It’s Time to Love Yourself in a Swimsuit

“You may not return this item if the hygiene strip has been removed”. 

The hygiene strip, dear reader, was indeed detached from one of the $100 swim suits I had ordered to try on. The strip stuck to the underwear I wore to shimmy into the pricey suits and fluttered to the bathroom floor as I peeled one of the candidates from my body. I tried to smooth the tacky strip back into place, but the dog hair and lint it had accumulated on its brief brush with our tile made reattachment impossible. 

That night, I stared at the ceiling rehearsing the speech I would give to the Customer Service rep first thing in the morning. “I promise I was wearing underwear! I know how bathing suit shopping works! I didn’t mean for it to come off or land in a swirl of hound dog dander and become unusable! I don’t think it was very sticky to begin with, if I’m perfectly honest. I need to get a refund for this suit. My boobs looked like sad beanbags in it, and it gave me one of those weird belly button ghost shadows in the middle. I cannot keep it. Please give me my money back.”

When I rolled out of bed, I called Customer Service. The 800 number opened for business at 7AM Eastern Time, so I spoke to Cheryl on the phone and told her my hygiene strip sob story before I even made coffee, before I had said more than three words to my kid. I could hear her keyboard clacking as she listened. “I made a note on your order that the hygiene strip on the navy blue suit was not very sticky and it came off during try-on and could not be reattached. I’ve made a note to please accept your return and process a refund.” I thanked her profusely and assured her that I had, in fact, found My Dream Suit from among the four contenders. “I’m so glad you found one that worked out for you! Enjoy!”

For the first time in my adult life, I think I actually WILL enjoy wearing a bathing suit. I found my dream suit, and I am still in shock. I haven’t taken it for a real test drive at the beach or the pool yet, but my daughter clapped and squealed “You look FAB-U-LOUS, mommy!” and Les gave me a thumbs up, followed by “Yeah! You look great!” when I stepped out of the bathroom wrapped in brilliant purple. 

It has a removeable halter strap, but I didn’t need it!

“Do I look $98 great? Because that’s how much this suit costs.” He looked a little shocked, but replied that if I felt good in it, and I knew I would wear it, I should keep it. He could see the look of genuine pleasure and confidence on my face. I clipped the tag immediately and yanked the hygiene strip from the crotch. The suit is now nestled like a treasure in my dresser drawer, just waiting for its debut at the lakefront or the pool. 

I’ve never spent an adult amount of money on a bathing suit. Throw me whatever Target clearance rack mismatched tankini pieces you have handy. But this year – THIS YEAR – I vowed to buy a bathing suit that fits my actual body and that cost more than $29.99. I took inventory of my summer wardrobe a few weeks ago and felt the elastic of one of my old swimsuits disintegrate within the seams as I attempted to try it on. I moved on to the tankini I bought two years ago. That suit still has functional elastic and technically, it still fits. It fits in the aggressively snug manner of a bathing suit that should be at least a half-size bigger. 

Did I really need a new bathing suit? A reasonable question. Historically, I haven’t done a lot of swimming or poolside lounging. But there’s a lot of pressure on this summer to make up for the utter garbage of last year’s cabin fever COVID summer. I have been imagining steamy afternoons at our favorite northside beach and the neighborhood pool with my kiddo. I’ve even entertained the idea of a road trip to my in-laws’ vacation condo in Florida, visualizing myself draped across an oversized pool float with a margarita in each hand. 

I decided not to let Snug Suit get in the way of my water fun summer dreams. I did what any rational person would do and I ordered eight bathing suits. Four bathing suits in different sizes and styles from a brand that I love but could never gulp down the price tag, and four from more modestly priced brands. I assured Les that I would only be keeping one of the eight, if any, and that I would return the rest before the credit card bill came due. And that is how I found myself with hundreds of dollars of nylon and spandex in boxes in my bedroom. 

