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Personal Essay on Body Confidence While Traveling

After Traveling the World, I Finally Feel Comfortable to Wear Any Bathing Suit I Please

No one ever told me I couldn't wear bikinis, per se. There was no decree from the bathing suit overlords sent to me as a child that said I was only allowed to wear tankinis and wedgie-inducing one-pieces. And yet, that sentiment lived within me from as early as I can remember. It was an assumption, an expectation, a total given, that I could not wear a bikini.

I remember going to Target with my mom or dad and coming face to face with the endless racks of bathing suits centrally located in the girl's section. Neon? Embellished? Sassy prints with metallic detailing? Year after year, they had it all. And I wanted them all! I would carefully browse the goods, my dad impatiently glancing at his watch or hammering away on his bulbous BlackBerry (it was 2004, after all), sighing wistfully to my young self. Because as much as I liked these bathing suits, I knew I couldn't have them. It seemed as obvious as day to me that I couldn't wear a bikini; my body had not been granted permission to do so by society. I silently carried that judgment with me every day of my life. Maybe I would find a bottom or two, perhaps a tasteful neon and sparkly leopard print, that I knew I could pair with the tankini tops I carefully sourced from places like the Lands' End catalogue, a reliable provider of sensible, modest swimwear that would cover my fourth-grade midsection softness.

I no longer self-regulate as harshly as my younger self did, allowing myself to serve as many beach looks as my heart desires.

Childhood Summers were spent on beaches in New England. I saw my mother, a svelte woman who goes on power walks and avoids sugar, apprehensively don a bikini a few times during these outings. But somewhere along the line, she decided it wasn't her look, preferring to stick to her cache of black swimsuits from Gap. And if my skinny mom wasn't wearing a bikini, why the hell should I? For some background, let me add that I had a body that, looking back on, I would classify as totally normal. I had a round belly, full cheeks that the women in Chinatown would gleefully pinch, and strong legs that I teetered around on playing youth soccer for many years. When I was in high school, my mom and I comfortably shared clothes. I could find clothes at any store, not yet sizing out of the absurdly small juniors section (which for the most part I don't even bother with anymore). However, I was not considered to be "thin," a word I ruminated on constantly.

After being raised within a society that praises thinness above most other personal attributes, I felt ashamed of my body because it did not look like what I thought a "normal" body was. I believe that as I developed consciousness and grew into a person, my awareness of the world around me also included negative sentiment about my body, intrinsically linking my mental and emotional existence to my physical presence. I try to think of a time when I was unaware of my body in relation to society, but I can't, because I was consistently aware that my body was wrong in some way. To a large degree, children are products of their environment; a child's interpretation of what is "normal" is contingent upon the repetitive behaviors and attitudes that surround them. I was living in a world that saw fault with my body, and, in turn, I too found fault with my body. When it came time to wear bathing suits, I saw thin female bodies in bikinis and all the other women in more modest one- or two-pieces, nylon pulled tight to conceal figures that weren't fit for public consumption. That was the simple reality that had been ingrained within me.

When I was 20, I spent six months in Turkey. Over those six months, friends and I took two trips to the Turkish coast, also known as the Turquoise Coast due to the stunning colors of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. We sunbathed alongside Slavic tourists from countries I had never been to. I observed pleasantly round babushkas minding their cherubic grandchildren while rocking floral-print bikinis. Kids ran along the shore unhindered by clothing. Foreign bodies of all types were peacefully coexisting, seemingly comfortable in their skin and wearing whatever type of bathing suit they wanted. It appeared that here, there was no longer a correlation between the surface area of a body versus the amount of fabric needed to cover it. Maybe things weren't so bad after all.

Until travel enabled me to widen my view, I hadn't put much thought toward the differences in cultural attitudes across the world. What I failed to realize during my childhood and teenage years was that societal attitudes toward bodies, specifically women's bodies, could be vastly different depending on where you were. I wasn't examining the facets of American culture that impacted my life; I accepted these morals, concepts, and attitudes as fact. Traveling exposed me to the different lifestyles that human beings all across the planet were maintaining. My childhood experiences took place in one of an infinite number of cultural ecosystems. All around the world, societies run the gamut when it comes to body image and beach culture. An individual's outlook on a situation is simply a matter of perspective, and I came to realize that the silent pressure that I let guide my bathing suit choices was not always going to be lingering in the background. It was within my power to shut it down.

As I have gotten older, the foundation upon which I had formed my consciousness in relation to my body became less of a predetermination and more of a choice. The sands are shifting. I am now beginning to unfurl the decades-long relationship I have had with my body and the lens with which I view it. What had proven most helpful in this journey has been the opportunity to experience my body within different cultural backdrops. Mingling among Russian and Kyrgyz tourists on Lake Issyl Kul in Kyrgyzstan, walking along remote beaches on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, and sunbathing in Barcelona have all been moments I now see as essential parts of learning to embrace the body I am in. Now, I will wear whatever bathing suit I please. I no longer self-regulate as harshly as my younger self did, allowing myself to serve as many beach looks as my heart desires. If you see me in a one-piece these days, it's because it makes my butt look good, not because I am trying to hide. I'm not hiding anymore.

Image Source: Tess Chapin
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