walked through the few inches of water that remained on the lining. Even though there were others around, I remember catching his eye at one point, and it felt like the two of us were at the funeral of a dear friend. I had tears in my eyes, and I think he did too.
That summer was the last summer I ever swam. Not only have I not worn a swimsuit in 31 years, but I haven’t even been in a pool in 23 years. Still, I’m not really surprised that the smell of chlorine feels like the smell of warmth, hope, and freedom, and that cheers me up.
I sit next to Fay, and look at her, and say, “Coverups in three?” And we count to three, but mine closes before we get there, and I hear myself say, “I’m a fat person in a swimsuit in public, and I’m still alive and nothing’s exploded.” If I’m being snarky, that’s always a good sign.
I gave him my phone, because I need a photo of it. I already know I want to pitch this story, and if nothing else, I want to share it on my Instagram. If others see this, perhaps they will be ready to take the leap.
I am suddenly acutely aware that all anxiety and fear is gone. I’m in a bathing suit. publicly. Sure, there aren’t many people around, but more people can appear at any moment, and I’m not the least bit scared anymore. Instead, I’m walking on water, and the temperature is perfect. Cool enough to be refreshing on a day breaking triple digits, but not cold.
As I walk down the steps, I find myself grateful for the beach ball because I’m so out of practice I don’t even know what to do first. But then, after the initial quick photos, when I’m in waist-deep water, I’m flooded with memories… memories of how much I loved this feeling. I am feeling absolute joy.
When the Fae joins me, I immediately prepare to wade into the water. We play with a beach ball, and I remember that I have zero coordination for this kind of thing. But swimming? Being in the water? It feels like you have just returned home after traveling. It doesn’t feel like 23 years. It doesn’t feel like it’s been more than a few days to meet and catch up with an old friend you haven’t seen in years. And it’s wonderful.
Later, I’m looking at the pictures the Fae took, expecting to hate them. Body dysmorphic disorder Bitch, and I can have the “perfect” body and still find reasons to hate it. A lot of the perceived flaws I hate aren’t related to my weight, but it’s very hard to be fat in a culture like ours without absorbing some level of disgust at the idea of seeing yourself in photos. Fighting this is a cause that I take on a lot now.
But when I take photos, I don’t see any ugliness. I don’t immediately distinguish my faults, real or not. Instead, what I see is pure, unadulterated joy; I see myself radiating happiness, and I am both very happy about it, but also deeply saddened by my past.
Thomas later tells me the last time he saw this joy was in South Dakota, when a pregnant, beautiful wild burro came up to me and bowed her head as I sat on a bench. I can’t argue with him, and that was one of the happiest moments of my life (and even 5 years ago).
As I go through the photos, I realize that I have been denied this happiness for over two decades. Why? Because as a fat person, even if I have access to swimwear that fits, I don’t think I deserve it. I never thought I would be able to swim in public again.
Even worse, for about 10 years, I felt that other people were “outsmarted” by my fatness by not wearing a bathing suit. I internalized all those messages, and it cost me years of happiness.
Over the past 15 years, I have worked to heal my relationship with both my body and food, there are many times I remember going to a church picnic in 1988 when I was 12 years old. Where my then church was. Their annual picnic was on acres and acres of open land, with a magnificent in-ground pool. In all the years we visited, this was the only time the pool was open to us.
I was the fattest girl – or more accurately, the only fat girl. But I was the only one who bravely jumped into the pool wearing a bathing suit with no t-shirt. I was the only one who didn’t cry about being too fat. (While I actually was and no one else was, it touched me in particular annoying).
The boys were acting as funny to me as the other girls, and seemed impressed by both my swimming ability and my willingness to go for it. I remember having fun. I was totally self-conscious. It never occurred to me to hide. I was doing what I loved, I knew I was good, and it showed.
Why did I deny myself this happiness for more than two decades? Why do any of us do this to ourselves for fear of what others will think or say? If the past few years have taught us anything, it should be that life is too short, too precious and too fragile to waste time on other people’s ideas of who we should be or what we should wear.
When I look at my July swim photos, I see shades of that 12-year-old, who I’ve admired so many times over the years. I think maybe she’s here with me, and she just said to 46-year-old me, “Welcome back. It’s been too long.”
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