Beach bodies

There are two ways to handle a city summer: escape it—heading to malls, museums, movie theatres, or any other place with polar A/C—or embrace it, grabbing your suit and sunscreen a making for a city pool or beach. Despite being a person who loves summer, I’ve tried both of these strategies in recent heat waves, but this past weekend I spent my afternoons at the beach and my local pool.

And while there were a few takeaways from my time stretched on a towel, what struck me both days was how nice it was to be immersed in a sea of bodies on display. Young bodies, old ones, fat ones, thin ones, and everything in between. Tattoos, stretch marks, tan lines, body hair, scars, and secret constellations of freckles are no longer hidden. Makeup washes away, and hair waves and frizzes. While I’m sure people have considered, to varying degrees, how they look that day, and of course stigma really doesn’t disappear, there is something about the sheer volume of people that still feels democratizing to me. Here are our bodies, and they are, finally, deliciously cool.

I was a lifeguard through all my teen years and a bit beyond, and I don’t remember thinking much about this catalogue of bodies. Maybe I was too young, or maybe I was used to it, or maybe it’s gotten harder to catch a real glimpse of another person’s cellulite. We’ve long had to contend with the airbrushed, photoshopped professional bodies of models, and the well-lit, trainer-honed physiques of actors, but social media is a relatively new player in the scene. Our feeds give us glimpses of what would appear to be more authentic, except, of course, they’re not: one carefully edited photo elides all the trashcan-bound takes. No wonder one study found higher social media use correlates with increased risk of eating and body image disorders.

Sitting, taking it all in, I was reminded of the plus-size pool party scene in Shrill, all those bodies lounging, swimming, floating—savouring all the warm weather pleasures. I watched the show with a curvy friend, who noted that what was especially revolutionary was how the camera lingered on these bodies in motion as the actors swam. This isn’t something to hide, those shots declared, let’s pause to take it in. In Shrill the book, West writes about how she had to teach herself to love bigger bodies, because society certainly didn’t teach us to love them—in fact, it does the opposite. (Hard to dismantle the patriarchy if you’re hungry and beaten down.) So she recalibrated her feeds, sought out photos of big bodies and studied them to broaden what she thought of as beautiful.

And that’s one thing (besides a break from the oppressive heat) the public pool or beach has to offer: a sort of joyful reminder of what bodies actually look like. I sat there feeling like one of the Fab 5, wanting to reach out and tell women especially that they were beautiful. Because I am sure all of them have frowned at the mirror, pinched or prodded their flesh, possibly under fluorescent lights of a changeroom when buying the very bathing suit they’re wearing. They’ve probably moaned to friends about how their boobs are sagging, or they need to lose five, ten, twenty pounds. We’re so unforgiving, so self-conscious, but these are our containers for being, the only way we can access the world. And as much as I wanted to compliment these women, the point is actually setting all that assessing aside, leaving it in the lockers with our street clothes. Because at the pool we get to indulge in the glory of physicality: it’s the grandpa doing a flip on the diving board, the goggled kids frogging underwater and gasping as they surface, the legs swaying in pool handstands, the babies splashing with delight. We are weighed down with so much judgment and expectation, but the public pool is a glimpse of a world where, with practice, every body can be buoyant, every body can be free.

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