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Where’s Your Swimsuit? : Billie Best Blog

Photo of Billie Best on air boat.

I’m having a teen angst flashback. Soon we fly to Florida to visit my dad. A week ago he texted me to bring my swimsuit. I filed that away without a reply. First, I don’t want that much skin exposed to the sun. I have too many tea spots and a crop of moles growing so fast they could be on the Geological Survey. I tell myself I don’t even have a swimsuit. Then I remind myself that I don’t really know how to swim. I’m not a good swimmer. Then I tell my partner about my dad’s request, and he gets excited about the trip, says he’s going to bring his swimsuit and swim. My mind goes pop. This trip is a first. It’s my first time traveling cross country with my partner. First time I’ll be in the same room with him and my dad. First time traveling on an airplane with him. First time wearing a swimsuit in decades. I can’t remember the last time I went swimming in public. A voice in my head says No, it’s not going to happen. There’s a very good reason I do not strip down to my skivvies in public. I’m too embarrassed.

My dad wants to take us on a boat ride to swim with the manatees. My partner is delighted. I’m conflicted. I think we should leave the manatees alone and not stress them out with our presence. But I also know how the public will care more about the future of the manatees if they have a personal experience with them. Being with big animals in their habitat is exhilarating. Manatee tourism is a way to raise consciousness about the impact of humans on the wild. It’s a way to create an economic incentive to protect the manatees. I get it. I do care about the future of the manatees. I’m all for protecting the wild. But I prefer to do it with my clothes on.

Still, the thorny issue of my swimsuit has been raised. There’s a swimming pool at our hotel. There are beaches. It’s Florida with or without the manatees. As joyful as I may be about my age, I just don’t think anyone wants to look at a 70-year-old woman in a swimsuit. Wait, whose voice was that? Of course, that’s ageism. It’s so complicated to say how I feel and witness my own contradictions. A neon sign is flashing the question, What are you afraid of? My inner feminist is poking me with a sharp stick because I think of myself as something to look at. She says women are not for decoration. Do the men around me consider the reaction of their on-lookers when they strip down to their basics for a swim? Are they on display? Are they feeling judged? Why does it feel like I’m being put on display if I wear a swimsuit?

I’m a northerner. I like shade. I wear frosty white zinc sunscreen in the garden. I’m not an athlete. I don’t own a pair of shorts. It’s possible my thighs haven’t seen sunshine in 30 years. Of course, there’s a counter narrative to my self-consciousness. My mother’s voice says no one is going to be looking at you. No one cares. Pop culture reminds me, You are invisible. There are better things to look at. Then my mother starts up again, Get over yourself and put on your swimsuit like a normal person. You shouldn’t even be writing this. What’s the big deal? It’s all in your head.

These thoughts are festering because when I cleaned my room to organize my summer clothes and pack for the trip, I found the swimsuit I purchased at Macy’s in 2017. I was a guest in an empty vacation house with a swimming pool. I got the suit because I thought I might enjoy swimming, but I didn’t. So the suit disappeared behind some t-shirts, and I forgot about it. Until today. I put it on, walked around the house in it, stood in front of the mirror, and got out my phone to see how I looked on screen. Right. I wanted to know how I would look in a selfie. Believe me, I feel the warp. But this is my world now. Phones are out all the time. Photos will be shared. I have posted a couple hundred selfies online over the years. Why not one in a swimsuit?

Obviously, the issue is body shaming. I shame myself. I expect someone to shame me. It’s why we feel self-conscious about aging. I tell myself I’m going to overcome those prejudices. But will I overcome the voice in my head? I tell myself I’m modest. But is it modesty or is it judgementalism? I feel like I should look better than I do. Why? My culture tells me that a woman should look a certain way, and when she doesn’t, she has failed. Of course, I know this is wrong. But it’s very common. My inner feminist encourages me to rebel. But I’ve been rebelling against sexism and gender norms my whole life, and rarely has it made me feel so vulnerable.

Regardless, I put my swimsuit in my suitcase. Here I go. When the moment arrives, if it does, maybe this mental kerfuffle will seem like silly self-indulgence. Maybe my anxiety will evaporate, and I’ll magically blend in with all the other half-naked Florida olds. I tell myself it’s okay to be insecure. I see how sexism and gender norms influence our thoughts and behavior all the way to the grave. I want to think I’ve evolved, but when my brain considers wearing a swimsuit, it taps the same anxious brain chemistry that hit me as a teenager looking in the mirror disappointed I will never be as tall as Cher. I will never be good enough for myself. Self-criticism is so much easier than self-love. Where’s your swimsuit?

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