By Guest Blogger Laura Simon
I spent the vast majority of my teen years at the pool. I was a competitive swimmer, and when I wasn’t practicing, I was teaching swimming lessons or babysitting poolside. I still remember the mental games I played with myself. While half of my brain tracked the child I was watching, the other half took stock of the teen girls around me. I was constantly trying to figure out where I fit in the pecking order; I was skinnier than most, but completely devoid of muscle anywhere other than my shoulders. Was that good or bad? Did I look better or worse in my swimsuit than the other women at the pool that day? Should I take a deep breath and be proud, or suck my stomach in a little tighter? It was a game I could never quite win, and I didn’t know how to quit.
Somehow, I thought I was going to outgrow it. That awkward feeling of being insecure in my skin was supposed to go away, but here I am in my late thirties and it it is back with a vengeance.
And I hate it.
It’s pool season in North Carolina, and on many levels, I’m thrilled. This Yankee transplant cannot handle the heat and humidity, and the pool is the only way to keep my children outside where they can’t destroy my furniture. Plus, I love the pool.
Some of my best memories with my children take place in the water. My kids will play happily for hours in the pool. No one whines about being bored. No one asks for technology. No one complains about hunger – at least, not until we get in the car to leave. While we’re in the water, we’re having fun. And because my children are still young enough that I have to be in the water with them, I’m forced to put my work away and focus on them. The pool brings us together and wears us out.
But behind my giant sunglasses, my mind has gone back to that same awful comparison game. There are all sorts of moms at the pool, all sorts of swimsuits, and all sorts of body types. And the whole time I’m watching my toddler to make sure she doesn’t drown, my brain is trying to figure out where I fit in the fitness pecking order.
Do I look better or worse in a swimsuit than that mom over there? What about that one? Well, definitely worse than that one. I didn’t know we had that many muscles in our abdomen. How does she get her shoulders to look so cut? How did I run a half-marathon and still keep this belly? Wow, it must be nice to look that good in a swimsuit. I wonder what the teenagers think of me. Are they thinking I should probably put on a cover-up? Are they hoping they don’t turn out like me someday?
And suddenly, instead of savoring these lazy days with my young children, my stomach is churning. My mind questions whether I need to run more miles or lift heavier weights. I repent of the peanut butter m&m’s I ate for a mid-morning snack and resolve to eat more smoothies and less carbs. I can get used to feeling hungry, I tell myself. I can do more. Be more. I can turn into that other mom at the pool, if I only work hard enough. Anxiety sucks the air out of my lungs, and I can barely breathe.
Don’t get me wrong, I know the importance of eating well and exercising. Exercise keeps me sane. I love the feeling after a good workout, and I almost never miss a day. I know my body and my mind work and feel better when I give it healthy fuel and not junk. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been in my adult life, even though I’m not skinny. I’m really very healthy.
But my self-image isn’t.
I’ve never been one to feel bad when I see pictures of models in magazines. I mean, I know most of their imperfections have been edited out. But that amazingly fit mom three feet away from me in the pool? I can’t compete. Nor do I want to.
I want to live my life. I want to savor it. When I watch my children playing in the pool, it strikes me that they don’t care what they look like. My boys actually beg to play in their Speedos instead of their trunks. Bless their hearts, they think it’s cool. They’d go to the grocery store that way if I’d let them. They’re proud of their muscles, but they aren’t thinking about them when they play. They’re just worried about swimming further than they did yesterday. About getting to the bottom faster than their friends. My two-year-old, bless her heart, is just worried that someone will try to touch – or look at – her pink and purple goggles. They don’t care what other people think, so they’re free to live in the moment.
My mom came to the pool with me a few days ago. She’s nearing 70, and she bought her first swimsuit in years for the occasion. She dunked my boys, danced with my daughter, and when the kids dared her to go off the diving board, she did. “Should someone who’s had a herniated disc be going off the diving board?” I worried.
“Well, I didn’t want to disappoint them,” she responded. And here I’ve been avoiding the diving board because I’m not sure how my retro, full-coverage suit will hold up to the force of the water.
I guess when you get older, maybe you start to just not care again.
I’ve decided I need to skip this middle-aged stage in life and start thinking like my wise mother. I want to stop measuring my value by the bodies around me and start jumping off the diving board. I want to stop worrying about whether my swimsuit fits right and start playing sharks and minnows.
I know my daughter notices more than just what I say. I don’t want her to hear me worrying about whether my swimsuit makes me look fat, and I don’t want her to sense my worries about my own body image. I want to change the narrative for her – and her generation. I’m just not sure how. Right now, I find myself repeating, “You’re healthy. You’re active. You’re alive.” Over and over again, in hopes that it will somehow fix the anxiety in my head.
Moms, can you relate? Do you have this same inner voice, or are you already wise like my mother?