I remember the first time I felt fat. I was 7 years old, and so excited to spend the day at the pool. I spent the morning running around telling my family what moves I was going to do in the water and which jumps I’d attempt off the diving board. Eager to get the day started, I raced to my room to put on my favorite swimsuit: a bright orange bikini adorned with yellow polka dots, frills on the shoulders and a bow on the back.
The swim frock made me feel pretty and sassy, bolstering me with the sparkly confidence only a child can have.
On this particular day, when I showed my parents my clothing choice, they looked at each other with a mild sense of concern. In a hushed tone, my mother turned to my father and asked if my tummy was too big to be wearing something so small. My father quietly agreed and gently asked me if I didn’t want to wear something else.
I felt deflated. I didn’t understand. This was the obvious choice. Didn’t they notice the polka dots and the bow? But with a few more nudges from my parents to choose something “more appropriate,” I opted for another swimsuit that was much less flamboyant, and therefore “more appropriate.” Whatever that means.
While my well-intentioned parents weren’t meaning to dim my shine, the damage was done. It was the first time I was told there was a wrong way to have a body — a seed planted in the mind of a child, ripe for the fertilizer of adolescence.
• • • •
The early formative years passed, and I reached the rite of passage most every teenage girl faces: the ugly battle of body image. I was lucky enough to escape bullying from my peers, but that didn’t save me from the bullying teenage girls do to themselves.
While many girls grew out of their baby fat, I must have been growing into my adult fat. I never could relate to my girlfriends who wanted to lose just 3 pounds. I always wanted to lose pounds in the higher double digits, and eventually triple digits.
As the pounds went on, the insecurities deepened. The vicious cycle began: MTV watching, magazine reading, model envying, diet starting, self-loathing, meal skipping, endlessly exercise, constantly weighing, continually running headfirst into a brick wall wishing it would let me break through.
When you grow up, you learn the thin rules: Black is slimming. Vertical stripes help too. Cover your arms. Wear capri pants, not shorts. And maybe the most sacred rule of all: Bikinis are reserved for skinny girls only.
I still loved swimming so much that I endured the pain of shopping in the “old lady swimsuits,” as I called them. This meant a handful of options featuring homely shapes, unflattering lines, grisly flower patterns, and your choice of awkward skirt or masculine shorts. (Thin rule: Never show the tops of your thighs.)
When I shopped at the mall with my friends, I’d browse with them through the aisles of swimsuits that I coveted, filled with rainbows of colors, dainty straps, bold patterns and a variety of styles to choose from.
When my friends would grab an armful of suits to try on, I’d lie and tell them I forgot my wallet or that I had just bought a super cute suit.
But I knew the truth. These racks were not for fat girls, not for someone whose weight was medically described as “morbid,” not for me.
A valley of weeds had grown in my mind, and concrete had sealed them in as my foundation. I began retreating into myself, letting the world define my body and my confidence. I accepted my fate: I’m fat, I’m not pretty, and I won’t be pretty until I’m thin.
• • • •
As the years passed, nothing much changed. Ugly swimsuits came and went, and my body remained about the same size, and tainted by societal standards.
After graduating college, I moved to Rio de Janeiro. With gorgeous beaches blocks away from my apartment, a swimsuit became part of my daily wardrobe.
One morning before heading to the beach, I chatted with a high school friend about life in South America. She asked me about my job, my effort to master Portuguese, my dating life, the weather, and then about the women: “Isn’t Brazil the land of supermodels? Does everyone look like Gisele Bündchen or Adriana Lima? I bet the beaches are filled with them.”
I answered her saying I hadn’t really noticed anything out of the ordinary.
But her question rang in my head as I walked to the beach. It was then, sitting on the sand, that I looked around and noticed something curious: I was surrounded by a slew women with different body types, shapes and sizes — every single one of them in a bikini.
It was astounding. I had to be mistaken. But there I was, scanning every woman, realizing I was the only person in a one-piece.
Furthermore, all these women acted so… normal. All of them more interested in their beer or conversations or handball tournaments or flirting with cute boys rather than any part of them spilling out of a swimsuit.
I left the beach later with my head swimming. Who were these women? How could they be so cavalier with their swimwear choices? How dare they challenge strict societal rules? What was their secret?
A crack had penetrated the foundation.
It had been almost two decades since I had considered wearing a bikini again. It was never even an option. But then I couldn’t remember. Why hadn’t it been an option?
After multiple more beach trips, a little coaxing from friends, a small existential crisis and a few shopping trips, I made the leap and bought a simple black bikini. While it might not have been as flashy as my beloved orange, polka-dot one, this suit functioned as my “One Small Step For Man” moment.
I wish I could say it was a remarkable day in any way. That when I took off my cover-up, the crowd on the beach pointed and sneered, or conversely, everyone gave me a standing ovation while inspirational music swelled. Or moreover, that anyone even noticed me.
But I was just another person on the beach.
As I sat there in astonishment, I pondered the copious amount of time spent wasted on the issue that felt so monumental throughout my life. I thought about the implications of societal pressure on body image, and how patriarchal nonsense dictates what women think they can wear. About how confidence shouldn’t depend on body size…
But then, I felt the sun on my skin and I noticed how inviting the waves looked. I pushed aside my musings and went in the water to enjoy the beautiful beach day. After all, that’s what I was supposedly there for in the first place.