On Thursday last week I bought T. a new swimsuit. I hadn't intended to buy her one--she has three already (two of them were gifts). But we were in the evil mega store to buy some last-minute supplies for our beach trip. There, on a rack, was a cute skirted swimsuit with printed red cherries on it--perfect for T. and her strawberry-blonde complexion. And it was only $9.99! She didn't even have to try it on--it was a 3T and I knew just by eye-balling it that it would fit. Sure enough, back at home she tried it on, turning this way and that way in front of the mirror. It was made for her, of course. "I look BEAUTIFUL!" she said, "Mama, don't I look cute?" (Except of course, with the way T. pronounces things it came out "I look Boo-ful" and "don't I look coot.")
"You sure do," I told her, thinking about how this was just the beginning of the long relationship T. will have with herself, her mirror, and her body image.
Fast-forward to two days later: I found myself in Sears to buy some replacement beach towels for the pair of towels Scott and I have had for TWELVE years and I saw a sign for a swimsuit sale. I have a swimsuit I love, but I've had it for almost three years now, and it's starting to show its wear a bit. Since I was alone, I decided to seize the moment and shop around for a new suit, because I have learned to never, ever go swimsuit-shopping with a small child. They either point out your flaws with brutal honesty, or distract you from noticing your own flaws by misbehaving, thus resulting in your buying a swimsuit that morphs your body into a lumpy horror as soon as you put it on at home.
But as it turned out, none of the suits I found at Sears last week looked right on me, even though I was by myself. They were tight in all the wrong places (remember when suits were tight in all the RIGHT places?) and I felt defeated and exposed and, well, almost 40. I thought about how much I used to love shopping for swimsuits, back in my college days, when all I had to do was size up a suit on a hanger, in much the same way I shopped for T.'s cherry-covered swimsuit. Now swimsuit-shopping is fraught with uncertainty; I find that what I see on a clothing rack and the reality of how it will look on me seldom jibe, and it's disconcerting, to say the least. The lights in the fitting room were all wrong, the straps kept tangling, I couldn't even get one top over my head--it wasn't pretty. I'd had it. As I headed back to the racks to deposit my suits I realized that there were several other women who were shopping for suits that day, too, including one woman towing along three grumpy children. I KNOW she felt defeated and exposed because she said so--several times, in-between fussing at her kids who were behaving pretty badly.
"Am I THAT fat?" She asked no one in particular as she held up a pair of red swimsuit bottoms, her voice filled with despair. Her kids didn't answer, and the oldest one shrugged his shoulders, clearly bored out of his mind. I had to stifle the urge to reach out and hug her, and tell her that, no, she wasn't fat--not in the least. The poor frazzled mom slunk into the fitting room, shoulders hunched in humiliation, while her kids gave up and collapsed in piles outside the door.
I hope that mother found her perfect suit; I know I didn't. I abandoned the hunt and left the dressing room with my pile of sad suits and my bruised ego, and found the towels instead--a much better and happier shopping experience. But I kept turning around and around in my head my swimsuit-shopping failure, interposed with the image of T. filled with pure joy and contentment as she gazed at her four-year-old self in the mirror. I thought about how somewhere along the road we girls become women, and lose sight of the delight we take in ourselves. We learn not to celebrate our bodies, but to shy away from them. Somehow, that four-year-old girl doing pirouettes in front of the mirror grows up and out of herself, and learns to feel ashamed of the familiar curves and angles; the body that houses so much beauty and life and love--both inside and out.