I sat in the middle of the bullpen made up of eight columns and five rows of plastic folding chairs and benches at the side of the pool deck. Every seat was full with swimmers in speedos and swim caps, twirling goggles around their fingers and slinging wet shammy towels over their shoulders to keep cool. Parents and coaches rushed around waving clipboards and yelling out events, heat numbers, lanes and names. Their faces gleamed with sweat, trying desperately to herd all the swimmers into the right seats and behind the right starting blocks so the meet would continue to run smoothly.
The bullpen always made me so anxious. I checked and double checked the black numbers scribbled across the back of my hand in Sharpie marker to make sure I was indeed in the 200m freestyle event, heat 2, lane 4. Check, check, and check. If you know anything about swimming, typically the faster swimmers are in the second heats and the fastest of the heat are in lane 4. The 200m freestyle was my best event.
As races finished and the next one in line started my row jumped up to the row in front of us and with every row closer we got to the start blocks the butterflies in my stomach intensified. My blue and gold ‘Tangy Tornadoes swim suit stuck out like a sore thumb next to the girls on either side of me who were on the opposing team. My goggles sat perched on the top of my head and my swim cap was pulled snuggly down over my ears—I was ready to get in the pool.
“What are those on your legs?” The girl sitting next to me blurted out. I didn’t hear here at first and lifted my cap just enough over my ears so I could hear her more clearly.
“What?” I asked.
“Those,” she pointed at the faint purple little stripes on the inside of my thighs. “What are those?”
“Umm…I got them because my legs grew too fast,” I quickly repeated what my mom had told me when I inquired about these strange marks that didn’t seem to be going away. My face flushed red and I placed my hands strategically in my lap to hide the stripes.
I was 11-years-old at the time and from that moment on those little stripes dictated the types of shorts I wore, the way I carried my body and how I viewed the strong legs I built from years of swimming and playing soccer.
As I grew up, my insecurities about those stripes festered into insecurities about other parts of my body. I wore cargo shorts from the boys department to cover my thunder thighs and preferred baggy t-shirts because they covered my shoulders. Granted, I was a tomboy with no interest in mini skirts and the color pink but I also had my own insecurities about the way “girly” clothes revealed too much of the body I was trying so desperately to keep hidden.
And sometimes, I still hide. When I’m wearing shorts I catch myself refusing to sit cross-legged on the ground because you can clearly see the stripes that have turned a translucent white plain as day. When the temperature starts getting warm I’ll hold off on wearing tank tops as long as I can because I don’t like the way my arms look. And on some days I can’t leave my house without a full face of makeup because I’m embarrassed of a couple bad breakouts.
I’m not always confident in the way my body looks—and frankly, I don’t expect to be always confident, but the difference between now and then is that I realize those feelings and I make a change. And no, I don’t make a direct change to my body I make a change to my lifestyle, I make a change to my mindset and I honor the discomfort I feel and detach it from my self worth and my outward appearance.
I now look back at the young girl I was in middle school and high school who forced herself to wear and do things she wasn’t comfortable doing because she thought they were “acceptable.” I went from always playing, moving and not being afraid to get a little dirty to sitting on the sidelines looking pretty because I thought that’s what girls were “supposed” to do. I forced myself to dress up when I went to school, curl my eyelashes back perfectly with mascara everyday, I bought purses I only used once or twice and wore shoes that made my feet hurt. I stopped playing outside and started caring more about how many different Hollister shirts I had. Yet, nothing made me feel confident in my body, if anything I was more uncomfortable and more insecure because I was always chasing something else I thought would make me like my body more.
I feel bad for that girl. I feel bad for all the years I longed to look like other girls without ever accepting me for who I was. I think some of these things come with just finding out who you are as a person and growing into the woman you will be but I think a huge part of it comes from how society shapes us and tells us what is “right” or “wrong.”
