I was in the fitting room at Nordstrom Rack trying on a random assortment of clothing, and in the quiet of that space on a Monday evening, a young girl’s running commentary in the room two doors down was clearly audible.
I’d seen her regarding herself in a full length mirror as I walked to my own room–door ajar, her mom standing with an appraising air over her as she wriggled into a swimsuit. What struck me was the tone of pure delight and body positivity that wafted from this young girl’s room as she tried on swimsuits. A task most American women speak and think of with something approaching dread, if not total dread outright. At what point did we change, focusing less on the promise of cool summer swimming and bright summer sun, and more on our perceived flaws and the inability of any piece of synthetic fabric to deliver us from them?
I remember when it happened to me. I remember the precise moment in time when a swimsuit ceased to be about color and pattern, a symbol of sunny fun times, and became an article infused with body anxiety.
I was eleven years old, and as I type that I am enraged at how young a sixth grader is, and how hers should be a refuge of popsicles and wading and splashes and challenging herself to jump off the high dive. It shouldn’t be as it was, a friend hissing into my ear at the public pool that I’d better start “sucking in”. A late bloomer, I’d just barely begun growing the breasts that would never advance past an A cup, and I had no idea to what she was referring. It was another mark of my hopeless naiveté, the unworldliness that seemed to plague me and mark me as an innocent among my peers.
I was in a one-piece ribbed teal affair (ribbed and teal should be your clues this was the early 90’s) I believed to be understated and chic; an middle schooler’s elegant departure from the previous year’s neon tankini. I looked down at myself and noted the difference between my friend and me was that while my stomach protruded out, hers was flat against her ribcage. Sucking in meant holding your breath so your stomach wouldn’t stick out. Got it. Forgot it. Was reminded. Got it.
The year before, I was the Big Girl at the neighborhood wading pool, strutting around in the aforementioned two-piece “bikini” I’d been absolutely psyched to procure. A bright coral tank with a shock of neon green and sleek black bottoms that made me feel like the Big Girl I was–an elementary school graduate. The suit was such a big, talked about (by me) deal, that a friend wrote on his birthday pool party invitation to “bring your bikini”. I stuck out my undeveloped breastbone and owned that baby pool. I felt absolutely fucking great about myself, entirely comfortable in my own skin, and excited about the physical changes that were due to take place any day now. I was like a character in a Judy Blume novel.
Society, man. By eleven, it was time for me to learn an important lesson–that there was a certain way your body had to look in a swimsuit in order to pull it off. It was no longer about how you felt or what activities you were enjoying or sporting your favorite color. And once I learned that lesson there seemed to be no going back. Even if, deep down, I still felt great about myself and chose suits based on their colors and patterns and looked very forward to their purchase because of their implicit promise of summer, I had to act otherwise. I would not be accepted by female peer groups if I showed my body confidence in swimwear because…well, because that’s just not what you do. I sucked in my stomach so that the teal fabric was as flat against my ribs as possible and tried to have fun anyway.
“I love this one!” the little girl in the fitting room exclaimed. Her mother, whose voice was too low to clearly make out, must have replied in the negative. “I don’t care about the cut, I love the pattern,” came the little girl’s rejoinder. Imagine a grown woman uttering those words, I don’t care about the cut. You can’t, can you? Because the cut, the way the suit fits or doesn’t fit your body, according to your perception, means more than anything else. It could be the loveliest shade of the loveliest color, your favorite in fact, the one that flatters your coloring most, that livens your senses, and none of that counts for anything if the cut ain’t right. But according to whom? Women’s magazines? Your mother? Your eleven year-old best friend perpetually whispering in your ear, suck in, suck in? You, a product of years of voices and images heaping themselves upon your consciousness like a ton of garbage?
“Hmmm…this one might be too small,” the little girl said, with an absence of angst. It was a simple statement that carried no emotional content, no negative body image baggage, no tone of resignation or hopelessness. I silently wished for the little girl that she would always approach sizing in her current way–that the way the label corresponded to her body was a simple matter of fact, not inherently imbued with messages about her worth as a woman in society. That she would not focus on perceived flaws, instead viewing her body with wonder, as she exclaimed, “hey look, my first mole!” with delight. I could not fathom a grown woman discovering any new spot on her body with an excited curiosity; no, it would be resigned angst.
I thought of all the creative ways I learned over the years to manage sizing conversations with women when I worked in clothing retail. My sales depended on my ability to manage the delicate balance between a woman’s self-esteem and sizing. You never recommended going “up” a size, always the “next” size. You tap danced around women’s sizing being impossible because there seemed to be no standard measurement across fashion houses. You tried to get a woman into a dress and gazing upon her image before she saw the sizing number or letter on the tag, which invariably made or broke the way she looked at herself. You emphasized time and time again that Spanx were a friend to all women, that donning them was not the realm of a certain body type and thus a source of shame. I heard the little girl’s mother say, of something she was trying on, “it’s too young”. To which the little girl said, “but you’re young! It looks great. And besides, no rules!” Perhaps the child was on to something. If we could allow ourselves to feel young. To feel great. To ditch the rules.
Two doors down from the little girl I sighed under the weight of sizing expectation and body shame under which all American women seem to labor. Small is best, extra small is better, and nothing is the end-all-be-all. Total self-erasure at the expense of the pure physical joys our bodies could afford, if we allowed it. If society allowed it. I pulled on my street clothes and exited the fitting room at the moment the little girl was leaving her room, new suits in hand. “Daddy! Daddy!” she cried. “I found two that I just love, and I can’t wait to wear them for the rest of the summer.”