A baptism into self-love (or, the first time I wore a bikini)

There I was, standing in the sun, showing off the body that is mine.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 left that world behind, so it felt almost as if I needed a more up-to-date baptism to represent my current self.

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.

On top of this, when I was 11-years-old my mother put me on a diet, even though I was not remotely overweight. I believe that my mother thought she was doing right by me, but it was her own body-image demons that were talking.

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. And my stomach was no longer flat. She reached over to tug on my stomach to emphasize her point. 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.

My body was begging 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 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. 

My mother said she was attempting to save me from future “weight problems” by teaching me how to diet young. But instead it marked the beginning of my eating disorder. It was the beginning of her 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 when I developed asthma I didn’t take my daily inhaler. My mother had said steroid weight 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 have changed. I’ve made an inward commitment to self-care. And for me, loving 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-care, self-love, and self-acceptance.

It Is

It is so much more than you and me.

It is primal urges and rose petals.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Biological functions and a secret dance.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Evolutionary history and love songs.

It is haunting voices and sanctuary.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Memories and fresh discoveries.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Comfort and anxiety.

It is new life and old loves.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Passion and gentleness.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Security and vulnerability.

It is angels and demons.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Fulfillment and jealousy.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Insecurities and release.

It is magic and witchcraft.
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Desire and despair,
‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍‍‍‍‍ ‍‍ ‍‍Love and lust.

It is all here, between our sheets.

Am I a real writer yet?

What I crave isn’t numbers or popularity, but legitimacy (2)“But would it be a real book?” I said, more to myself than to Ian as I weighed possible options in my mind. I’d spent some time that day investigating a self-publishing option through Amazon that would allow me to take the Word document that I’ve become rather emotionally attached to and transform it into a book available for purchase on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback.

But would it be real?

“I want a real book,” I told my husband. Just like Geppetto wanted the Blue Fairy to transform his little wooden puppet into a real boy, I wanted her to work her blue magic and bippity boppity boo my manuscript into a real book. Only, unlike Geppetto, what I was really after wasn’t life but legitamicy.

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When I first started blogging I’d hoped I might be able to force some of my Facebook friends to read it by shoving the posts into their feed. I’d hoped maybe a random person I’d never met or two might stroll on over and say hello. But that was it, really.

Then, I had a post get some traction and I told Ian, “I might be able to make it to 500 followers if this keeps up!” I was almost afraid to say it out loud just in case it jinxed it (or at the very least gave me false hope).

I made it to 500. And then I felt like I might feel like a successful, legitimized blogger if I were to make it to 1,000 followers. And then that happened, too. So then I thought I’d finally truly feel like I’d made it if I could only reach 2,000.

Well, now I have nearly 10,000 followers and I still find myself feeling like I’m praying to the Blue Fairy. What I crave isn’t numbers or popularity, even though that’s probably what it sounds like; I just want to feel like I’m the real deal. I want to be real. Not famous, but legitimate. I feel like a poser. I feel like the kid who snuck in with a fake ID and is afraid they’re going to get caught. I want someone to tell me that I can relax because I’m old enough to drink, so no ones going to be kicking me out of the bar or calling my folks because I’m old enough to be here. I’m legitimate. I belong.

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I looked up to the regular contributors to Huffington Post. They were my blogging idols. I thought that if I were ever, someday way off in the future, to reach the point of being a Huffington Post contributor that I’d finally feel as if I’d made it. Not only would I be a blogger, I’d be a real writer.

And then earlier this year I got an email from Arianna Huffington, herself. She’d liked a piece I’d pitched to her. I ran around the apartment screaming about how the Huffington had emailed me. I ran around screaming about how she’d said I was going to be a regular contributor.

But Arianna Huffington was not my Blue Fairy.

I now have a nifty little writer profile on the Huffington Post. But I still find myself saying how I’m really “just a blogger” — as opposed to something that feels like it might be a bit more credible like a freelance writer or journalist or author or poet.

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I want to call myself a blogger without adding a qualifier.

I want to call myself a freelance writer.

I want to call myself a writer.

I want to call myself a memoirst.

I want to call myself a poet.

And very secretly, I want to call myself an artist.

But this horrible question of But am I a real one? keeps getting in the way.

I suppose it doesn’t help that I’ve spent too much time hanging around the fringes of academia, feeling inadequate because I don’t have a Master’s in creative writing. I worked for several years as an English tutor at a community college. I worked closely with members of the English department, and after a while it started to feel like I was part of a select few who didn’t have a Master’s degree in English. By the time I left that job I felt as if I was failing at life because I hadn’t earned a Master’s in English; the lone illegitimate one. But when I finally asked myself if a Master’s in English was even something I wanted, the answer was decidedly no.

