August 13, 2016. I feel like I should permanently mark the day on the calendar because exactly a week ago I accomplished one of the most radical acts of self-care and self-acceptance I’ve ever undertaken.
I wore a bikini in public for the very first time.
It was a hot day, so the husband and I decided to go to the lake after dinner. We’ve gotten to know the lake with its regular crowd rather well this summer — Pokemon Go players wondering around with their phones, guitar-strumming lifeguards singing when it’s too chilly for people to swim, hookah smokers camping out at their usual picnic table, Mormon missionaries attempting to catch a Pokemon Go player or two, children throwing rocks at ducks, and I even saw a baptism once. Baptism. The last time I’d swam in a lake I was in high school, and it was the lake I was baptized in.
As I’d watched the baptism out of the corner of my eye from the shady patch of grass that I’d claimed, I found myself remembering the baptism class I took when I was 12. “Baptism is an outward expression of an inward commitment,” the senior pastor had said. It was a way of announcing to the world what you’d already privately decided. It was a way of proclaiming that as a result of your commitment to Christ you were no longer the same person.
As I watched the woman being baptized come out of the water soaking wet and smiling, my own baptism felt like a lifetime ago. It had been a statement that I was different. But as I looked back, 12-year-old Kelsey felt so much different than 29-year-old Kelsey. I’ve changed again. I’ve changed a lot. I’ve left that world I once called home behind, the world I was baptized into. As I sat in the grass I thought about how it almost as seemed as if I needed a more up-to-date baptism-esque event to represent my current self and the new private commitments I’ve made.
I don’t even know how many years it had been since I’d last worn a swimsuit at a lake. As my body grew, I began to hate summers more and more. I went from swimming in the lake and running through the sprinkler to trying to wear jeans through even the hottest days in order to keep my body hidden.
I was raised in a religious subculture that taught me that my body was evil and needed to be kept out of sight. It possessed the power to push nice Christian men’s minds into the gutter; it had the power to cause sin. And as a curvy girl, this meant that my body was even more likely to invoke sin because there was no way I could ever fully hide the fact that I was clearly a woman. I hated my body type; I would have given anything to sand down my curves.
I internalized this so much that when I saw a girl from church in a bikini I would assume she couldn’t possibly be a Christian because good girls covered up. Even when I was baptized there was a dress code for being in the water — a one-piece swimsuit hiding under shorts and shirt (but a dark shirt, so it wouldn’t become transparent).
In addition to this, when I was 11-years-old my mother put me on a diet. I was tall and twiggy and if I’d consulted with a doctor, I would’ve been told that intentionally trying to lose weight wasn’t healthy or safe. I don’t know for sure but I suspect that my mother hoped that if she taught me how to diet while I was still young and thin, if she taught me how to maintain a culturally-approved waistline, it would save me the pain of yo-yo dieting when I became an adult woman.
We were sitting in the car together when she told me that she’d noticed I was beginning to develop stretch marks, which she said was a sign I’d been overeating. She said my thighs were getting jiggly but if I started exercising and dieting I could develop nice shapely legs, which would be more attractive. And what seemed to be the worst of all, my stomach was no longer flat. She reached over to tug on my stomach to emphasize her point.
As I sat in the passenger’s seat quietly listening, I folded my arms across my stomach, providing an extra layer of coverage.
I think my mother believed she was doing right by me, but it was her own body-image demons that were talking, warping her view of not only how to care for and think of her own body but how to care for mine as well.
My body was slowly beginning to become softer, curvier; the body I lived in was beginning to look less and less like a little girl. My stomach and thighs had changed a little and I’d developed some stretch marks — things I hadn’t noticed, and certainly didn’t feel self-conscious about until my mother pointed them out and told me about her plan to correct the imperfections and make my body right again.
While it wasn’t her intent, this conversation with my mother marked the beginning of my journey towards developing an eating disorder. It was the beginning of my mother policing how much salad dressing I used and whether or not I had seconds for dinner.
It was the beginning of me skipping meals, sometimes several at a time. It was the reason that in middle school I began cutting my food into the smallest possible pieces and then quietly counting to twenty as I chewed every bite of food because the longer it took, the less I was apt to eat.
It was the beginning of me continuing to eat nothing but chicken broth and a few crackers for several days after I’d gotten over the flu in the hopes of losing a little more weight; my stomach would feel empty and I’d feel lightheaded but I’d push myself to wait a few more days before eating a meal.
It was the reason that when I developed asthma I didn’t take my daily inhaler. My mother had said that weight gained due to steroids was harder to get rid of, so I’d have to be extra good about watching what I ate. The battle with my body was going to get even more intense. And so I decided it was better to not be able to breathe than to gain weight.
In high school before I’d grow an inch or two, I’d gain weight. At this point my mother would tell me not to wear particular outfits because it showed off my not-flat stomach; it made me look fat. And fat was a horrible word. And then, when I grew, everything would stretch out and I’d look thinner. My mother would celebrate my new flatter stomach. And she’d tell me I could now wear my flatter-stomach clothes again.
Thanks to religious teachings at my home and church, my mother’s body policing, and the thin-obsessed culture we live in my relationship with my body has been complex to say the least. I’ve spent years trying to hide it and fix it. I’ve spent years being ashamed. Here I am nearly 30, diet-free for over five years, and I still sometimes cry after eating a bowl of potato chips because of the feelings of guilt and shame.
But on August 13, 2016 I had a new type of baptism. I stood next to the lake, wearing a bikini under my clothes.
“Are you ready?” Ian asked encouragingly. I took a deep breath. Smiled. And flung my tank top over my head. There I was, standing in the sun, showing off the body that is mine.
This year I’ve decided to love my body. I’ve started mending my relationship with my body by using gentle words when I talk to it. I’ve began to call it beautiful, I say those magic words to myself, rather than waiting for the day that I believed it when someone else says it. I’ve realized my body is alive — and that living things need to be loved and cared for. I’ve apologized for the hurtful way I’ve talked about my body; the words like ugly and disgusting that I’ve used to describe my body; the words I’ve used to describe me.
I have changed. I’ve made an inward commitment to self-care and self-acceptance. And for me, caring and accepting my body meant no longer hiding it. I don’t need to hide my curves. I don’t need to hide the parts of my body that are soft or have stretch marks or scars. I don’t need to hide because I have nothing to be ashamed of. This was my public declaration of my private commitment. This was my baptism into self-love.