After over a decade of living in this area, and a decade of working within fifteen miles of a year-round aquatic center, I finally got my act together and bought a punch pass so I can swim laps. I've been going two- to three-times a week now, for the past month, and I've been feeling great. The last time I swam regularly like this I was in graduate school. I used to swim five days/week back then, and when I look back on that time I remember it as one of the few periods in my life when I felt like things were perfectly in balance: work, life, home--me.
This aquatic center reminds me a lot of the pool I used to go to, on the campus of my graduate university. It's quieter here, and the time when I go (before 8:00 on a weekday morning) seems to be the same time when lots of elderly people go for their exercise--in particular, one small group of very elderly, very white-haired women. In between my laps, when I'm catching my breath, or switching to the kickboard, I stop and watch them. They walk gingerly in their rubber shoes across the pool deck, and lower themselves into the water, ever so carefully. Their bodies seem so frail, so breakable, but once submerged they have a new buoyancy about them, a renewed faith in what they can do. I like to watch the women smile and splash water across their bodies and talk excitedly with one another. There's something about being in water that brings out the kid in everyone, I think. My grandmother's face used to light up that same way when she was near the ocean, standing on the water's edge, and exclaiming over the way the rocks looked through the clear water.
A lot has changed in the fifteen years or so since I last swam laps regularly like this. A lot has changed for me, not the least of it my body. When I'm at the pool I don't feel forty-two most of the time, but still a young twenty-six, newly married, eager to slip into my Speedo and lose myself in the water for a short while. But the very first afternoon I tried out the center, last month, I caught sight of myself--still clothed--in the locker room mirrors. I felt a moment of self-conscious doubt in my own body, and I retreated to the curtained changing room to put my suit on. I don't feel very different, I told myself, but I surely look different. I thought about how I used to unabashedly change in and out of my bathing suit, all those years ago, not thinking twice about my body image, or an extra pound or two (or five) gained. I swam all throughout my pregnancy with L. and I'd still strip naked, proud of my swollen belly, not even thinking about the forty pounds of pregancy weight I'd gained by the end of it. What was I ashamed of now?
It's sad to me that the time in our lives we women should be the proudest of our bodies--bodies that have born children, or sheltered them, nourished and warmed them inside and out, is the time when so many of us feel the most ashamed. There, at the aquatic center, I am often the young one, in the company of so many women much older than I am. They strip in the locker room without any shame at all, chatting to one another, and button and zip their bodies into warm clothes and sensible shoes. I wonder about all they have done in their lives, those women, whose bodies tell such beautiful stories.