Wear The Damn Swimsuit

Happy Belated New Year! I’ve been MIA for a while because I spent the first week of 2017 lounging around on a sun-drenched tropical beach . . . but more about that later. I’ve been thinking, as is apropos this time of year, about resolutions. In theory, most of us believe resolutions to be good things - healthy things. And in fact, they can be useful tools to help us move forward in life and increase our level of happiness. Ideas such as “I want to be open to trying new things” or “I want to learn how to speak a foreign language” can undoubtedly expand our boundaries and create a richer and more fulfilling experience of life. But resolutions have a dark side, too, and, I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to anyone to hear that, in this appearance-obsessed society, the overwhelming majority of new year’s resolutions involve losing weight. There is nothing inherently wrong with losing weight, of course. There IS something wrong with the reasons behind why we so obsessively try to do it. I remember my very first new year’s resolution: “This year, I’m going on a diet.”

I was eleven years old.

It saddens me so profoundly that even at the boundlessly creative age of eleven, I could think of no promise to myself more important than to try to look the way the fashion magazines I coveted told me I was “supposed to.”

Dieting, after all, was just something you did. It was something you heard about on television and in movies. It was something the grown-ups would discuss amongst themselves as you ran around playing tag after Girl Scout meetings. It was something those fashion magazines regularly suggested. It was splashed all over the titles of cookbooks.

To me, an impressionable and eager-to-please eleven-year-old, dieting was the epitome of being a grown-up - and I so desperately wanted to be a grown-up. I wanted a driver’s license (preferably accompanied by a red convertible like the one parked outside the Barbie Dream House I had loudly and ceremoniously outgrown). I wanted a boyfriend (though at that age, a boyfriend was merely a status symbol - someone who would hold your hand in front of your peers for thirty seconds at recess and thereby prove to the world that you were a worthwhile and desirable person). I wanted to wear makeup (so badly, in fact, that I used to smear blue chalk on my eyelids in lieu of the eyeshadow that my mother wouldn't let me buy). I wanted to get my period (a desire, I soon realized, that was badly misjudged, but by then, it was too late to take it back). And, of course - I wanted to go on a diet. It was such an adult thing to do - so impossibly cool.

Trouble was, I also wanted ice cream every night, and I hadn’t quite realized that the two were kind of mutually exclusive. Needless to say, my resolution quickly fell by the wayside. But the seed had been planted, and from then on, I always felt it: the societal obligation to diet, and the insinuation that I was not enough unless I was actively trying to make myself smaller.

Fast forward twenty-one years to the present day. Currently, I am fat. It is a fairly recent development. In my mid-twenties, I was actually quite thin - so thin that, at times, my family members expressed concern that perhaps I wasn’t eating enough. Most of the time, I wasn’t. I was going to the gym and hiking frequently and climbing mountains and trying to do all this on twelve hundred calories a day. I had a little book that kept track of calorie counts in common foods, and if I exceeded my daily limit, I would punish myself by either fasting the following day, or doing so much cardio I would nearly pass out. Going to bed without eating dinner felt like a victory. I was thoroughly obsessed; I believed my self-worth lied solely in the number on the scale (one hundred sixteen) and the size of my jeans (zero).

Many things happened between then and now - things I won’t describe in detail here - but the end result was that, around the time I turned thirty, I gained a large amount of weight, and now, at the age of thirty-two, I identify as a fat woman.

The word “fat” used to bother me; it felt like an expletive, a slur. It felt like the worst thing I could possibly be. I believed all that, for a while - and then I discovered the body-positive movement. Suddenly, I had found a community that told me I was allowed to love myself, despite my physical appearance. It told me I didn’t have to apologize for my size or try to make myself fit into the societally-accepted mold. It told me I was beautiful, just the way I was.

To be one hundred percent honest, I am still trying to believe all this. It is a daily struggle.

This is why, as 2016 drew to a close, I was determined that whatever new year’s resolution I made would not involve altering my physical appearance to satisfy a cultural norm.