As I clicked “Add to Cart”, I asked myself what it could be like to find a suit that I really love. What if I found a suit that sparked joy, even if it was not the suit that made my body look the smallest, or had the strongest spandex forcefield across the midsection to constrict all that wayward flesh into a more acceptable silhouette? Would it even be possible to love a suit that didn’t deliver a body shrinkage illusion? I was determined to find out. “It’s research. You know, for my writing!” I chirped as I eagerly jabbed “Checkout.”

First, I ordered four tankinis. I believed that dark colored tummy-hiding tankinis with sturdy push-or-pull up bras were my best option. I had tried those “Build Your Perfect Suit” combinations where you buy whatever top and whatever bottoms you like, but the results were just…awful. I’m trying to think of a more writerly way to say it. One brand offered “Tummy Control” tops, so of course I tried one. Go grab a fresh tube of toothpaste, take off the cap, and squeeze the tube from the dead center. That’s what a tummy control tankini top does to your midsection – it just rearranges the plush. And also, you can’t breathe. The other tops were either billowy and unflattering or too tight and unflattering. The shorty-style bottoms were too tight in the waist and the material was somehow scratchy? Positive visualization is important for stressful situations, so I visualized feeding all four of these tankinis into a wood chipper. 

After the tankini debacle, I went wild with hope and desperation and flew to the posher brand’s website and added four chic retro-vibe one piece numbers to my cart. I haven’t worn a one piece since my 20s. One piece suits, I believed, were only for the athletically svelte, not for those of us with bellies or bosoms in need of support.

A few days later, the box with the splurgey suits appeared on my doorstep. I sprinted to the bathroom and chopped open the box with some rusty old manicure scissors I found in the vanity drawer. I grabbed my top-pick suit and tore it from the plastic wrap. This was the suit I was just SURE was going to be the winner. Feminine, some fashionable ruching that didn’t scream “BELLY CAMOUFLAGE”, pretty pattern, and the same general cut I remember wearing when I last wore a one piece suit 15 years ago. 

I slid into that suit and instantly realized the difference between a $30 bathing suit and a $100 bathing suit. The material was buttery soft and not one inch of that suit pinched or smashed or strangled. No sagging or riding in the butt. It was a beautiful suit that, sadly, I had ordered in the wrong size AND had failed to appreciate the plunging drama of the neckline. I could have exchanged it for the proper size, if not for the fact that my boobs needed a lot more than an elegant nod to support, and definitely cannot be trusted around a v-neck that stops at the bottom of my sternum. Back into the wrapper. 

I grabbed the next suit, which had glowing reviews online from other women my size and build. Thank you, swimsuit reviewers of the internet, for being forthright with your size and measurements so we can all benefit from hive-mind consensus over whether an article of clothing is realistic on a size 12/14 middle age body when the brand model is a willowy 20-something. I started to step into this simple but feminine navy blue suit and immediately noticed that the hygiene strip was crunched and suspicious-looking. I was wearing my undies for this try-on sesh anyway, because I don’t trust anything that comes in contact with another person’s business, hygiene strip or no hygiene strip. I smoothed the strip and carried on with the try-on. No bust support, nothing in the midsection or other details to endear it to me. Not a winner. I peeled out of the suit and gasped in horror as the plastic strip fluttered to the floor. In that moment of fashion frenzy the lost strip was Future Jill’s problem, because I had two more suits to try. 

I had ordered the same suit in two sizes, each in a different color. The reviews for this ruched bandeau-style suit were too good to be true. I don’t wear strapless ANYTHING. I need straps – the thicker the better – to keep the girls hoisted into position and to avoid wardrobe malfunctions. But virtually every woman who reviewed this suit said a version of “Stop wondering if this suit will work for you and just buy the damn thing. IT WILL WORK.” It’s listed as a Best Seller on the brand’s site. It comes in pretty colors, and both of my preferred sizes were in stock. I bought a bright purple in my hopeful size and a dark green in my often-more-flattering larger size. 

