I walked onto the beach, put my feet into the water and glanced at the bodies of the older girls nearby. Who decided it was acceptable to wear what is essentially thick underwear out in public? I pushed into the softness of my own stomach. As a chubby, pale, redheaded pre-teen, the beach felt less like a nice vacation and more like my own personal hell.
My brother’s basketball shorts and football jersey hung from my body like a sheet draped over an ugly couch. My leg was still pulsating from the mosquito bite that I’d already scratched to bleeding. Standing next to Brooke, I visibly dwindled. She wore cut-off shorts and her thighs didn’t seem to squeeze out of them. Her skin opened up in the sun and adopted a warm glow. She knew exactly how to use her body when she walked, like she was aware that people wanted to see her hips moving back and forth.
I mostly just tried to get through the day.
After putting up our tent, we changed into our bathing suits. Brooke put on a two piece that tied around her back with strings so thin they were nearly nonexistent. It’d probably cost at least $14 for just the top. I stuffed myself into the one-piece my mom had generously and painfully purchased for me from the Wal-Mart clearance section. It was black, which is supposed to be slimming, and it felt like a cheap washcloth. Before exiting the dressing room, I threw on a pair of oversized shorts that I’d made from an old pair of sweatpants.
Brooke told me to take the shorts off, that I’d look hotter without them. I shrugged, knowing that there was no way in hell that I would stand next to her bare-thighed on the beach. We walked down through the trees barefoot, dodging pinecones and collecting pine needles on the bottoms of our feet. We laid out our towels and I begged myself to just be OK with not sitting in the shade. I soon felt the first stings of what would turn out to be a blisterfest on my shoulders.
When the sun became too much, we played in the water like we always had. We turned flips and did handstands until we were dizzy and laughed so hard that we could hardly breathe. Then a group of cute guys showed up. The flips in the water switched to flips in my stomach as we called dibs on the guy we each thought was the cutest. I blurted out “white shirt guy is mine.” Brooke settled on blue shirt guy and we spent the next 15 minutes standing in a lake and doing nothing.
Brooke exited the water, allowing the drops to roll from her skin, shaking her hair out and turning around and laughing to me about nothing. I followed behind her, looking at the ground to make sure I didn’t step on something sharp or a fish, my hair slicked back on my head. My eyes held onto the water where I could be mostly invisible, the perfect shield to hide my body from the gaze of my new crush. I didn’t know where to put my hands. Brooke’s rested on her hips, which seemed to work for her, but standing on the beach like a pair of twins would look silly. So I held mine over my body, crossed, a pretzel-shaped suit of armor.
Brooke convinced me that she could set me up with white shirt guy. I was excited by the idea of a weekend lake boyfriend and impulsively agreed. But I only heard her say “Hi, I’m Brooke and that’s…” before I bolted to the water. All I knew was that my hair had definitely dried weird and it needed to be wet and shorts weren’t enough to cover my thighs and I really needed an entire lake to do the job and I dove head first into six inches of water.
The physical pain of my chest hitting the hard ground and the sand scraping my skin was nothing compared to having to stare at their faces when I stood back up. Brooke walked over, her face filled with half confusion and half pity. I laughed and she burst into laughter and the laughter was brighter than the sun reflecting off of the white shirt of my crush. We stood with our backs to the beach, stretched our arms to the sky and fell blissfully back into the the coolness of the lake.
Sixteen years later, I found myself newly divorced and braver than ever. I tiptoed on the railing of a ferry in Nicaragua. I’d traveled there on my own. For the first time in my life, there was no one to lean on, no one to tell me if I was good enough. I got to choose how I felt about myself and I discovered that I really enjoyed my own company. That when I wasn’t being watched, I knew I was a beautiful, magnetic, brave, bad ass of a woman.
My eyes held tightly on the water, I let the wind dance with my skirt as it showed peeks of my thigh to the group of traveling Australian guys nearby. I danced on the edge, allowing my toes to dangle off of the boat, foolishly enjoying the comfort in my body.
I opened my face to the sun, took a deep breath and smiled brightly as I pushed into the softness of my stomach.