In My Own Skin

Returning to the water.

July 23, 2014

I’ve always been comfortable, more or less, in my body. But this past year has taken a toll on it in ways I haven’t been completely able to process yet. Between the stress of the job search, the unhappiness and insecurity I felt in my previous job, moving, sub-optimal mental health…Something had to give and unfortunately, it was my body. It’s not (just) that I gained weight, it’s where I gained weight and how I am currently carrying it. I started feeling self-conscious in a way that I hadn’t before.

Luckily, I have been able to mask this physical discomfort fairly easily. My small headshot avatars on various social media outlets put, quite literally, my best face forward. Online, I am the best version of myself, highlighting my ideas, my humor (or maybe “humor”), and my various roles as scholar, educator, geek, wife, and mother. Bodies matters on Twitter and other social media platforms, but I’ve been fortunate (privileged) enough that I can hide behind being a pretty blond white girl for the most part.

There are always moments when and where we feel uncomfortable, but for me it was never because of how I looked, but how I “fit” (or perceived myself to fit) within a given situation intellectually and socially. There were two places where I always felt like I belonged, like I was right where I was supposed to be: in the classroom and at the pool. But that changed this past semester as I felt more and more uncomfortable in my skin. How I felt didn’t match how I perceived myself to look when I would catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror.

I compensated in front of the classroom with shapewear and professional dress. I wore dresses, with a layer of tight materials holding everything up and in underneath. It was my armor, as uncomfortable as it may have been. Physically, I felt uncomfortable, but at least I felt mentally more comfortable. In a small way, I was able to take back control of my body that had been stubbornly refusing to cooperate in ways that it had before. Physically, my body was rebelling. MI had tenuous grasp on my mental health. Tools of the patriarchy be damned, I was wearing my Spanx and my best work dresses and heels.

I stopped going to the pool. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel comfortable in a swimsuit. I also didn’t think I deserved to swim, to participate in an activity that has always brought me such great joy. I was too self-conscious, too self-loathing, too worn down to swim. It took all my effort to make my way in the classroom, and that took layers of armor in the form of layers of clothes. To simply show up on pool deck in a swimsuit was simply out of the question for me at that time.

But summer has arrived and my kids, in this heat, want to go swimming. More specifically, they want to go swimming with Mom. The mom that used to bring them swimming every day. The mom who taught them how to swim. The mom who used to be a swimmer and a lifeguard and a coach. The mom who loved the water. The mom who loves the water. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I knew I had to do it, for them.

My daughter is now the same age as the kids I used to coach way back in the day when I was a lifeguard during the summer and a developmental coach on my swim team. She is getting stronger and stronger in the water and wants to work on her strokes, or “do laps” with me when we’re at the pool. This past weekend she announced that she could now swim butterfly, and proceeded to swim some painful fly for a few strokes. Most kids, when they start swimming fly, work against their own bodies, and end up with their arms and legs working against each other, rather than working together to move forward; the arms are going at the same time and the legs are going at the same time, but the swimmer isn’t going anywhere.

Even when done properly, the butterfly is the most physically demanding and difficult strokes. It was never my best stroke, but I was good enough at it, and refined it when I became a Masters swimmer; I could no longer just “power through” so I had to really work on my technique. But I always had a particular gift for teaching and explaining the stroke to swimmers at all levels. I trotted out all of my usual lessons about being like a dolphin, and thinking about going forward and not up, but finally, I just had to show my daughter what butterfly looks like.

I pushed off the wall, did three hard dolphin kicks underwater and did my first double-arm pull. And another. And another. It felt fabulous. I saw underwater people stop and turn towards where I was swimming. Another few double-arm pulls and I take my first breath, keeping my head low and getting it back in the water as soon as my arms broke the surface behind me. A few more strokes, one more breath, and I lunge for the wall. 25 yards of better-than-proficient butterfly. I was barely out of breathe, and my muscles didn’t hurt too much. I did one more lap to get back to my daughter at the other side.

I doubt if I could have done more than those two laps, but for that minute and change, I was myself in the water again. I might not look like it, but I can still swim. And now I remembered it, too.


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