But there is no “right” or “wrong” there is no ideal body shape, size or look. If anything, we’re allowed to feel imperfect because we were made that way. In my journey of self-love and acceptance the most liberating thing I’ve told myself is perfect is whatever you want it to be and it’s okay to reject things, people and situations that take away from that.
For me, perfect is building big muscles to lift a lot of weights. It’s reserving make-up for special occasions, letting my hair air-dry in the breeze from my car windows as I drive to work and it’s refusing to wear or buy clothes that I can’t move and feel comfortable in. I’ve ripped flannel shirts down the back, I’ve busted through the leg seam of pants and I’ve broken dress zippers trying to force them up. My body doesn’t fit into society’s definition of “perfect” but it now fits into mine.
The more I reject what society tells me my body should look like and do more of what I like the more I begin to love my body just the way it is. That’s not to say the narrative doesn’t change or that I still don’t struggle with it because sometimes it’s still a battle.
Five months ago I sat on the floor of my bedroom surrounded by stacks of folded clothes, dresses still on hangers, sweaters and shirts sprawled across my bed, jeans hanging out of dresser drawers, shoes of all kinds and a big red suitcase half full. And there I was, in the midst of it, shuffling through the mess sobbing.
I was packing to leave for the airport at 6am the next morning for my cousins New Year’s Day wedding in Florida. I had to have an outfit for the wedding rehearsal and luncheon, an outfit for the rehearsal dinner, and I had to make sure my bridesmaid dress fit and my shoes were appropriate. I was so out of my element and I knew I would feel even more out of my element when we landed in Jacksonville. Everything I put on made me feel fat and I continued to say it and think it over and over again. I had to buy a bigger dress size for the rehearsal dinner because nothing fit over my legs and butt. The bridesmaid dress wasn’t made for broad shoulders and I felt like I looked ridiculous. I had all these irrational feelings welling up inside me and they continued to come out in streams on my face.
Looking back, I feel so silly for feeling that way but at the same time it was so real and I honor those feelings but what I don’t honor is the way I responded to those feelings. Back in January I was eating poorly and carrying around some extra weight—I felt uncomfortable in my skin and in my clothes. It wasn’t a noticeable difference but just enough for me to feel it. And like I said before, it’s okay to feel those emotions. It’s okay to understand those emotions are there but what wasn’t okay was for me to allow those emotions to dictate how I felt about my appearance (i.e. calling myself fat) and letting it affect my confidence.
I may not enjoy dresses, drinking and spending six hours putting makeup on and I may have rejected those from my personal mantra as they don’t add to my idea of perfect but I have realized through that experience that I should be confident in my body no matter the situation. My body is just as good when I’m lifting heavy weights in Nike Pro shorts in the gym as it is in an elegant bridesmaid dress.
It’s the same in reverse. I think it’s pretty safe for me to say the majority of women feel more confident in their best clothes, hair done and makeup on rather than al natural in the gym. I understand that I am probably in the minority when I say I prefer those things but the two situations are really no different. In all circumstances we should love the body we’re in. We should honor that our bodies have done some pretty cool things and there shouldn’t be any reason to keep it hidden or be ashamed.
I’m proud of those stripes on my legs now. My legs are so muscular and powerful and those stretch marks are proof of that muscle growth. Other women have stretch marks on their tummies from birthing beautiful humans into this world and they should be proud of that because that’s pretty freaking cool. I’m proud of those long arms that sometimes look awkward and weird in tank tops because they allow me to get into the optimal position to deadlift some pretty massive weight off the floor. Other women may think they have too short of arms, too thick of arms, too much skin on their tummies, too much junk in the trunk (or not enough), some may think they aren’t tall enough, or hate that there is no shape to their legs but I challenge you to think about what that body part has done for you because I think you’ll be pretty surprised that there is magic in that imperfection. That in some way that imperfection has allowed you to be different than other people and has allowed you to do something pretty cool. And quite frankly, I think doing is way better than just sitting on the sidelines looking pretty.