On a brutally hot Friday in July, I am standing in a condo in Denver. My husband Thomas and I have just closed on it, and we’re going to be renting it to a good mutual friend. My closest friend, in fact, who has just moved to Denver from Oregon for a new start following her divorce.
I’m super hot and sweaty, but it’s not related to the outside temperature. Instead, it is from overwhelming anxiety because this building has an absolutely amazing pool, and I am wearing the first swimsuit I’ve owned in over three decades ― 31 years, to be exact.
For virtually any woman, this would be daunting. As a fat woman, I’m finding the idea suddenly terrible and terrifying.
It’s not just a swimsuit. It’s two pieces.
I haven’t worn a two-piece since I was 2 years old, I tell Thomas, although it’s definitely not a bikini. It’s similar to a sports bra (but with a zipper) and some bike shorts, except they can be cinched up at the sides with ties.
It’s honestly more modest than the last bathing suit I owned, which was leopard print, high cut on the thigh, and also had a zipper ― but one on a much lower neckline. Still, I haven’t felt this exposed since my last Pap smear.
I’m thinking about telling Fae, my friend, that I can’t do this after all. But she’s going to a pool party the next day, and this was her way to get used to the idea of being in public in a swimsuit. Plus, she just told me she’s on the way, she’s got a beach ball with her (at my request), and I know, if I give it a chance, we’re going to have fun. I don’t want to let her down, and I don’t want to let myself down, either.
So instead of letting my anxiety win, I am pulling my improvised cover-up (a knit nightshirt) over the swimwear, taking a deep breath, adjusting my messy ponytail, swiping on some lip gloss (everything is easier with lip gloss), and then heading down to meet Fae.
Once she’s there, I immediately feel better ― still nervous, but not nearly as much so. It helps that the pool is virtually empty. There’s one person using the attached hot tub, and a woman with her grandchild. On one of the deck chairs, a much smaller fat person reads a book, and they are also in a swimsuit in public. I find myself thinking maybe I can do this after all.
We’re entering the pool area, and as the smell of chlorine hits me I remember...
My grandparents had an above-ground pool my entire life, up until the summer of 1999, when ― after decades of faithful service, and most of the best memories of my childhood ― it finally grew old and tired and collapsed in the strong winds of a New Jersey summer thunderstorm. My grandfather loved that pool, and I think the only other person who loved it as much as, if not more than, he did was me.
He wasn’t much for talking, but one afternoon shortly after the collapse, he was working on cleaning up the remnants of the pool and breaking it down. I was visiting, and I took off my flip-flops and walked in the few inches of water remaining in the lining. Though there were others around, I remember catching his eye at one point, and it felt like just the two of us were at a funeral for a dearly loved friend. I had tears in my eyes, and I think he did, too.
That summer was the last summer I went swimming until now. Not only have I not worn a swimsuit in 31 years, but I have not even been in a pool in 23 years. Still, I am not really shocked that the smell of chlorine feels like the smell of summer, hope and freedom, and I find it emboldens me.
I sit down next to Fae, and look at her, and say, “Coverups off in three?” And we count to three, but mine is off before we get there, and I hear myself saying, “I’m a fat person in a swimsuit in public, and I’m still alive and nothing has exploded.” If I’m being snarky, that’s always a good sign.
I’ve handed her my phone, because I need photos of this. I already know I want to pitch this story, and if nothing else, I want to share it on my Instagram. If others see it, perhaps they’ll find themselves ready to take this leap again, too.
I’m suddenly acutely aware that all of the anxiety and fear is gone. I’m in a bathing suit. In public. Sure, there are not many people around, but more can show up at any moment, and I’m not even a little bit scared anymore. Instead, I’m walking into the water, and the temperature is damn near perfect. Cool enough to be refreshing on a day that breaks triple digits, but not cold at all.
As I walk down the steps, I find myself grateful for the beach ball because I’m so out of practice that I’m not sure what to even do at first. But then, after the initial quick photos, when I’m more than waist deep in water, I am awash in memories... memories of how much I have always loved this sensation. I’m feeling absolute elation.
When Fae joins me, I’m immediately ready to goof around in the water. We play with the beach ball, and I remember that I have zero coordination for this kind of thing. But swimming? Being in the water? It feels like I’ve just returned home after traveling. It doesn’t feel like 23 years. It’s like catching up with an old friend you haven’t seen in years and discovering it doesn’t feel like it’s been more than a few days. And it’s wonderful.
Later, I am looking at the photos Fae took, fully expecting to hate them. Body dysmorphic disorder is a bitch, and I could have the “perfect” body and I would still find reasons to hate it. Many of the perceived flaws I hate are unrelated to my weight, but it is very hard to be fat in a culture like ours without absorbing some level of loathing over the idea of seeing yourself in photos. Combating this is one reason I take so many now.
But when I pull up the photos, I don’t see any ugliness. I don’t immediately pick apart my flaws, real or not. Instead, what I see is pure, unfiltered joy; I see myself radiating happiness, and I am both overjoyed by this, but also profoundly saddened for my past self.
Thomas later tells me the last time he saw me look this happy was in South Dakota, when a pregnant, beautiful wild burro approached me and bowed her head to me as I sat on a bench. I can’t argue with him, and that was one of the happiest moments of my life (and also 5 years ago).
As I go through the photos, I am realizing I’ve denied myself this joy for over two decades. Why? Because as a fat person, even if I had access to swimwear that fit me, I didn’t think I deserved it. I didn’t think I could swim in public ever again.
Even worse, for about 10 years, I felt like I was “sparing” other people from my fatness by not wearing a bathing suit. I had internalized all that messaging, and it cost me years of joy.
Over the past 15 years, as I’ve worked on healing my relationship with both my body and food, there were many times I remembered a church picnic I went to in 1988, when I was 12. The place where my then-church had their annual picnic was on acres and acres of open land, with a gorgeous in-ground pool. In all the years we went, this was the only time that pool was open to us.
I was the fattest girl ― or more accurately, the only fat girl at all. But I was the only one who fearlessly jumped into the pool in a bathing suit without a T-shirt over it. I was the only one not whining about being too fat. (Since I actually was and none of the others were, this struck me as especially irritating).
I even remember the boys acting like the other girls were being ridiculous, and seeming impressed with both my swimming abilities and my willingness to just go for it. I remember that I was having fun. I was entirely un-self-conscious. It never even occurred to me to cover up. I was doing something I loved, something I knew I was good at, and it showed.
Why did I deny myself this joy for over two decades? Why do any of us do this to ourselves, out of fear of what anyone else thinks or says? If the past few years have taught us anything, it should be that life is too short, too precious and too fragile to spend time wasted on other people’s ideas of who we should be or what we should wear.
When I look at the pictures of my July swim, I see shades of that 12-year-old I was, the one I’ve admired so many times over the years. I feel like maybe she’s been here with me all along, and that she has just said to 46-year-old me, “Welcome back. It’s been too long.”