When I put on that purple suit, I felt a strange sensation ripple through me. There, in the mirror, was my body in a bright bathing suit. A beautiful, flattering color. My bust looked spectacular – well supported, and shockingly, not at all like an indecency waiting to happen. I jumped up and down. Everything stayed in place. The silky soft ruched fabric created a lovely blurring effect throughout the torso without trying too hard for an optical illusion. No compression, no hidden corset panels. Other suits may have been better at visually slimming my waistline, but none of them made me feel so eager for a pool day. I felt beautiful in this suit, in my own body. Bright and happy and confident. I didn’t even take the dark green suit out of the wrapper. I just bolted into the bedroom where my husband and daughter awaited my fashion show and did a twirl.

I know that $98 is a lot to spend on a suit, and it’s not in everyone’s budget. It’s probably not really in my budget, to be honest. I don’t think you need to spend that much money to find the perfect suit for you, but try some shapes and styles that you’ve never tried before. And COLOR! For the love of all that is soft and fluffy, at least TRY a color other than black. You never know. You may find yourself naming your new suit (Iris) and tucking it into bed in your dresser drawer with a sigh of disbelief. For the first time in forever, I can’t wait to wear a bathing suit in public. And there’s not a “tummy control” panel in sight.

Body Talk

Several years ago, I read an Instagram post that of course I didn’t save, so I cannot give it proper attribution. But the gist of it was “Don’t talk to your kids about their bodies or about your body except to explain to them how bodies work.” I get the intent behind that idea. Don’t offer any commentary at all – positive or negative – about the way they, or we, or anyone looks. Keep body talk for health and hygiene and basic mechanics. 

But I’m starting to think about Body Talk with my daughter more like talking to her about sex. If I am not proactive, the world is going to fill her up for me. 

Just like with sex, our kids are going to be saturated with messages about their bodies and other people’s bodies. We don’t want to leave a void there – their peers and media and other adults will fill that void. We need to get out ahead of the body conversation.

Photo by Vadim B on

My typical M.O. is to wait for a “teachable moment”, like the one that happened on a rambling walk through the neighborhood this summer. 

My five year old daughter and I encountered one of our neighbor families as we strolled down our street. The three kids were riding their bikes to the park as the dad jogged along behind them. The oldest neighbor girl, Annie, is eleven years old. As my daughter and I walked home, my kiddo turned to me and asked “Mom, why is Annie fat?” 

Obviously, this smashed all my trigger buttons at once. My first impulse was to shriek “She’s not FAT!! We never talk about someone’s body!!”. But I paused just long enough to pull up scripts from some of the women who have written about raising body-neutral kids and tried this instead:

“Why do you say that Annie is fat?”

“Because she has a round tummy and it sticks out under her shirt.”

“Well, Annie is older than you, so her body is going to be bigger than you or your friends’ bodies. And, she’s right around the age where girls start to grow very quickly, and their bodies change from being like a little girl to looking more like a woman. Women are meant to have curvier, softer bodies than little girls.”

“Oh. Ok.”

“It’s OK to talk with me about these kinds of questions, but we should not talk to our friends about other people’s bodies, because it can really hurt people’s feelings.”


“Well, because some people tease people about how they look, or to say unkind things about other people’s bodies. And that hurts people’s feelings. We know that it is never OK to tease someone about how they look. People look different from one another, and that’s a good thing.”

“Right, because if everyone looked the same, we wouldn’t know who is who!”

“Right! Remember that All Bodies are Good Bodies.”

I desperately want us both to really believe that all bodies are good bodies. 

I don’t know how long I can “Fake It Till I Make It” as I teach my daughter body acceptance that I still struggle to absorb myself. My dear friend of over 20 years, Roxanne, and I had a conversation about all of this recently. She’s a momma of four, with one teenager already. They have been having Body Talks for years now. She encouraged me to be more transparent with my kiddo about my own struggles, and how hard it can be to love my own body and how easy it can be to judge other people’s bodies. 

Next time we have a conversation about bodies, I’ll tell my daughter that when I was younger, people teased me about my body. Even now that I’m a grown up, it is still hard for me to love my body. If she’s still listening, I’ll tell her how proud I am of my body for growing her and giving birth to her. I’ll tell her that I’m thankful that my body works well, and I don’t have any real pain or illness. 

