A while back I was getting ready to leave work as a nanny for two girls, ages 5 and 3, who knew I was going to officiate my cousin’s wedding that Saturday.
“What are you going to wear to the wedding, Cami? You’ll wear a dress, right? It’s a wedding so you have to wear a dress!” Emma said.
“Cami hates dresses, you know that!” said Megan. “Right, Cami? You don’t even have a dress, do you?”
She was right. I owned no dresses. I nodded.
“Yes, she does! She has a dress!” Emma looked at me. “Cami, you have that really pretty shiny black dress! Remember?”
Megan and I studied her for a moment, trying to recall a time when I’d worn a shiny black dress.
Finally Megan said, “Ooooh, I know what you mean, Emma! No. That’s not a dress. That’s her swimsuit. She’s talking about your swimsuit, Cami. It is really pretty. You should wear that.”
“Yeah! Wear that. You look so, so pretty in that.”
I smiled, imagining what my mother’s face would look like if I showed up to officiate my cousin’s wedding in a swimsuit. “Thanks, girls! I don’t know if I should wear my swimsuit to a wedding, but I’ll think about it.” I left with a warm heart and a new sense of what I looked like in my swimsuit.
And I did think about it. A lot.
On the way home, I recalled the many times I had walked through the YMCA or around the city pools with the kids, ashamed of myself and my body, hurrying to get into the pool so I could hide in the water—where no one would see me in my swimsuit. I remembered the times throughout my life I cried because I felt too fat to go swimming.
I remembered the times I heard people make comments about my body or someone else’s body at the pool—or times I commented on other people myself. I remembered the discomfort and embarrassment of shopping for a swimsuit and wishing I could just never have to wear one, even though swimming was one of my favorite activities.
But the tears weren’t because I was still ashamed. I had been working on self-image and body shame with a therapist and had come to a point where I could talk back to the shame and have fun at the pool. I was crying about the fact that our society allows people to shame each other and ourselves into hating our bodies for so many reasons, not just size.
I was crying in grief about all of the fun I missed out on in the past while feeling too embarrassed and deeply ashamed to take part because I had listened to all of the wrong voices.
And I then I began to cry in happy gratitude for the two beautiful girls who helped me understand things differently.
Although I was now able to ignore societal messages and fight shaming myself or other people, I had not yet come to a place where this came easily. It was a battle every time.
After that conversation with Megan and Emma, and spending time afterward talking about it, I began to look at women at the pool in a whole new light. I saw them through the eyes of the children they had with them: the people around them who loved their spirits and were not at all concerned about the bodies in which those spirits were housed. The bodies the kids saw were safety and love and care and fun and warmth and joy and BEAUTIFUL. Just like my body—and I, my very self—was to Emma and Megan.
I started listening for—and remembering—positive words people whom I knew loved my spirit had used about my body, not just kids: my mom, my sister, my boyfriend, my friends, and strangers. I heard comfort. I heard soft. I heard warm. I heard beautiful. I heard sexy. I heard fun. I heard pretty.
I am letting those messages drown out the old recordings I had from past encounters, the horrible things I told myself and messages I still get daily from the media. And now my negative judgment about my body is gone, as is my judgment about other people’s bodies.
Everything is a lot more fun and a whole lot easier without all of the shame and judgment placed on how my body, and other bodies, look. And by everything, I mean shopping for clothes, walking down the street, dating, having sex, eating dinner, meeting new people, looking in the mirror, watching TV . . . everything.
I did not wear my swimsuit when I officiated the wedding. But had I worn it, I would have felt like the most beautiful woman in the room—and no one could have convinced me otherwise, except maybe the bride.