I write this essay in response to Jessica Turner’s recent article in the Huffington Post, “Moms, Put on That Swimsuit”: http://huff.to/1lbFZxy. Undoubtedly, what I would like to express will not be popular. But I am concerned that Ms. Turner’s piece hums with the idealistic Technicolor simplicity that one might see in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or in Cinderella, complete with cartoon birds that land on the forefingers of victimized princesses and sing along to their delusionally hopeful melodies, giving them the strength to champion themselves and find true happiness. “Moms, Put On That Swimsuit” is the perfect speech for viral popularity. It serves to propel all of the long-repressed women of our society to their feet, chanting “Hear, hear!” and energizing them with girl-power and super-mom electricity. How can women not agree with Ms. Turner? If we don’t, we surrender to the oppressive culture in which we have long suffered, objectified and beaten down by unrealistic expectations of attractiveness. Right?
I was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts to the sound of squawking seagulls and the scent of salt in the breezy air. My family owns a cottage in Dennisport. I spent my childhood making dribble castles with my father at the water’s edge, jumping the waves and nicking my bare heels on shells and stones, and eating sand-dusted tuna fish sandwiches out of Ziploc bags. I love living on the coast. I love New England, its maritime history. I love boats, porch furniture with plump navy-and-white-striped cushions, haddock coated in breadcrumbs and drizzled with lemon. I love the sensation of a slight burn on my arms and legs and collarbone, of smelling sweet from a shower after a long afternoon in lounge chairs, ready to eat hot dogs and burgers fresh off the grill. I love the freedom of not being in school (I carefully chose my profession), and because I am not in school while my children are not in school, I love being available to shuttle them back and forth to camp activities and birthday parties, to play board games with them, to take them for self-serve frozen yogurt an obscene number of times in a seven-day span, and to plan trips for them to Canobie Lake.
Every July, my husband Andrew and I take our two children to our cottage in Dennisport on the Cape. We go to the beach. I do not wear a bathing suit. In fact, I don’t think that I have worn anything close to an authentic bathing suit in 25 years. Not without shorts, an oversized tee-shirt, or a cotton summer dress to obscure it, anyway.
We go to Mayflower Beach in Dennis probably two or three times during the Fourth of July week. However, we challenge convention and wait to head over there until four o’clock. Sometimes we are lucky enough to find that the college-aged parking-attendant-lifeguards have grown bored with their duties and have deserted the kiosk where they spend all day demanding a $20 parking fee. The crowds have thinned, the temperature has receded. When the tide is out, the undulating sandbars and clear, shallow pools of water stretch for a nearly a mile.
All four of us drop our towels, coolers, and chairs and start walking. Together. We delight in the warmth of the mini-reservoirs, toasty from the late-day sun, the silkiness of the sand sliding over our toes. We dig with too-small plastic shovels into the hard-packed strips of shore and build castles and moats with staircases and turrets. We relax. We laugh. We talk to one another. I carp at Andrew to not allow Maddie to drift away in the current. He teases me about the year we came and I leisurely read a novel while he chased the two small ones in the surf. Andrew might take Maddie farther out, into deeper waters, where he can throw her or spin her over and over again. Drew and I might lounge on a bank of sand, chatting about the habits of hermit crabs or the expert arc of a nearby teenager’s Nerf football toss. We have a routine. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Worth remembering? Easy to remember? (Do you care what I’m wearing as you envision this scene?)
Maddie is headstrong and adventurous and dives into everything with minimal concern for bruising, and Andrew is willing to encourage her spirit by going along with whatever she wishes to try. Drew is more cautious and prefers situations that do not overwhelm him. He resembles me in this way, so he and I are well-suited company for one another. Each of us in the family does what we are comfortable with, what pleases us the most. We watch one another feeling at ease, in our element, and support one another…even if one individual’s preference is not another’s. I don’t pressure Drew to dunk his head in the water when the loss of control freaks him out; I don’t pressure Maddie to practice her breaststroke when all she wants to do is fool around. Andrew doesn’t pressure me to wade too far in, sensitive to my fear of the tangled tresses of seaweed, or to strip down to my camisole to get more color. I don’t pressure him to take charge of sunscreen application, drenched bathing suits in heaps on the cottage floor, or combing through knotted hair.
According to Ms. Turner’s article, because I choose to wear comfortable capri cargo pants, a swimdress, or a cover-up to the beach, because I would rather not worry about worrying how my thighs shimmy when I jog or how they spread out across the fabric of a beach chair when I sit down, how the flab of my rear end wanders outside the boundaries of my trunks, how the seams of said trunks cut into the skin at the tops of my legs, and, to be honest, how I can pretend to like swimming when I just don’t…I am a selfish, impaired, fun-less, unhealthful mother who limits her children’s ability to grow, enjoy life, and love themselves.