I suppose it also doesn’t help that I spent too much time growing up around published authors. Or, as they liked to put it, “traditionally published authors.” They looked down on self-published authors because, unlike them, they weren’t the genuine article. Not all “traditionally published authors” are like this. I’ve known quite a few who weren’t. And I’ve known quite a few who were.

Seeing books published by my mother or family friends on the display table at Barnes and Nobel wasn’t a big deal. It was just a part of life. Sure, it was pretty cool I guess. But I honestly couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. That was just mom and dad’s friend, so what?

But now the words traditionally published author hang in the air, haunting me. I’d like to write a book. I have more than one partly-written manuscript gathering dust in Word documents. I’m just not sure how exactly to transform them from manuscripts to books.

Sometimes I wonder if I’d prefer self-publishing via Amazon so I could maintain complete creative control (even though, yes, I might not make a cent). When I can silence the voices chanting traditionally published author and when I can silence my questions of Would it be a real book? Would I be a real author? it seems like it has the possibility at least of being a good fit for me.

But then I worry that it might not be enough to just see a book with my name on it on Amazon. I still might not have finally found the Blue Fairy. My book might not be real. And worst of all, after all the work and emotional energy I might still not be real.

I could go the traditional route. Maybe I could get an agent’s attention. And if so, maybe I’d be able to get a publishing house’s attention. And then I wonder if this, if this, would be my Blue Fairy.

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I asked author and artist Mandy Steward how she managed to claim the word artist. A word that sounds so nice to me but has always felt like it applied to people who were more talented, more creative than me and have at least a Master’s tucked away in their back pocket. She wrote a blog post in response to my question, and this is what struck me the hardest:

In the next couple years [after the publication of my book] I went through another detour because my book didn’t “make it” like I had believed it would. So on the tails of my spiritual crisis I had an artist crisis as well. What if I’m not as great as I think? What if I gained creative control of my life and now can’t do anything with it? What if I now lost everything – my faith and my artistic dreams? This was my darkest hour yet and I don’t think I’ll ever hit that low again.

She did it. She’s a traditionally published author. She’s an artist with people like me following her, looking up to her, and hoping her creative and messy ways rub off on us a little. In my book, she’d become BFFs with the teasingly elusive Blue Fairy. But becoming a traditionally published author didn’t ward off fears of failure. It didn’t make her stop wondering if she was real.

And somehow thanks to Mandy’s response I realized that I’m never going to find the Blue Fairy. Maybe she’s just the stuff of stories. But that’s okay. I don’t think I really need her anyway.

Last year I decided to stop waiting for the day that I’d believe other people when they told me that I was beautiful. That I’d stop waiting to believe my husband. And, instead, I started telling myself. I look at myself in the mirror in the morning and I say to myself, “My you’re looking beautiful today.” At first the word felt uncomfortable, foreign, and even untrue. Sometimes I felt like I was lying to myself. But the more I say it, the more I believe it. It didn’t matter how many times my husband said it, I wasn’t going to believe it until I started saying it for myself.

And I think the same principle applies in my search for legitimacy. There’s always going to be people that are “more successful” than me. So if I determine my identity, my legitimacy, based on readers or compliments or money in the bank or where my book was printed I’m never going to feel real. But I am real, just like I am beautiful.

I’m a writer. A real writer. A new one, yes, but a real one just the same. And I’m going to start telling myself it. I’m going to be my own damn Blue Fairy.

And what about those other lovely words? Freelance writer. Memoirist. Poet. Artist. I’ll get to those, too. But today I’ll start with writer.

What do you need to start calling yourself today?

Aside: I’ve starting sharing poetry on Instagram, so come on over.

Grass Dancers

I can’t remember the last time I twirled,
hair flying and arms flaying as I went round
and round until the world began to blur.
Somehow I grew up,
so I sit in the grass
fearing it might stain
my over-worried outfit. I listen to the music
but the man with the scarfs seems to feel it in an
unfiltered way that I haven’t since childhood.
Untamed white hair
and tie-dye tunic
billowing as he whirls.
His haphazard dancing calls to a few children
so he pulls out scarf after scarf like a circus clown,
handing them out to his motley crew who are
jumping and spinning
in a rainbow haze
to the sound of the banjo.
This unbridled spectacle of play is childish
and messy. It’s wildly undignified, which makes
the grass dancers all the more alive and free.