The year was 1980, and I’d been invited to my first boy-girl party with classmates from school. It was the end of my 7th grade school year and invitations to girls-only parties had been few and far between. The addition of boys to the mix only heightened my excitement and dread. Even more anxiety inducing, however, were these four words that leapt off the invitation:
BRING YOUR BATHING SUIT.
I’ve never met a woman who doesn’t relate to the inevitable experience of shame, comparison, and criticism when standing in front of a mirror in a bathing suit. In some ways, this makes sense: we are walking around a pool or the beach in something essentially like our underwear, just maybe more colorful. There is a unique level of exposure in that. However, the truth is that what we wear, and even how we feel about wearing it, has nothing at all to do with our identity.
Adolescence is a time of self-consciousness, as we develop an awareness of others beyond ourselves and try to assume a public image that will be socially acceptable. As a young teenager, my identity was largely gathered from painful life experiences and my own interpretations of them – a reflection of what the people around me were communicating about who I was.
I believed people saw me as an awkward, physically weak, unattractive, smart, large, quiet, kind, sensitive girl. Compared to my peers, I concluded there weren’t enough positives to warrant attention or even gain acceptance. Social situations were riddled with anxiety. My awkward attempts at fitting in were ultimately sabotaged by my belief that I never would.
At age 13, I was just beginning to find the courage to voice my desire for things I preferred, having been limited much of my childhood to my older sisters’ hand-me-downs and the Stretch and Sew polyester creations my mom produced. Since I didn’t even have a bathing suit that fit, my mom agreed to order one for me out of the JC Penney catalog. This was how those living in remote areas shopped efficiently pre-internet: page through the catalog, find your items, place an order by telephone, and pick up your items at the catalog order center when you next went into town.
I browsed through the catalog, awed by the number of options and the chance to pick something I liked. I finally settled on a one-piece in my favorite color, navy blue. Most importantly, my mom approved – it was not only a one-piece, but had a “blouson” top that basically ensured the shape of my body would not be revealed.
Any excitement I felt about my new swimsuit quickly dissipated as I walked onto the pool deck and looked around at my classmates. I quickly assessed that my suit, the one I had thought “safe”, was anything but. Instead of blending in, I felt like every eye was focused on the odd girl wearing a suit that looked like it belonged on a middle-aged woman.
I honestly couldn’t tell you why I chose that suit. As I hold that experience alongside several other moments in the years to come, what became clear was that I had no idea what I really loved. I would need to separate myself from an unhealthy attachment to other people’s approval before finding the courage to name desires that felt more authentic. As I look back on the girl walking into the party that day, I have great compassion for her.
I was so uncertain, looking for someone to tell me who to be.
Today, I have a more gracious understanding of my identity – created in the image of a God who is Love, allowing Love to transform more of the parts that make up my whole self, letting Love choose how I want to be in the world.
I long for all of us to be women who bring our most authentic selves to the party—awkward bathing suits and all—not some version of who we need to be to fit in. When we do that, we can’t help but bring Love.
Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris, and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.