Rain. Rain clouds rain rain rain clouds rain rain rain rain. And more clouds rain rain rain clouds rain and rain. It is always around this time that the weather on Vancouver Island really gets me down. I have been longing for Sicily from the day we flew home to Canada last September, but in March my longing turns into a profound ache for the sunshine that summer in Sicily brings. And what comes with summer in Sicily? Beaches and bathing suits.
For most of my life my relationship with the bathing suit has been a dichotomy – comfort versus shame, joy versus embarrassment. I spent the years between 8 and 20 in and out of bathing suits on a daily basis. I was a competitive synchronized swimmer and by the time I was 15 I was at the pool usually twice a day. I wore my bathing suits more than any other articles of clothing that I owned. I loved being in the water. I was clumsy on land, but put me in a pool or the ocean or a lake and I was as graceful as any ballerina. I loved, and still love, being in the water. I was trim and athletic then; how could I be anything but, training up to 30 hours a week. But, all athletes retire at some point from competitive sport, and so did I.
If you have followed this blog at all, and have seen the pictures of me, you will know that I didn’t stay the trim, athletic young woman that I once was. I won’t go into all the reasons I gained so much weight – that is a book in and of itself – but I did, and my relationship with the bathing suit became much more problematic.
There is no way around it. If you want to swim in most public places, you have to wear a swimsuit and for an obese person this is difficult. I know many people who just don’t swim because they cannot face themselves in that damned suit. For me, being in the water was so healing that, once I had pulled on my bathing suit, I closed my eyes to the mirror and scrambled into the water as quickly as I could hoping that once most of me was submerged I would become invisible.
The first time that Nick and my daughter and I travelled to Italy we, of course, packed our swimsuits. My daughter had her bikini along with the t-shirt and board shorts that she and many other North American teenage girls would wear to cover up. Nick had his suit – baggy shorts that hung down to his knees – and I had my typical “fat lady” swimsuit that covered as much of me as possible with gathered pleats in the front to “disguise” my size.
A trip to an Italian beach is a shock for many North Americans. Not all Italians are skinny models that have just stepped off the pages of Vogue. They are normal people with normal body sizes. Tall, thin, short, chubby – many are overweight however I would note that there are relatively few morbidly obese Italians compared to North America. What shocked us was how comfortable all these Italians appeared to be in their bathing suits. Skimpy bathing suits. Very skimpy bathing suits. Now, not all Italian women wear bikinis and not all Italian men wear Speedos, but you will rarely see someone covering themselves up with a robe or shirt after coming out of the water. Italians seem to revel in their bodies. I am certainly not an expert in the Italian psyche and so I will not hazard a guess at why this is, but the degree of body shame that many North Americans feel seems to be nonexistent on the Italian beaches. To experience this was liberating. A frequent topic of conversation between my daughter and I, it led to my daughter shedding her t-shirt and board shorts. It even eventually led to my shy husband buying and wearing the first Speedo of his life! As for me, I decided last year that I would buy myself my first two-piece swimsuit since the time I was a toddler. I intend to keep this promise to myself as soon as the stores bring in their swimsuit inventory for the year.
It just so happens that I have lost quite a bit of weight this year. My body mass index no longer sits in the “obese” range. I am now considered marginally overweight. But when I decided to turn over the “swimsuit” leaf, my BMI was 33 – obese. Sitting on a beach anywhere in North America, what I would have felt was shame, but sitting on the beach at Ericlea Minoa, my favourite beach in Sicily, I was buoyed up by the comfort the Sicilians around me had in their own bodies. This summer, I am going to the beach in my new two-piece swimsuit and I am going to revel in the sun and the sea and the joy in just being me.