I sat on a cold bench outside the women’s bathroom and watched as steam rose off Crystal River in central Florida. I had left the warm restroom to try to squeeze into my wetsuit outside.
Inside were two 40-ish friends trying to force their bodies into some unforgiving wetsuits of their own. One of the women had ended up on the floor, giggling nonstop as her friend tried to pull the suit onto her body. She kept muttering: “This can’t be right. This can’t be right!”
She had a Russian accent and was model-beautiful, with curves. I had stood in the corner watching this transpire and felt out of place. It took me back to my days on a college cross-country team when women would strip down in the locker rooms, comfortable in their own skin, while I would change in a bathroom stall. I was awkward, flat-chested and convinced my body was ugly.
And that is how I found myself outside on that 50-degree morning, where I suction-cupped myself into my thick black suit with the assistance of my husband.
I had the usual pit in my stomach, the one I get when I leave my comfort zone. The water looked gray and frigid, the sky was about to spit rain and the time was 6:45 a.m.
When we moved to Florida two years earlier, I added snorkeling with manatees to my bucket list. My birthday seemed like the perfect excuse to ditch my kids and head three hours north on a three-hour snorkeling adventure.
I had turned 32 a week earlier and was beginning to understand why people dread their birthdays. Sure, I continued to enjoy the part with cake and ice cream, but I had sprouted a large crop of gray hairs over the past year, and my body was no longer the one I had in high school.
It now included stretch marks thanks to my love for brownies, popping out two kids, and the passage of time. The pounds I had gained settled on my stomach, and I sometimes found myself squishing my belly together and poking at it while an uncontrollable voice in my head repeated, “You are disgusting.” I knew this voice couldn’t be trusted, but the longer I heard it, the easier it was to believe.
We rode a boat down the river and listened to our captain’s instructions. When it came time to jump in the water, the pit in my stomach deepened.
“This seems like a bad idea,” my brain whispered.
My wet feet trudged across the boat to head to the stern. I ignored the voice, backed down the ladder and plopped into the water.
“Float on your stomach!” our guide shouted. But the buoyancy of the wetsuit threw me off balance. I splashed around, eventually gaining enough mobility to roll over, and plunged my face into the river.
The water was clear but dark in the early morning light. Seagrass covered the riverbed, but no manatees were in sight. Our guide herded us up, and we started swimming toward a cove. It was there that we first saw them.
About 30 manatees were sleeping in a group among the grass. Every few minutes, they would rise to the surface for a breath and float back down to the bottom. One made eye contact with me.
“Oh my gosh, this manatee and I have a connection. We are communicating through our eyes,” I thought.
“Hello, cute manatee,” I said with my gaze, fully present in this almost spiritual moment. I waited for his eyes to tell me something. He floated back down to the bottom, apparently asleep the entire time.
Manatees are simultaneously adorable and ugly. I know this sounds like a contradiction, but it is not. They are the same shape as lumpy sweet potatoes, with small, black eyes. They have coarse hairs that dot their body, similar to the ones I pluck off my chin as soon as they appear. They average 1,000 pounds. And did you know they have toenails? Yet despite all of these things, they are somehow cute.
Over the next couple of hours, all my ruminations — about my weight and my aging body — disappeared. When I submerged my face in the frigid water, I entered a world where that self-critical voice did not exist. I spent three hours in awe watching these huge creatures sleep, eat and play.
The manatees could not care less about what I looked like, and frankly we all looked equally weird in our snorkeling gear and wetsuits.
Our group moved to a spot in the river where the animals were awake and playful. A baby manatee barreled into me, sucking on my wetsuit strap. In an instant, a group of curious manatees surrounded me.
We love these animals because of who they are, with their docile, curious, roly-poly personalities. They are lovable because they are gentle, vulnerable. Despite very few defense mechanisms, manatees explore the world around them in wonder. They explore despite scars on their backs and faces from boat motors. We love them, imperfections and all.
Here I was, judging myself based on some belly fat and a few stretch marks. But maybe my worth comes from existing as who I am — a great amalgam of imperfections that add up to make one beautiful creature.
When I climbed back into the boat, a sense of peace saturated my being. For a blissful two hours, I had escaped the critical voice in my head. Not only that, but I came away with a changed perspective.
I’m not going to sell this as a miracle cure. Swimming with manatees didn’t erase the self-critical voice in my head, nor did it hypnotize me into loving my stomach. But it taught me to question the voice.
And when the critical voice becomes too loud, I head out on a quest for wonder. Most of the time, it is not as grand as snorkeling with manatees. Sometimes, I go to my garden to watch as monarch caterpillars slowly transform into butterflies. Other times, I go for a hike. Once I stumbled upon lizards having sex. That completely shut the voice up.
When I get out of my head long enough to lace up my hiking boots or squirm into a wetsuit, I am reminded that the world is vast, wild and beautiful. And whether I am on a flower-lined trail, in the salty ocean, or wrapped up in the tiny details of my yard, I am just thankful to my body for getting me there.