I was fourteen when my high school class organized a freshman beach day at the end of the year. As my group of friends bounded from the bus and headed towards the sand, I remember seeing girls peel off their clothes and reveal – with a typical teenage mix of bravado and self-consciousness – their bathing suits. Preening for the boys one minute and then flapping, with all the grace of water-spattered puppies, into the ocean, my female classmates were equally, if not more interesting than the boardwalk attractions – and even, to be honest, more distracting than the fourteen-year-old guys who were grateful for the opportunity to ogle us in this rare moment of undress. The truth was the girls were all checking each other out, too. Puberty had only recently arrived and we were eager to compare ourselves, to see who had hit the jackpot with full, perky breasts, whose hips stayed boyishly straight and whose had spread.
Certainly, I had seen other girls in bathing suits before but for the first time, I remember wanting to know how I measured up, at moment when physical changes, deeply embedded in my genetic code, were suddenly coming to fruition. My interest wasn’t critical but rather, comparative; an anthropological study intended to shed light on my own circumstances. I don’t need to tell anyone that puberty is a strange, uncertain time, when female bodies dole out gifts like rounder boobs and butts and hips, but also unfortunate by-products like pimples and stretch marks and bellies, all in unequal, and sometimes downright unfair, measures. Even as I write this, it’s bizarre to think there was a time in my life when I was waiting, with baited breath, to see if my boobs would grow past an A-cup (spoiler: they didn’t). But it’s okay, really; I’ve had many years to adjust to my god-given adult body and plenty of time to make peace with its flaws and celebrate its assets.
The twenties are a great time to learn how to flaunt what you’ve got. I did not have children so my shape stayed relatively stable; I was no longer subject to the whims of pubescent hormones but hadn’t yet come under assault of aging’s sleeper cells. I’ll be thirty-one next month and was reminded of this early teenage beach day recently when I spent an all-girl weekend in Fire Island for a close friend’s bachelorette party. There we were, five of us stripping down to our bathing suits under a small grove of beach umbrellas (a relatively new addition now that melanoma and wrinkles are on the radar). All in our early thirties, this group of women has the confidence that comes with time, along with the helpful, garden-variety knowledge of which bathing suit cuts flatter our respective figures. Still, we compared, though this time it was openly: “you have great arms/legs/skin tone; I need a tan/push-up bra/gym membership.” Pop culture would have us believe that women are constantly judging one another’s bodies but that’s not exactly true, at least in my experience. The more accurate way to put it would be that women are happy to overlook their friends’ so-called imperfections while shining a spotlight on their own. But with emotional distance from adolescence, the general tone of body talk has shifted away from deep insecurity towards gentle amusement, as if one’s own human form is a naughty, yet beloved, child who never quite manages to move through the world without getting into a bit of trouble.
I hope it stays that way. Lying on the beach, we chatted about everything from movies to work to marriage to time management, but no conversation felt quite so loaded as the topic of aging. “I want to get bitten by a vampire now,” the bride-to-be joked, “It’s all downhill from here.” (She’s right in that she looks amazing, but who knows? Maybe she’ll be a stunning fifty-five, too.) But it hit me in that moment that the start of aging, like the onset adolescence, is a period of great uncertainty, when the body’s genetic programming takes over. Yes, we can buy expensive creams and make healthy life choices, but ultimately, whether we get grey hair or wrinkles or saddlebags or jowls has to do mostly with our unique biologies; decisions made for us back in the womb.