For as long as I knew her, my mother had the same black bathing suit, a one piece that covered her cesarean scar. When she changed in front of me, I loved looking at that scar, a train track that ran down her navel. Her scar signaled her ultimate sacrifice, her body broken open in order to give me life. She never hid her body from me, but I inherited her shame, her scorn for her hips and thighs. I don’t know when this started, when I came to understand that mine and my mother’s bodies had failed in some deep and unknowable way, but I remember being nine and not wanting to put on my bathing suit for a swimming lesson. I remember wrapping myself in a towel and walking, head down, to the pool, hating my hips, wishing they’d disappear. I carried that shame into my adolescence and stopped swimming, even though a swimming pool is, to this day, the one place where I feel most boundless, and most like myself.
Years later, before her funeral, I uncovered a mirror and took a good, long look at my reflection. In that exhausting moment, I felt my shame dissolve. My body looked exactly like my mother’s. How could I not be comforted?
A week later, I left the house to swim. It was a big deal, one of the first times I re-entered the world without her, understood my life could continue beyond my most unfathomable loss. I wore a black bathing suit, a two-piece she would never have worn, and lost myself in the water. For that hour, as I kicked and pushed and breathed, I returned to myself, and to my mother. I felt the sharpest glimmer of hope arise within me. In the pool, in the water, I could stop time. I could shed my sadness, even if only briefly. I continued swimming that summer, and a year later I wore that same bathing suit on a beach bordering the African Sea, on the Isle of Crete. A person I’d just met snapped a photo of me standing, waist-high, in the pale, sun-dappled water. In the photo, I am squinting light out of my eyes and smiling. My head falls back in joy. I am thinking about dolphins and hiking and writing in a journal I’d given my mother to record her dreams; she’d never written a single word.
I wish I could say I batted shame away for the rest of my twenties, but that would be a big lie, or maybe a half-truth. I’m 35 now, and my body shows it –– grey hair, spider veins, a stomach that won’t quite ever be what it was nine years ago, when I wore bikinis on my honeymoon to Mexico. I still wince when I see my hips and thighs in a harshly-lit dressing room mirror. I still feel old hatred simmering. This week, as I prepared for a beach vacation, I spent more time worrying about bathing suits and my hips, than appreciating my good fortune, the fact that I’m going to the beach.
I resented my mother’s absence, the fact that this was just one more thing I’ve had to do without her for the past fourteen years. Often women tell me they can’t imagine doing the big things without their mothers: graduations, weddings, mothering their own children. But I think the small, everyday things are more brutal in their relentlessness. I’m incapable of shopping alone. Each time I try, I am reminded of how utterly, miserably bad I am at shopping without my mother. I need her in the mundane spaces of my life. And she’s not there. A particular grief stirs when I shop for bathing suits, a grief for the mother who is no longer with me, and a grief for the body I’m told I should have, but don’t. And then, there is the grief I feel for the body I once had, and is no longer mine.
I think bathing suit shopping is among the most complicated experiences a woman can have. By late May, the only options left seem to be bathing suits for a Kardashian or my Bubbie Fran. There’s rarely a middle ground in department stores, at least in my city. For comfort, I turn to Anne Lamott, whose book Traveling Mercies has sat on my shelf for almost as long as my mother’s been dead. Lamott describes the typically fruitless body-comparisons most women experience in dressing rooms, locker rooms, and on beaches. She details her own misgivings about her “dimply thighs,” but finds consolation in the “grace” of “comfortableness,” and writes: “And of the several things of which I’m most positive, one is that if I live to be an old woman, I won’t be sitting on my porch berating myself for having leapt into a swimsuit to swim in warm ocean water at every opportunity even though my thighs were dimply.”
Truly, I want to leap out of my chair and shout “Amen” at the end of this sentence, but am afraid I will frighten my Unitarian husband and our skittish cats. So I will quietly whisper namaste, namaste, and start packing, knowing how happy my mother would be with the life I’ve created, and how if I called her right now to tell her I felt badly about my body, she would tell me I take after her. I am beautiful.
(According to random internet googling, I am the exact same height & weight as Beyoncé.)