Beach, bikini, body.
The lifeguard stands at Long Island's Jones Beach are ten feet high, but at the age of five or six I would have told you they stretched as tall as skyscrapers. I can remember sitting in one during a particularly sweltering summer day when I became separated from my family and was waited to be rescued. I can still remember the panic that lodged in my chest, the stomach-lurching view of the sand beneath me, the relief I felt when I was found.
I grew up about twenty minutes from the beach, in a modest apartment in Queens, and spent many summers building sandcastles and jumping waves and collecting shells and eating tuna salad sandwiches on tattered beach blankets. I got peeling sunburns and so many freckles that my camp counselor nicknamed me Spot. I also wore one-piece swimsuits that always rode up my butt, but I didn't care. I was just too busy, you see, chasing my cousins and looking for my shovel and ducking greasy applications of sunscreen to worry about silly things like swimsuits. I adored those afternoons at the beach. I adored them in a way I adored a Happy Meal or a new Barbie doll. That's what beaches are when you're young and innocent and free: places of total happiness.
But as I got older, Jones Beach became something different. Once I entered puberty, and my body filled out with curves that were as unwelcome as a splotchy birthmark on your face, I was seized with the terror of removing my cover-up and exposing my body to the beach goers around me - specifically, other girls my age. They wore string bikinis and Ray Bans and the glossy sheen of Ban De Soleil. They were confident, and chic, and splayed their long limbs on beach towels their moms bought at Benetton. Where I once splashed and played, I began to cower and flinch. I spent a lot of time in those days trying to apologize for my body. My legs were too squat. My stomach was too round. My butt was too defiantly a butt, a round thing that protruded where I wanted it to lie flat. I remember the agonizing dilemma of whether I would keep my tee shirt on once I dove into the ocean. Doing so was as good as admitting that my body deserved to be covered up, as if even I knew it was too flawed to be exposed to the public.
And so I hid as best as I could. I stopped going to the beach altogether. I made excuses when my mom planned outings. There were no sand castles for me, no sunscreen to apply, no tuna salad sandwiches to eat. And no swimsuits to wear.
I don't live near Jones Beach anymore. Actually, there isn't a beach anywhere near my house. But there are neighborhood pools, where I accompany my kids for long afternoons of swimming. It is at these pools where I sit, fixated on the women around me, wondering how my body compares to theirs. Could I wear a bikini like the woman next to me has on? Do I dare expose my thighs, my stomach? What about a skirted tankini, meant to conceal that fleshy upper thigh area all women seem to despise? It seems that donning one is the same as hiding in my tee shirt - an admission that I have something worth hiding.
I wish I could go to the pool and just swim. I wish I could relax, and enjoy the breeze rustling my hair, and the sweet summertime scent of coconut SPF. But I just don't know how. I don't know how to enjoy being in my skin without those nagging voices in my head berating me. I don't know how to exorcise that screech that my body is just not good enough. Perhaps I never will. It's a tough thing, this learning to accept my body just as it is, and to stop comparing it to those around me.