The one thing that helped me finally feel comfortable in a bathing suit
Approximately 68% of women in America are considered plus size, yet there’s a clear lack of representation in the fashion industry and a lack of shopping options for this majority. In Plus Size Diaries, columnist Olivia Muenter dives into all things plus size, from voicing her thoughts and sharing personal experiences to calling out the fashion industry and speaking about plus size-culture at large. This month, Olivia shares what it took for her to feel comfortable in a bathing suit.
Growing up, I would spend two weeks at the beach each and every summer. My family and my extended family would all stay together in a giant house and spend the days sitting by the ocean and the nights chatting in the hot tub or pool. Each summer, it was something I looked forward to. It was also the place where I first realized that, when it came to wearing a bathing suit, it was never really just as simple as that.
I would spend hours each day in a beach chair, usually in an oversized shirt or cover up, trying to see just how long I could wait before getting so hot that I’d have to cool off in the water. I’d stare at the ocean and talk myself through how, exactly, I could get from my chair to the waves without exposing my body to the world. Thoughts like, “Everyone will see me. What if people think I look fat? What if everyone sees my cellulite? My stretch marks? OK, maybe I’ll wait an hour and there will be less people. I’ll go then,” invaded my brain constantly. If I wasn’t at the beach, I would sit by the edge of the pool wrapped in a towel until I finally felt the courage to jump in, making sure that my bathing suit-clad body was visible for as little time as possible. Though I know now that no one cared about how I looked in a bathing suit then, it was all I thought about.
I thought in those days that all of this debilitating self-consciousness was because there was something wrong with my body—that my stomach was too big, my thighs were too close, my boobs were too small. I thought it was because my proportions were wrong or a number on the scale or a lack of discipline. But my body was different all those years. The feeling of self-consciousness and shame that first gripped me before I was ever a teenager and stayed until years after I graduated college remained, whether I was at my smallest or my biggest. I thought then that if I just became smaller or more toned that I’d finally feel good in a bathing suit—that I’d finally feel confident then because I’d finally deserve to to feel that way.
It wasn’t until I experienced loss that I realized just how wrong I was.
Just before I turned 24, one of my best friends passed away suddenly. As time passed after her death, my grief shifted to something different than the gnawing, painful feeling it had been before. Now, it felt more like a wake-up call. It was as if a light had gone off in my brain that told me that I was promised none of this—not tomorrow, not another beach trip, not a smaller size. This wasn’t because my friend and I ever really discussed my body image issues, but because her absence showed me, for the first time, that life is fragile. I’m sure she believed she’d have many more years to do whatever it is she wanted to do in life. I believed that too—in the same way that I believed I had many more summers to finally like how I looked in a bathing suit or to finally enjoy the pool or beach fully. If I believed I would enjoy life more fully when I was thin, then what would it mean if I never got there? That I never enjoyed life fully at all? I refused to live that way.
So when the next summer rolled around and I put on a bathing suit again, I still felt the same hesitation. I was a size 16, bigger than I had ever been. In any other year this would have meant I avoided bathing suits and the beach altogether. But this year, I was different. I sat in my beach chair and looked at the ocean and, yes, I felt hesitation about being confident in a bathing suit. But mostly, I thought about one question: Was I promised this experience again? The chair, the beach, the ocean? Being there with friends and family? And the answer was no. The answer is always no.
When it comes to learning how to feel confident in a bathing suit, you can read articles that say standing up straight or finding the most “flattering” silhouette for your shape (whatever that means) is the secret. You’ll find “beach body,” bullshit exercise plans that claim to be the answer to your prayers. You’ll find so many messages about “faking it ‘til you make it.” I know this because I read all of it, year after year. For so long, I thought that if I could just finally teach myself confidence that I would feel good in a bikini.