Swimming. I love it. I have always loved it. I learned how to swim in the community pool in my hometown and grew up swimming and snorkeling in the cold, fresh waters of Lake Ontario in Central New York. Being a chubby kid, I always wore a one-piece swimsuit. In my ‘20s, I moved to Los Angeles, a.k.a. “size-zeroville.” During my time there, I rarely went to the beach, partly because my partner at the time wasn’t a beach-goer, but mostly out of the fear that I would be mistaken for a beached whale. In my head, I envisioned a humiliating experience where I would be captured in a tarpaulin under the guise of “rescue”, hauled to deep water and subsequently released to the sounds of self-satisfied applause from good-looking, blond, skinny, be-sandaled do-gooders. Los Angeles. It isn’t good for the self-esteem. Unless you’re Margot Robbie. I’m sure she’ll be just fine.
Then, in 2013, and 2014 I went to the South of France. I wore my normal one-piece.
Both times, I looked around and noticed that I was the only one. Once again, I felt out of place, but this time for a very different reason. On every beach I went to, there were women of all sizes, shapes, ages and ethnicities all around me wearing bikinis. All of them seemed relaxed, happy and enjoying themselves. Amazingly, they didn’t seem to care if people stared or judged them, and in fact, few people did (at least openly), as they were more interested in their own beach activities. Equally, there were men of what (in the USA) would be considered questionable age and physical condition wearing speedos. They didn’t give a crap either, and you know what? No one went blind for having to look at them. There were no children crying or running away in fear and I’m assuming no one ended up having their day ruined from watching the old Italian dude in the budgie smugglers playing with his grandchildren happily in the Mediterranean.
At first, I was curious as to whether this was a by-product of the body-positive trend I kept reading about on social media, but I was assured by some friends that this was simply the normal way of life for continental Europeans. So, in the spirit of “when in Rome…” I decided, this year, to find out what it would feel like, at the age of 40+ to wear a bikini for the very first time in public on a beach with other human beings present.
I was delighted to discover that in the shops in London, there are comfortable, flattering bikinis in cool colours available in my size, which is not huge, but definitely on the “curvier” end of the scale. Second, I was delighted at my spouse’s reaction when I told him about my purchase and explained my nervousness. He loved the colour (dark turquoise), and said it made me look like a model. I jokingly said “yeah, for the fat girl websites?” “No.” he said. “For the websites where the models are healthy, curvy women. Not girls. Women.” He clearly he knows about some websites that I don’t.
Off we went to France for the third time. Oddly, I wasn’t worried about wearing the 2-piece. But, I was worried about how I’d feel about wearing it. So, I wore the standard cover-up for the walk to the beach. Sort of like a security blanket. I put up my sun umbrella, laid out my towel, and sat down. I surveyed my surroundings and decided to go for it. I slipped off my shorts and top and lay back on the towel. I did it. I was there in my bikini with people. There were no screams of horror or whale-rescuers. There was only the sound of the waves, people chatting and laughing in different languages and the glorious sun warming my skin. Oh, crap. My skin. I looked down at my pale white delicate belly and lower back that until that moment had literally never been exposed to the sun. I was like a ghost compared to all the other people there. I was astonished at how quickly one self-esteem issue can morph into another. I was even more concerned with the thought of a painful sunburn and skin cancer, so I grabbed the 50+ sunblock for albinos and applied it liberally.
Then came the moment of truth. I got up into a standing position, where I wouldn’t be able to suck my tummy in. I walked from my spot on the beach to the sea, past all the people with their beautiful bronze skin. Every step made me feel better about myself. I had conquered it. I stepped into the sea and noticed an attractive older man following me with his eyes. Whether he was thinking “Man, that lady is hot!” or “Wow, that’s sad.” didn’t matter to me at that moment. I had successfully adopted the French “Zero fucks given” attitude. The sun and sea were warm and glorious and I swam the backstroke to my heart’s content. The water felt great on my back and stomach. It was freeing and absolutely lovely. My advice to anyone asking is, do it. Don’t let the world of perfect skinny bronze bodies and judgmental assholes keep you from trying it. Maybe we can even change the beaches of So Cal. One chubby lady at a time. I realized body positivity comes from both within oneself and within the society around you.
On my way back to my towel, I felt happy and relaxed just like everyone else on that beach. Then I spied a woman with no top on and remembered that all the beaches in France are all optional topless. I chuckled to myself. There’s always a new challenge.