My daughter Sophie is five years old.
She has this pink bikini that she loves to wear. Her thin legs stick out the bottoms like a colt’s and she has enough of that just-out-of-toddlerhood sway back left that her tummy sticks out, round and perfect.
She wears that bikini all the time, whether we’re going swimming or not. She puts it on and dances around the house. She wants to wear it everywhere, to the grocery store or the movies or the park. That bathing suit makes her feel good. Complete.
But for how long?
I think I remember at what age exactly I started to be self-conscious in a bathing suit. I was twelve years old and we had the end-of-school party at our house that year. I remember being so excited to have all the kids in the class to my house to swim in my pool.
I also remember wearing a t-shirt over my bathing suit.
Not coincidentally, that same year had marked the start of comments from boys in the class, comments about how skinny I was, how flat-chested I was, how they couldn’t even tell if I was a girl or not. One boy, who can only be described as the most popular boy in the class, took to calling me The Young and The Breastless. And I would stand there, feeling my face flush as if it was on fire, and try to look at him like I didn’t care. Once I choked out “That’s not even funny. At least come up with something funny.” And I turned around and walked off, aware of how my legs looked like toothpicks, how big my feet were, how the bra I was wearing kept riding up and needing to be pulled down. I’m quite sure now that the humiliation taught me something. But at the time, twelve years old and hidden in a bathroom stall not knowing whether to throw up or burst into tears, it felt like the end of the world.
And so. For how long will Sophie feel complete in her bikini? How long until someone makes some comment at the pool about those knobby knees or that sticking-out tummy and it occurs to her that she’s not . . . perfect?
How long until that moment?
For now, I’ll soak up every minute of her feeling free and strong and just right in that bikini. And when the time comes that some person says some thing to her that makes her feel less than that, I’ll tell her this story. After months of that boy saying those things to me in sixth grade, I couldn’t stand for it anymore. And on that day when he walked up and said, with a sneer in his voice and several friends standing behind him: “Hey, Jennifer?” I turned, always with that tiny, hidden hope in my heart that he would say something different to me, something kind or sweet. But he didn’t. Instead, he pointed at me and said “I’ve got a joke that’ll blow your tits off . . . . Oh, I see you’ve already heard it.” And his friends laughed. And he laughed, still with his finger pointing right at my chest.
Well, I reached out and I grabbed that finger. I twisted it as hard as I could, turning it and bending it with a strength that he probably didn’t imagine my puny little arms had in them.
I broke that boy’s finger that day. And I wasn’t even the least bit sorry about it.
It was still a long while before I started to resemble anything like a girl and for years to come, I’d still put a t-shirt on over my bathing suit. And I think about that still, these days with my body nearing forty and having had three babies. And though I’ve long since learned that none of us are perfect or ever will be, there is always that moment. Every one of you women out there know it: that moment when you take off your shirt and your shorts at the pool. It’s that moment of self-consciousness, that moment of tugging down your bathing suit, sucking in your stomach, wishing for the ten-thousandth time that stretch marks really are the badges of honor that we like to say they are.
But I’m grounded quickly by looking over at Sophie, so content in her little bikini. She’s waiting for me, waving at me to hurry up and come to the water with her. She’s watching me as I adjust my bathing suit, pushing and pulling at it. She’s watching and, I realize, she’s learning. She’s looking to me for cues, for lessons about how a girl is supposed to feel about her body, however it looks. She’s going to mirror me and how I feel in my bathing suit.
So I stop. I stop tugging and pulling. I remember this is a body that has grown three babies, nursed them all, rocked them to sleep, carried them when they were tired, stayed up with them when they were sick or scared, walked them to their first day of Kindergarten, hugged them, belly-laughed with them and slept intertwined with them countless times. If I can’t be proud of a body that’s done all that, then what I am teaching Sophie?
And as I look at her, I see her knobby little knees, the ones she got from me. How can I doubt the perfectness of my own knobby knees now that I see them on her? I take her hand and we walk to the water, together. Complete.