By Jennifer Berney
In front of the dressing room mirror, I tried to decide between two versions of the same swimsuit: the one-piece or the bikini.
The one-piece resembled the swimsuits that both my mother and grandmother wore throughout my childhood, the kind of suit that safely covers the entire bottom, and ruffles at the hips, the kind of suit that knows how to keep a secret.
But the bikini—a modest two-piece that still secured me in important places—made me feel like a different person, one who loved her belly well enough to show it a little sunlight, one who didn’t need to hide. That was the person I wanted to be.
In the thirty-eight years that I’ve been alive, I’ve spent at least thirty-two of them looking down, sucking it in, wishing the fat away. The summer of my first grade year I would snack out of boredom and then do leg lifts on the floor of the living room, trying to burn off the calories I’d just consumed.
But no matter what I tried over the years, I never achieved flatness, and as I approached thirty my belly began to grow undeniably round. Each night when I stepped out of the shower and leaned over to dry my legs, the fat on my belly gathered and hung.
Two pregnancies simply sped the process my body had begun on its own. These days, weight-loss ads in my Facebook feed often feature a belly that looks alarmingly like mine, one that sags a bit over the waistline. Their message is clear: a belly like mine must be tamed.
I bought the bikini. It was the first I’d ever owned. The first time I wore it out, I was on a road trip with my sons. On a Saturday in July, after helping my kids into their swim trunks and life vests, I ducked into the motel bathroom, put the thing on, and looked in the mirror. Viewed from the side, I looked about five months pregnant. As I walked to the pool, I wondered how likely it was that another motel patron would ask when I was due.
As it turned out, we had the pool to ourselves. There were no other eyes to assess me. I could have relaxed, but I didn’t. Instead I stood around feeling awkward, trying to straighten anytime I stooped, to tuck anytime I sagged. My six-year-old practiced his cannonballs. My two-year-old splashed on the first step and pointed to the deep end.
“Do you want me to swim?” I asked him.
“Yeah.” He nodded.
I jumped in. I swam away from him, into the deep end, my arms spreading through the water, carrying me forward, my torso and legs floating and gliding, buoyant. I could hear my son’s voice behind me, reminding me “So deep, Mommy; so deep!” The pool was a small one. It only took me five strokes to reach the other side, but when I turned around, the look on my toddler’s face was unmistakable: it was the look of total adoration, the kind of love I’d spent a lifetime seeking.
My older son noticed and laughed. “He thinks you’re Aquaman or something.”
“Mommy, swim!” my younger son commanded me, over and over, until my fingers had pruned and I shivered. I wrapped myself in a towel and led the boys back to our room.
That night as I fell asleep in the motel bed, I remembered my son’s awestruck gaze and turned it over in my mind. I wondered how anyone could love me with so much enthusiasm. I thought about what he had seen in me—the same smoothness and the strength I felt while gliding through the water.
To my sons, I am not the sum of my parts, the balance that remains once you subtract all my physical flaws. My six-year-old doesn’t love me any less for my acne. My two-year-old doesn’t wish I’d lose twenty pounds. When they look at me they don’t assess me, they love me.
To assess and to love are, I’m learning, verbs that are mutually exclusive. To assess something is to step away from loving it, to decide—from a distance—what has value and what is worthless.
When you love something, you are right up next to it, inside it, you are it. When one of my children coughs my own throat tickles. In the middle of the night, when my little one calls for me and I settle beside him, our breathing finds the same rhythm. When my son watched me swim that afternoon he was all caught up inside the motion of me, the bigness of me.
If I truly wanted to love myself, I would take a cue from my kids and quit assessing. I wouldn’t look at my body with a stranger’s eyes, I would instead just inhabit it, feel the heat of the sun, the coolness of the water, the strength of my stroke. These are the reminders I will whisper to myself the next time I put on my bikini.
Jennifer Berney is a Brain, Child contributing blogger. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Motherlode, the Brevity blog, and Mutha. She is currently working on a memoir that chronicles her years-long quest to conceive a child. You can connect with her on Twitter, or on her personal blog, Goodnight Already.