I remember a time, age thirteen or fourteen, running around in the grass after a summer storm wearing nothing but a swimsuit and a pair of wellies. My mother was horrified and asked me to cover up.
I couldn’t understand why. I’d only put on the boots because it was raining. This was a time when the opinions of others had no place in my relationship with my own body. I paid very little attention to people’s looks. I didn’t even realize they were watching.
Up until my early teens, my body barely changed. I still had the same skinny egs, flat chest, and stick-out ears. So why should I suddenly change my behavior just because I was reaching a certain age?
I’d say my relationship with my body at the time was positive. I never questioned it. I didn’t see it as a vehicle for self-expression or a tool to draw attention. It was just there. What I do remember is loving weather that allowed me to be as undressed as possible. Swimming, sunbathing, and even running around in the rain were a few of my favorite activities.
To a child, most things are liberating, and you rarely feel the need to seek that feeling of abandon. Perhaps, I attempted to hold on to those last few moments of freedom before adulthood. Or I simply didn’t see it coming. Either way, to the rest of the world, that age had come to an end.
I can’t remember when it all went pear-shaped, but I jumped from noisy background to exposed female in what felt like seconds.
My breasts popped out, but that wasn’t what changed the most. Suddenly I had access to all these wonderful activities like hair removal, bra shopping, and makeup. All promising to make my body and, by extension, me, more desirable. What they didn’t say on the label was that this would invite a string of problems into my life. Every decision I took regarding my appearance would be opened to scrutiny from others. Silly me to think this was just about me. My body was destined never to be left alone.
“Don’t do anything if you don’t want to be looked at,” I was told. But doing nothing is just as risky if the lingering stigma against female body hair is anything to go by. I started to believe that whatever I did or didn’t do would eventually ruffle someone’s feathers.
Traumatic events such as toxic relationships, sexual assault, painful operations, weight gain, and loss will leave marks on your body. Some positive experiences will do too. Even if you do not go through any of these, your body will change. It will evolve. It will grow. In my case, being in and out of abusive relationships left my body covered in stretch marks, scars, and various skin conditions that grew from being under constant stress.
These scars are trophies and memories of what you have achieved and survived, but I didn’t see it that way. All I saw was all the years I had wasted. I had spent so long neglecting my own body and focusing on someone else’s needs. Now that I finally saw things clearly, I didn’t recognize what I was looking at in the mirror. I didn’t know who that was, but it wasn’t me.
Stepping outside the front door became a daily challenge. I’d examine every angle of my body, sometimes going back to correct whatever I didn’t like. Often I gave up going out altogether. If I could have lived in a thick bubble, I would have.
That walk from the beach to the sea during the summer holidays was a particular nightmare of mine. I could see hundreds of eyes looking and devouring me, going straight for those few extra pounds, the scars, and the spots. I tried to hide it by covering up and walking like a penguin, but it made things worse. Denim shorts in the water don’t look so natural.
I know now that fifteen years following that summer storm, my body hadn’t changed all that much. My perspective had and not for the best. The experiences I went through made me feel so ugly. It was as if it had rubbed off on my skin.
A year ago, I came across an article on swimming in open waters while searching online for yet another skincare remedy. The writer mentioned a city pond with a “lady only section” that had worked wonders for her mood. I was curious to know why other women felt a need for it and decided to give it a try.
The first time was tricky, and I almost turned around when I saw no changing rooms. All I had to do was hurry to the wooden porch, my towel safely fastened around me, and jump in. Letting go of the ladder and diving in for the first time is still the best memory I have of it. The water was soft and cool. The place was secluded and surrounded by vegetation. Immediately I felt at peace, floating and swimming in the water. I didn’t realize how much I had missed it.
Seeing how little these women cared about how I looked made me realize how little was wrong with me in the first place. It’s not that they didn’t care. In fact, we regularly smile at each other, knowing how grateful we are to share this experience. There is no place for judgment or scrutiny.
The other day, I mentioned it to a male family member. He couldn’t understand why I felt the need for a lady-only section. “What do you think will happen?” he said. It became clear that even if he and I were part of the same planet, we had lived VERY different lives.
Wherever you go and however confident you are with your body, people will look. My parents used to tell me staring was rude, but that saying goes out the window the minute you reach puberty. The only thing you can do is not care, but if like me, you’re not quite there yet, you could make space in your life for a “safe place.”
There are very few places in my life where I can say I am truly comfortable. Swimming at one of London’s lady ponds is one of them. I swim twice a week now, regardless of the weather, and I can see that confidence coming back and remaining throughout the week.
Great feelings are essential. I used to feel great about myself the minute I put on my pink padded bra, but that only lasted a few hours before it started eating into my back. Genuinely good feelings are the ones that last and don’t need a top-up or replacement.
I don’t think I’ll ever go full nudist, but I do see a day when I’ll be back to strolling on the beach in my bikini, with or without wellies.