I’ll remind her about how she is fearfully and wonderfully made – how we ALL are – no matter how we look or what our bodies do easily or struggle to do at all. 

I’ll tell her how people who want you to buy the things they are selling will tell you that you have to look a certain way to be happy, and I’ll tell her that that is a huge lie. 

My daughter saw me do the iconic Suck and Zip to put on some jeans the other day. I wonder if she has noticed that my body has gotten bigger over the past year. She hasn’t made any comments, but she notices everything. I started riding our stationary bike just about every day a few months ago and she asked me why. I told her it is because we’ve been indoors for so long, I haven’t gotten as much exercise as my body needs. I want to be strong and feel good, so I use the bike. That’s true, of course. Partly true. 

I’m living in the tension of body acceptance and wanting to be smaller. In the slogging murk of wanting to “be healthy” and “lose the pandemic weight” while trying not to give in to disordered eating and compulsive exercise. 

Here’s what I’m trying hard to absorb every day: It’s OK if I gained weight EVEN IF I never lose it. Even if this is just my middle aged, pandemic surviving, macchiato drinking body now. Bodies change. Bodies age. Yes, I do want to keep an eye on my blood pressure. Yes, I will create habits to move my body more because I want to still be moving when my kiddo is in high school and college (older mom problems). I want to get the gold stars at my next physical. And if I can fit back into my favorite dress by spring 2022, that would be great, too. 

I was hoping for at least a little shame.

Lest anyone think I am on the cusp of full, healthy self-acceptance, let me give you a peek at some of the miasmic content of my inner life.

My annual physical was today, except I haven’t been so stellar on the “annual” part. I thought I had, but my official records show that the last time I went in for a well visit was in March of 2018. Whoopsy!

In anticipation of today’ visit, I steeled myself for the “I-have-your-best-interests-at-heart” beat down I was expecting from my primary care doctor when she and I got to the part about my current weight. I imagined her concern about the number on the chart, especially relative to the 2018 number, and rehearsed my response to her prescription for weight loss with some subtle fear/shame drizzled over the top for full effect.

In these mental rehearsals of my doctor’s imaginary scolding, I envisioned that I would stack her comments in a neat crisscross pattern, whip out the Queen of Hearts Zippo lighter given to me by a roommate 15 years ago, and ignite the bonfire of food restriction and punishing exercise I planned to enact immediately.

“Well, I have to do it, you know. For my health. Doctor’s orders.”

Photo by Min An on

Here’s the thing though. She didn’t mention it. Not one syllable about my weight. I have an amazing PCP who is actually not perpetuating weight stigma or diet culture, and there I was, disappointed. We got all the way to the end of the check up and I started to panic. Was I not going to get my hall pass back to orthorexia? How was I going to get the validation I wanted to take extreme measures to shrink my body if my doctor wasn’t going to give it to me?

As the appointment was wrapping up, she asked me if I had any health concerns, and I blurted out “This is the biggest I’ve ever been and I’m kind of freaking out about my weight gain. I don’t feel like my eating habits have changed much. I’m afraid I’m going to gain more weight.”

Do you know what she did? Could you even believe me if I told you?

  • She normalized weight gain during a global pandemic. “Many people have put on weight this year. Stress can really contribute to weight gain, even if your diet hasn’t changed.”
  • She normalized people’s bodies changing over time. “As women slide through those last ten years leading up to menopause, our metabolism changes dramatically. Our bodies technically need fewer calories as we come out of our child bearing years. Many women notice weight changes in their 40s.”
  • She validated my concerns about my health. “We’re going to run blood work, and we’ll look at your thyroid and your blood sugar and other markers. Your previous blood work has always come back fine. If we see something amiss this time, we can make adjustments. If you feel like you want to lose weight, we can talk about that.”
  • She carefully advised against dramatic calorie restriction. “Your body needs fewer calories as you age, but it’s difficult to feel satisfied on a restricted diet. Finding exercise or a sport that you enjoy and ramping up your time moving is a more sustainable approach. Eat food you truly enjoy, and try to avoid eating or drinking things out of boredom, or things you don’t actually enjoy eating.”
  • She didn’t even breathe the letters “BMI”. She didn’t print out handouts about weight loss. She didn’t remind me of risk factors for diabetes or cancer or heart disease. She did show me the fitness app she uses for body-weight-resistance strength training “You don’t need any special equipment! And weight training is good for your bones!”.