Wow. I had no idea that wearing a bathing suit could solve so many problems. And solve them instantly! (Yes, I get it—I get that the bathing suit is more than a bathing suit, here. It’s a metaphor. Yup. Loud and clear.)
I didn’t know that not “celebrating” my motherly beauty by wearing a bathing suit rendered me deaf, or worse, indifferent, to my children’s joyful poolside giggles.
I didn’t know that my extra pounds were actively taking away memory-making opportunities with my family. Them’s some powerful fatty deposits, for sure.
I didn’t know that twirling in the water with my children was worth more “love points” than twirling on the makeshift dance floor in our living room to One Direction, or twirling in the grass in our backyard to blissful dizziness, or twirling our tongues around ice cream cones to sop up the drips.
I didn’t know that dressing in capri cargo pants, soaked to the knees with seawater and caked with salt, rather than in a $78 Speedo, made me an absentee mom.
At the end of the day, Ms. Turner is right about at least one thing—it shouldn’t be about me. Wearing a bathing suit ratchets up my anxiety and self-consciousness so immensely, that I would not be able to focus on anything else if I had one on. So I cope with that anxiety quietly, by eliminating the risk for myself, by reducing my vulnerability, and pulling on some capri pants and a short-sleeved shirt. I conduct the hard conversation with myself all the time about how uneasy I often feel in my own skin, but I never conduct that conversation aloud, in front of my children. Maddie and Drew know that I do not like swimming, just like their dad despises dancing, and just like Drew refuses to ride his bike, and just like Maddie—well, just like Maddie prefers not to use her “inside voice.” Ever. My kids actually think it’s amusing to know me so well, to be able to declare to people, “My mom doesn’t like to swim, so my dad takes us in the water.” Guess what? They still have a blast in the ocean and in the pool. I am still present. I am “there” for them. I ensure their safety; I cheer them on; I let them know vocally that my seeing their euphoria in the water makes me happy.
Maddie and Drew know me as their mother, but also as a person with her own quirks and belief systems, flaws, manners of negotiating with the world and navigating through it. I am human, and I am distinct. I may not like to swim or to jaunt around the beach in a bathing suit, but dammit, I love to dance, write, read, sing, and shop. I know that I do these things well (okay—singing is up in the air) and that they infuse me with elation and confidence, whether I participate in them as an individual or as an involved mother, alongside her kids.
I highly doubt that whether I wear pants or a tankini to the beach determines how intensely my children feel my love for them. In fact, because I have decided not to force myself to “take a deep breath,” to discard the “veil of shame” and love myself (supposedly) unconditionally, and to symbolize all of these very impressive strides in achieving self-esteem with a bathing suit, I can concentrate on letting my children be themselves, and save my lifelong discomfort with my body for confrontation in private.
Ms. Turner’s article sends the message that we soft-tummied mothers should “push aside our insecurities” and assert our right to freedom, and that we should battle the judgments of other women, real or imagined. I am doing that, now, by writing this piece. I resent that Ms. Turner is insinuating that I am handicapped as a parent because I don’t wear a specific item of clothing…a specific item of clothing that she claims, miraculously, will give me the inclination and the guts to run through a sprinkler, splash, and jump, “for my children.”
The “You would do it [have sex, commit murder, wear a bathing suit] if you loved me” notion is a dangerous and unfair paradigm. (Yes, I went there.) I don’t want my kids submitting to that kind of theorizing, the way that “Moms, Put On That Swimsuit” tries to convince me to set my cellulite free in order to demonstrate “real” love for my children. I want to model for Maddie and Drew that they should do what they need and want to do in order to feel emotionally aligned with their surroundings and to affirm exactly who they are, foibles and all.
It is impractical to believe that our children will not develop insecurities as they grow up and lose their innocence, as we adults all have. These feelings will intimidate them and constrain them. But our kids will also form non-threatening coping mechanisms to grapple with these feelings. And their mechanisms will work for them, even if they are not mainstream, logical, or romantic.
“Your children will remember [the fun] moments and your freedom,” declares Ms. Turner. “—not how you looked in your swimming suit.”
I’m experiencing those moments of fun and freedom with my children, too. So why does it matter whether I do so in a bathing suit or band uniform? My love for my kids is pure, straightforward, and utterly unquestionable, as natural and caressing as water, as soft and fine as sand. Dragging the complexities of my own self-esteem into it—for everyone to witness—would only complicate the landscape.