Instead, I chose to focus on self-care - which, for me, comes in the form of consuming nutritious foods, finding a form of exercise I enjoy, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep, and engaging in regular stress-relieving activities. When I begin to shift toward this new lifestyle, the reality is that I may end up losing some weight. But the difference is that if I do, it will be because I am making positive choices for me and my life - not because I believe I am not worthwhile as a fat person.

This became quite relevant indeed just last week, when I accompanied my boyfriend and his family to an all-inclusive resort on the Mayan Riviera in Mexico, just north of the town of Tulum. In case you’ve never been there, just close your eyes and picture the perfect tropical scenario - cloud-strewn azure sky, salty ocean breeze filtering through the feathery fronds of palms, white-crested waves of the glistening turquoise Caribbean lapping against powder-soft sands, the sounds of tropical birds echoing from the edges of the dense green jungle mere feet away - you know, the usual. In short, it was utterly amazing.

But I had some major stress leading up to it, you guys, because I wanted to wear a swimsuit on the beach - something I hadn’t done in thirteen years. The mere thought was terrifying.

I told myself I was going to do it. That it wasn’t every day I got to hang out in the Caribbean and that I would forever regret not getting in the water, damn it. I went out and bought a couple suits - modest two-pieces that covered my belly and concealed my posterior beneath flowing little skirts - but I was still not convinced I would actually gather the courage to wear them. Looking at my reflection in the dressing room mirror, I felt something akin to panic at not being able to hide beneath my clothing - something I hadn’t even realized I’d grown accustomed to.

Then, suddenly, there we were in paradise, and it was January 1st, and I had just decided that my New Year’s resolution was to practice unapologetic self-care, and I thought to myself . . . the most caring thing I can possibly do for myself right now is to just let all that shit go and have a fantastic time, right here, right now.

So, feeling nearly paralyzed with fear, I put on one of the swimsuits, and I got in the water. For the first time in thirteen years, I swam shoulder-deep in the ocean and bobbed like a buoy in the warm waves. For the first time in thirteen years, I splashed around in a swimming pool, inventing goofy-looking strokes and getting in touch with my inner mermaid.

And for the first time in thirteen years . . . I didn’t give a damn. I felt free.

It struck me, around about the fourth day or so, when I was boldly climbing out of the pool without first having a towel at the ready to wrap hastily around my body, lest anyone be offended by my love handles or cellulite - that I hadn’t even allowed myself to wear a swimsuit in public when I was thin! Back then, people often told me they would kill to have a body like mine - and still I believed my physical form wasn’t “acceptable” enough.

The logical conclusion to draw from this, then, is that my anxiety surrounding body image has never really been about my weight, but rather, my beliefs about weight.

I think this rings true in some way for all of us. Even the most beautiful women we can possibly imagine dislike some part of themselves, whether it’s their hair or their ankles or their hands or their shoulders or their hips. Perhaps there are a few lucky souls out there who are just gliding around in blissful knowledge of their goddess-like status, but the fact remains that the vast majority of women experience anxiety about our physical appearance on a regular basis. As though this is what dictates our character. As though this is what makes us who we are. It is so limiting and so sad, and my hope for each and every one of us is to just not do it anymore!

What if we could stop resolving to look a certain way for other people and instead start resolving to lead lives that make us feel happy and fulfilled, in whatever form that may take? What if we could understand that we are beautiful and amazing and perfect, just as we are? What if we could look society in the face and jab our middle fingers skyward and say, “Fuck you and your rules, I’m going to wear a swimsuit because I deserve to, just as much as anyone else does”? And then actually wear the damn swimsuit?

Because we only live once. And life is too short not to wear the swimsuit.

Whatever this means for you - whatever your fears are, whatever anxieties command your precious attention, whatever walls you’ve built around yourself to ward off vulnerability - may 2017 be the year that you turn it around.

Break the rules.

Face your fears.

Love yourself.

Wear the swimsuit.

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© 2020 by Ali Owens​