My doctor did all the things I know so many people want and need their doctor to say to them. She focused on my actual overall health (bloodwork, how I am feeling in this body of mine, my mental health in this train wreck of a year) rather than one number. From what I have been reading, I know this is not the norm. I am thankful for my very English, very proper, very weight-neutral doctor. I am also thrown for a loop. If I’m not motivated by fear and body shame, I guess I’ll just have to be motivated by the endorphins of exercise and the pleasure of eating what I truly enjoy? I am honestly not sure I know how to do that.

I want to leave Diet Culture for good. I also want “healthy food” to save me.

 This is an excerpt from the essay I wrote and workshopped in my writing class this summer. It is the foundation essay to the essay collection I hope to finish and publish.

I didn’t know my mother kept a diary. I discovered it in a stack of books perched on the crowded nightstand in the upstairs bedroom of her house. A bedroom she had not been able to reach for months, her body unable to summit the staircase. She had been living entirely on the first floor the year before she died, and she had been dead for over a year when I found the diary. My siblings and I had finally started to clean out the house that she and my dad had built together; sorting 30 years of life into Dumpster, Donate, Sell, Keep. 

My sister sat on the floor in front of a heap of wrinkled clothes she had pulled from mom’s dark brown carved-wood dresser. “I think this is mom’s diary. What should I do with it?” I handed my sister the purple hard-back, but she waved it away without looking up. “Don’t read that, Jill. It’s private.” I wordlessly tossed it onto the bed beside me and moved on to the rest of the stack. When my sister dragged a white garbage bag full of stained t-shirts and snagged hosiery to the dumpster, I lurched for the book and sat down on the floor with my back against her bed. The blood throbbed in my ears as I cracked open the spine and leafed through the entries. The daughter reading her mom’s diary, hands sweaty, expecting to find notes about her marriage or my dad’s illness and death, or my meddling grandparents, or me or my siblings. I expected her diary to look like mine – chronicles of heartbreaks and everything I couldn’t say out loud, with a few private joys woven in to hold it together. Waves of grief, guilt and curiosity trembled through me as I flipped through the pages. There were only twenty or so entries spanning over a decade. None were more than a paragraph long.

Please, God, help me lose some weight. I don’t want to be like this anymore.

Went to Weight Watchers tonight. It feels more doable this time. They’ve changed their program since the last time I tried.

Shortly after she completed her chemo she wrote: 

Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways. All those years asking God to help me lose weight. Looks like the chemo has finally helped with that! Be careful what you wish for.

Nearly every entry was about her weight or her body shame or a new diet she was trying. Prayers scribbled in exhausted script. “Please, God, help me have some self-control. Please, God, help me lose some weight.” My dear mom had suffered so much, and the only griefs spilled into her diary were sorrows over her weight and failed diets. My heart tore wide open and I gulped back a sob. The sharp sting of this breach of her privacy compelled me to run the book out to the rust-orange dumpster and hurl her secrets over the container’s wall into the tangle of broken lawn chairs and mouse-chewed craft supplies. I never told either of my siblings what I had read.

I never thought of my mom as “fat” when I was growing up. She was soft and mom-sized. She shopped for clothes in the plus section but seemed to me to be similar in size to many of her peer moms. She was always on a diet. Weight Watchers, Slim Fast, Bible-based diets, soup and Special K diets. She never really lost any weight. My dad made relentless commentary about what she cooked and ate. 

Do you really think you need seconds?

None of us really need dessert every night, you know.

Is that on your diet?

I saw the pain in her eyes even though she never retorted. “Probably not” she’d sigh. 

