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.
I have a very similar humorous experience around the same age. It was a school party at the pool. I was finally at age to pick out my own swimsuit and I went to the school pool thinking that I had the greatest swimsuit. And one of the cute boys in class came up to me and said… Hey my mom has the same swimming suit. I was horrified
Oh no! Amazing that we survive these moments of humiliation isn’t it? And to be able to laugh about it…that feels like a gift that has come with time and perspective.
You would think that knowing what you like would be obvious. I, too, had many awkward moments not knowing, some in the not so distant past. I’m trying to give myself grace in the not knowing without contempt. I love how you worded ‘a more gracious view of your identity.’ That is worthy to work towards.
Grace is indeed needed in those places where we don’t know. I am with you in the reality that those are not all in the “distant past.” It is risky to let ourselves name what we truly desire, especially when our experiences of doing so are full of that awkwardness and contempt you spoke about. May you continue to extend that grace towards yourself, and find delight in exploring what you really like.
This is powerful storytelling Janet. I was right there on the pool deck with you, holding my breath to see how your friends responded. “I had no idea what I really loved.”–what a significant discovery that has clearly led to self-discovery and healing. It’s funny, but reading this brought to mind several of my favorite childhood swimsuits. It’s strange the seemingly important things that we forget and then the seemingly trivial things that we remember. I’m going to sit with the age I was when I owned those suits and see if anything stirs. Thanks for cultivating this space with your writing.
Susan, thank you. I love when stories prompt more stories! And I agree, It is curious the details and memories that can be tied not simply to people or places, but even things like swimsuits. Curious and worth pursuing. May you experience kindness for your young self as you revisit those stories and swimsuits. 😊
I love what you wrote: “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.” So beautifully written, Janet. I wonder how many unhealthy attachments I still have that keep me less authentic. Certainly much better than earlier, but it’s amazing how I feel my mother’s approval or disapproval with what I have on! Which is crazy, because…she died over ten years ago. I loved this entry, Janet. I felt embodied by it!
Oh my, yes…those voices of disapproval/approval are sometimes loud, and difficult to quiet. I am with you in both feeling grateful for where I am less tied to that approval, and in the awareness that it can pop up again in the most random moments. And that is where I think our work of embodying kindness and grace will continue as long as we live.
I love this phrase: “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.”
That is exactly how I experience you, and I am so grateful for the honest and full way you show up.
Thank you, Katy. That is my desire, and your words both affirm and challenge me, which is what I treasure so much about friendship with people who know me deeply and allow me to know them deeply as well. Love you!
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