It’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere and one of the things I love most about summer is the opportunity to go swimming. Lakes, pools, rivers, the ocean…you name it, I’ll swim in it. In fact, I just went swimming the other day at a nearby lake with a friend of mine. It was a perfect day to be at the lake. There was a pleasant breeze, shade under the trees, and we got there early enough to get a picnic table. It was also incredibly hot, so the lake was calling me as soon as we got there.
What I should confess right up front is that as much as I love swimming I hate being in a swimsuit. Let me take that back. I don’t hate being in a swimsuit. I hate being in a swimsuit around other people. I have spent most of my life being self-conscious about how I look. I was told from a very young age that looking ‘good’ in the context of American social norms was a requirement of being a girl. As I grew up, I watched my mother diet, my grandmother poof her hair into a beautiful, but time-consuming and difficult to live in, bouffant, and my great grandmother wear stockings even on the hottest days. I liked none of those things and yet I learned that was how you were a woman. None of the women I watched was trying to make me self-conscious, it was just all they had ever known.
I vividly remember losing weight in eighth grade and feeling pretty for the first time in my life. I got new clothes because the old ones didn’t fit; I got a new hairstyle as a reward, I got attention for looking ‘right’. And that was when it really began, this utterly ridiculous obsession with how other people looked at me and fear about what they saw.
I love to swim and yet for the better part of 40 years I have felt uncomfortable being in a swimsuit because I felt like my weight made me the equivalent of an amusing sideshow act. I felt like everyone was staring at me and judging. As I got older, my weight yo-yoed and there were times I felt good about how I looked and times I didn’t. And then I turned 50 and became much more introspective than I had ever been before. I joined groups dedicated to helping their members become less focused on what other people think they look like and more focused on doing the things they love without worrying about what other people might think. I got a nutrition coach who is literally on the other side of the country because I wanted someone whose specific goal was to change the relationship I had with food and my weight, not to shame me into losing weight in the short term only to put it back on after a few months. Milana is exactly that person and I am 100% sure of that because I went swimming the other day and didn’t wear a shirt over my suit and didn’t hide underwater or feel self-conscious and I didn’t avoid eye contact with people. I did what you’re supposed to do on a hot day in New England, I went swimming and enjoyed it.
When I stop and think about swimming as an activity, it has always been something I’ve enjoyed, but getting to the point where I was ready to swim or ready to be seen in a swimsuit by other people made me so miserable I rarely indulged in one of my favorite things to do. Last weekend it was different. Last weekend I looked around and saw women of all shapes and sizes. I saw women in all kinds of swimsuits just living their lives and enjoying a cool break on a hot day. When I stopped to think about it, I didn’t feel self-conscious. I felt like I was doing something I loved without fear of judgement for the first time since I was a child.
Obviously, swimming isn’t the only time in my life I feel self-conscious or even uncomfortable in whatever environment I’m in, but it is one of the most obvious to me since I keep a bag packed in case someone invites me to go swimming but go so rarely. Whether this sense of freedom from judgement transitions from swimming to the rest of my life remains to be seen but if it doesn’t, it won’t be for lack of trying. Because, really, when you stop and think about it, shouldn’t everyone be free to take part in the activities they enjoy without feeling judgement for their size, shape, choice of clothing, or anything else that sets them apart from some kind of unagreed upon norm?