Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A bikini and a swimming pool: A lesson in body image

(This might offend some, but it's what I'm thinking about so consider yourselves warned.) 

I'm too much a product of my upbringing. And that saddens me. But, I'm so proud of the people in front of me, and that makes me weep joyful tears.

I'm hanging out by the pool, and we are in "The Europeans have landed" mode. There are no fewer than four families from various parts of Europe hanging out by the pool before we all disburse to our various activities for the day.

A few particular people have caught my eye. Two girls, who are about twelve or thirteen are frolicking in the pool. Both are wearing bikinis. Neither is thin. At all. Both have bellies that hang out over their bikini bottoms. Both have full, big hips and thighs. Both are doing their thing without a care as to whether or not they "should" be wearing bikinis with the kind of figures they have. They are just doing it and having a blast making handstands and somersaults and giggles. 

When I was their age, I would not have dreamed of putting a bikini on my body. My breasts alone would have made wearing a two-piece suit an impossibility. Heck, to this day, I wouldn't dream of it because frankly the straps cutting into my shoulders would be too painful unless I pay big money for a custom-made suit, which I won't be doing (and I like my low-cut one-piece purple and pink suit just fine, thank you very much. :) ). But the big issue? Both my parents let me (and my sisters) know that we were too fat and that we should not ever reveal ourselves like that in public. They reinforced that message daily in ways big and small. 

So, while I loved the water, the pool, and the beach, I covered myself up. Some of you, who took swimming with me in high school might remember that I wore a t-shirt over my swimsuit. I was a great swimmer. I could do a backwards dive off the high board (and did and that was how I got an automatic A in the class) and not blink an eye. I have since learned how to scuba dive. And you know what? Never would I do it while wearing a two-piece suit. How strange and sad is that!

We all get messages from the world at large about what we should and shouldn't do. And the messages fall on a continuum. The hope is that our  parents would fall on the positive end of that scale. The wish is that they would land squarely on the "You go girl! You are awesome! And how great that you can dive off the high dive (regardless of what you are wearing)!" side of things.

But often, too often, we receive the exact opposite messages from parents and other elders whose job it is to help us develop a strong sense of self and a healthy ego. I didn't have children, but I like to think I would fall on the positive end of that spectrum. I certainly try to support the young people in my life as they stretch and grow. I do have some views on being too sedentary at too young an age, but that has little to do with body image and a lot to do with good health, wellbeing, and quality of life. 

I wish I could come up to these young women and tell them how incredible I think they are. And I wish I could give the parents a "high five" for doing such a great job raising their kids. Both girls are well-adjusted, happy, adventurous, and fantastic. And they have their parents' support as they develop. I would love it if everyone had the opportunity to feel that way as they grow up.

I also wish we lived in a society where what a girl or woman chooses to wear wasn't up for debate or discussion. As I said first thing, I hope that part of this essay doesn't offend people. I guess I'm a product of my society as much as I am one of my upbringing. I still wonder and question and ponder these issues and how they affect women and girls all over the world.

Right now, the dad and one of the daughters are hanging out in the pool. They are giggling and bouncing and having a great time. He is helping her straighten her underwater handstand. He is providing support, encouragement, advice, and a boundary as she explores this new skill. And as far as I'm concerned those are four of the biggest and best things parents can do for their kids.

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