My summer as the biggest lifeguard — and what it taught me about body image

Last year, I spent my summer working as a lifeguard at my local pool. The job was everything I wanted: I was outside, I was working with kids, I was mostly sitting down, and I was always ready to help when someone needed it. (My boss might find that last part debatable.) Also, I had a lot of fun getting to know the nine girls and two boys I worked alongside and making joy out of sometimes boring, tedious days.

Of course, that’s how I feel looking back on it now. At the time, it was awful. Starting from the beginning, I felt left out of conversations, out of the loop, and overall disliked and ignored. I blamed this on a few things. Sometimes they talked about reality TV or Kim Kardashian’s cell phone game, two things I didn’t have interest in. Some of them were good friends already and went to the same parties and social events, so it was understandable that I felt out of the loop. Most of them had boyfriends (or girlfriends) and secrets and inside jokes that I didn’t know about. But there was an elephant in the room (or at the pool) that I can pinpoint with the most accuracy.

I was a size eight among eight size twos.

I knew when we tried on and ordered our one piece swimsuit uniforms and saw their toned and tanned stomachs and legs. I knew at lifeguard training when they finished swimming laps far, far before I did. I knew when one co-worker gave me some of her healthy snacks and I sat in a corner, blood rushing to my head. I knew when the label stretching across my chest started coming off before any of theirs had. I knew especially when they had noticed my choice to wear shorts over my uniform all summer. One day I came ready to abandon them and a few girls yelled “Yeah, Kait, take them off!” But within 15 minutes, I had begun to feel exposed and ashamed of my upper legs that had not yet been exposed to the sun.

My body image issues started long before my summer feeling like a whale among mermaids and mermen. When I was in junior high school I started to notice older girls thinner than me calling themselves fat. I noticed that my sister who was five years younger than me could still wear bikinis while my mom didn’t allow me to, before I recognized that I shouldn’t measure myself up against a nine-year-old. Boys would look me over in favor of the more petite. Before I realized that there is absolutely nothing glamorous about a disease, I often pondered how I’d feel if I stopped eating for a long period of time. My conscience never let me go through with that, and neither did pasta.

I started to try to cash in on my insecurities. Making jokes about how “fat” I was made me the funny one, and someone would always follow up with, “Please, no you’re not, you twig.” When “twig” is the best compliment you think you can receive, you must be pretty miserable. Not “smart,” not “funny,” not “talented,” not “kind.” Not even “beautiful.” “Beautiful” is what your grandparents call you when they try to one-up other grandparents, I thought.

After a while, after I tried to make those kind of jokes, I didn’t get a look of humor or even pity. I got an eye roll, or whatever an eye roll is when it doesn’t come back to look at you. They recognized that I was miserable, and trying to use my misery for attention. Once they recognized it, I recognized it, too. Who was I? I set myself up to be this confident person who walks to the beat of her own drum, just to have it taken down by just being around a girl a few sizes smaller than I am. I blamed feeling inferior on them, when in reality it was all my doing.

My summer as a lifeguard could have been a terrible experience, but I made the best of it. I took it as an opportunity to take ownership of my body and embrace the confidence I’d been pretending to have for so long. That summer was also the summer I bought a bikini, exposing the stomach I hated to the world. I wear tight clothes no matter how many bumps they show and I wear tank tops that show off my eczema. And I feel gorgeous and confident. Not bad for the biggest lifeguard.

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