There is an assumption that if you are not overweight then you are confident with your body. For example those memes you see that say things like: ‘I saw a skinny girl eating cake the other day so I punched her in the face’. Not helpful.
I have never been overweight; I have taken great care not to be. I began refusing food as a pre-schooler and lived with varying levels of anorexia for most of my life. Not in the way people think, in that you keep getting thinner until you are forced to get better. It didn’t work like that for me. I would begin to eat again when my weight dropped too low just so that I could lose it again. Otherwise the game would be up. That wasn’t the only self destruction I undertook from a very early age; I self harmed a great deal too, something I’ve never admitted, although it is obvious if you look.
My body is now in it’s forties and has grown two children, so as well as being much less toned than it once was, it has two c-section scars alongside many self inflicted ones. Plus I have Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, which, as well as affecting my circulation in cold weather, also weakens my feet and legs and they look different to other peoples.
Over the years these things have caused me huge amounts of anxiety, something that I suffered from in the first place. I had panic attacks when I was younger than my children are now, which fed into the other issues in a big self destructive circle.
Five years ago we moved to the coast, to a lovely blue flag beach, which is safe for swimming. Every summer I say I will get in the sea but I have never done it. Until yesterday. I’ve worn a bikini on holiday before, where we don’t know anyone and everyone else is in a bikini too. But this beach is a five minute walk from our house and the chances of seeing someone I know are high and most people tend to have more clothes on. My kids bump into their school friends there and I could meet anyone I see on the school run every day.
It was a glorious hot day and in my haste to get the children ready and out of the house I neglected to bring the sarong I was going to hide behind. When we got to the beach the tide was out and it was a long walk to the sea from the dry sand we pitched our blanket on. I realised that a great thing about being in my forties is I no longer care so much about what people think of me, which is something that wound tightly around me when I was younger.
My daughter, who is seven, wanted to go in the sea first, so hand in hand we walked down to the water, me wearing what was essentially my underwear; my daughter oblivious in her pink swimsuit with a tutu. It was completely liberating feeling the breeze on my bare skin and I felt an unfamiliar strength in doing something I didn’t think I would feel okay about. My daughter tiptoed in the waves, being careful not to step on anything sharp; feeling a pebble she bent down and a wave splashed her in the face which she was pretty upset about despite having her swimming goggles on! So we walked all the way back to our blanket where my son was eagerly awaiting his turn. My son is five and went leaping off toward the waves. I caught him up and we had a great time screaming and laughing every time a cold wave caught us. The beach is very shallow and he splashed and giggled and ran away and got back in a few times until he too got a wave in the face which he was a bit upset about despite having his sister’s swimming goggles on!
On the way back to the blanket he decided he needed me to race him. So now not only am I in a bikini, I’m running alongside a very bouncy small boy. A part of me is mortified, then I tell it to be quiet, no one is looking and it doesn’t matter if they are. I’m having fun with my boy and that is what matters.
But then the moment comes when it is my turn to swim in the sea on my own. This means that my husband, who has grown up alongside this sea and has no desire to swim in it, in fact he can’t even swim, is going to make sandcastles with the children while I finally get to have my swim in the sea. This means I have to walk from our blanket to the sea for the fifth time and this time without a child alongside me.
But I’ve wanted to do this for five years; the sea didn’t feel that cold when I splashed with the kids. So I went for it.
Did I mention that the sea in question is the North Sea? That if you went to our beach and got on a boat and sailed in a straight line you would eventually land in Denmark? Which is why we are battered by arctic winds for more of the year than not. And I wanted to swim in it. I have always been drawn to swimming outdoors and I’m not afraid of cold water. So I waded in and kept going as strong, chilly waves cascaded over my body higher up and higher until I could ride each wave before it broke. The sea was still quite shallow, the sun shone intensely and I felt a space and a serenity I haven’t experienced for some time. I took in the view of our town from this new perspective, salt water washing over my face and in my hair and I felt thoroughly cleansed.
Eventually I decided it was enough and then struggled to make it out of the waves because the tide was pushing against me and my left foot, which is weak from Charcot-Marie-Tooth, couldn’t right itself in the strength of the water. It was a sharp reminder that my body has limitations I tend to disregard and I could probably look after it better.
I walked back to our blanket exhilarated from my swim and disappointed that the experience had been challenging. I found my husband and children digging a hole, which my son then got into and was delighted as his dad and sister covered him in sand while I lay on a towel to dry off. The sun was hot but I felt cold beneath the heat and as we got our things together to go home, my fingers became numb. This has happened before in the depths of winter and as we walked back home for lunch I noticed my hands were red and my fingers white, as my circulation couldn’t keep up with the cold from the sea.
It struck me that what I’d thought would be my first sea swim of the summer would also be my last. I took a hot shower while my husband made sandwiches for us to eat in the garden. As my body warmed up I made a new resolution toward better self care and self love; something that also didn’t feel like an option for me once upon a time. Although I’m much kinder to myself these days, there is always room for improvement.
It is amazing what an excursion outside your comfort zone can do for your self esteem and understanding. I didn’t meet anyone from the school at the beach, but I did meet myself, and I remembered that I like her.
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