My dad was dying, slowly, of Type 1 diabetes, which is the type that has nothing to do with how much you weigh or brought about by what you eat but is rather a ruthless genetic glitch. He had been managing the disease with a strictly sugar-free diet and daily insulin injections since he was five years old. He was also taking lithium for bi-polar disorder, which was still called Manic Depression in the 80s. His life depended upon careful label reading and strict sugar avoidance. He lived on meat, baked potatoes and Diet Coke. He occasionally indulged in strawberries or a swig of beer when his brothers were in town, but only if he was at home where he could check his blood sugar and stab another hit of insulin if needed. 

When I was 14, he was let go from his job as a computer systems analyst because he couldn’t physically sit at a desk all day or type. Diabetic neuropathy in his fingers made it impossible to feel the keys of his keyboard. He was eventually granted permanent disability and stayed home all day for the next nine years, propped up in his brown faux leather recliner at first, and eventually a home hospital bed. By the time I was 18, he had only five modes: sleeping, yelling, laughing, crying, or watching M.A.S.H.

His comments to mom were, I believe, rooted in love and concern for her but mixed with vanity, jealousy over an abandon with food he had never experienced, and full buy-in to patriarchal, capitalist norms about what a woman’s body is allowed to look like. He was a good man, addled by disease and mental illness. He was a good man, who policed my mother’s food intake and bemoaned her inability to return to her svelte pre-baby body.

I’ve gained fifteen pounds since my daughter was born five years ago. Fifteen new pounds since the round-the-clock breastfeeding of a struggling newborn and the bleary nineteen months of sleeplessness that followed as my babe woke every two hours to eat. I had to oblige her. “She’s right at the edge of falling off the growth curve” her pediatrician told me. “You can switch to formula if it’s too much for your body”. I did supplement with formula, but kept drawing her to my breast, over and over, throughout the long nights. The lactation consultant didn’t find anything amiss with my breastmilk, or her latch. “She’s just tiny. She can only hold so much at a time in that tiny tummy”. She all but refused to eat solids, so I felt compelled to keep going despite the crushing exhaustion. She needs it. She’s so small. And also, feeding a hungry human from your body burns a shit ton of calories. I felt free to eat almost anything I wanted. 

The medical establishment concludes that the “typical Western diet”, obesity, and low levels of exercise all increase your risk factor of developing colon cancer. I can’t “get” Type 1 diabetes, but because my dad had Type 1 and my grandmother had Type 2, I am at higher risk for Type 2, which is commonly believed to have a strong link to obesity and visceral fat that pads your organs around the waist. I’m predisposed to at least two lethal diseases whose trigger seems to have at least something to do with what you choose to eat. On the other hand, years of data shouted by the anti-diet, body positivity folks say that diets don’t work, almost always do more harm than good, and that weight has less of a correlation with health than the patriarchy wants you to believe. The conflicting science haunts every grocery list, every meal plan, every daily decision about what to put in my mouth. 

My new fifteen pounds snuck up on me over the last three years because I kept eating whatever I wanted even after I stopped breastfeeding. My husband doesn’t comment on my weight or what I choose to eat, but despair over the soft cushion of my middle keeps me awake at night. I read anti-diet-culture manifestos and try to buy into intuitive eating and body positivity. Every day, I hold up the genuine urgency of accepting my body and setting a better example for my daughter and weigh it against the deep, deep fear of succumbing to the colon cancer that took my 59 year old mother while I still desperately needed her, or the diabetes complications that ultimately took my dad at 51. I want to confidently stake my tent in the anti-diet and body positivity camp, but I never get there. The tangle of fear at my feet trips me. What if the medical establishment is right? What if the unbridled bloom of my belly triggers a deadly disease? What if my lack of self-control leaves my young daughter motherless? What if there is a limit to my husband’s solidarity with my self-acceptance? What if I, like my mother, just don’t want to look like this anymore? If I get a terrible disease that I could have prevented, all eyes will be on my waistline. I want to love my body, but I also want to control it.

I am the unbeliever who lies awake at night, worried that she might be wrong about hell.