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.

Faraway & Here

I just got back from a busy nine days of travel, a lot of it solo, so I had ample time to ruminate about why I make it such a priority, to weigh its costs and its benefits. I had four 12-hour+ travel days on this short-ish trip, and for the first time it really sank in that the cost of these voyages is not just money, but the incredible grind of travel—especially across time zones, and especially if, like me, you’re generally taking the cheapest (and often least convenient) option.

But even when I’m surrounded by a couple dozen wired pre-teen boys on my transatlantic red-eye, or I take the bus in the wrong direction, or I’m feeling desperately confused and lost at a train station in Tel Aviv, I don’t doubt it is worth it. (I do doubt my choice not to get any kind of international data plan for my phone, though.)

Travel has many virtues—new experiences, cultural education, respite from regular life—but for me the most valuable part might be its capacity to inspire wonder. The experience of being in a foreign place is a return to being small children again, peering curiously at the world’s baffling details, feeling the mystery and novelty that are much more rare in a familiar, generally understood world. And that wonder, marvellous in itself, also means being fully present while we take it all in and absorb all the ways, large and small, that this new environment is a departure from our own.

On this trip I made a pilgrimage to a heated outdoor pool open year-round, and it was a marvellous and worthy destination. It was a thing of beauty to swim lengths in the warm water as dusk fell and the guard towers and bare-limbed trees turned to silhouettes. To swim on as the underwater lights made the pool glow blue, to swim not for a workout, but because I love feeling water flow over my skin. But I also enjoyed my bus rides through Richmond and Twickenham, where I was amused by a window advertising “draught excluders,” a sort of weighted doorstop that lines the bottom of a door, which seemed to me both quintessentially British in both premise and name.* The planned experiences are incredible, of course, but it seems to me the bigger benefit of travel might be becoming alive to the details of daily life.

On my last trip I listened to a fantastic interview with Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer, a mindfulness expert who, quite shockingly, doesn’t espouse formal meditation. Instead, she says, to cultivate presence, “all that is necessary is to seek out, notice, and create new things.” Look for novelty, she advises, even in your daily life. Interestingly enough, this is something I already did when I was feeling bored, or sometimes when I cycle or walk my regular routes. Notice something new, I’d tell myself, and, even if just briefly, a new discovery pierces the fog of the humdrum. This novelty spotting is also part of the joy of spring—spying the first plants to pierce the hard soil, the first swelling of buds. More than any other season, spring is novelty embodied.

I think it’s good to plan when you travel, to pick some worthwhile destinations, but on this trip—to one place that was familiar, and one that was brand new—I picked some destinations that were simply a sort of wire frame for my experiences. One day in London I googled bookstores and spent a day just walking between them, winding through parks and looking for birds and blossoms, stopping for lunch when a market presented itself in a public churchyard with a garden where I could sit and eat my Vietnamese noodles. The bookstores were lovely, but my meandering route was just as interesting.

In Israel, I was fortunate enough to have wonderful guides—namely an author, who was my generous host, and her grandson. They invited me to crash their annual road trip, which had a couple of planned points, but also a lot of flexibility. I hiked in my first desert, I ate lines of olives al fresco at a fancy hotel overlooking a 35 km canyon with 500-million-year-old strata, peeled fresh oranges and gnawed a brick of sesame-sweet halva as we snaked along desert highways, Bob Dylan or Pavarotti or Beyoncé on the stereo. I wish for everyone to know the pure joy of singing along to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” with an octogenarian grooving in the passenger seat. We drove, to our surprise, 600 km that day, passed Bedouin encampments, tank training grounds, photo-op camels at rest stops, the Dead Sea washed in the soft sunset pastels.  The funny thing about the world through a car window is that photos are generally useless—always blurred by motion or car windows, difficult to frame with care. And so I had to absorb it all myself, to be alive to all that was before me.

Is that why my heart felt so full that day? I was certainly seeking out and noticing new things, and felt keenly aware of how lucky I was, to have this trip, this host, this time with my friend, who is a marvel of good health at her age, but won’t be here forever. The time felt precious and fleeting, and yet the feelings and the memories are vivid, like a song that’s stuck in my mind, the verses perhaps muddled, but the chorus clear and bright.


* Wikipedia tells me the Aussies call these “door snakes,” which also seems a perfectly Australian adaptation. But why have I not encountered these in Canada? We have plenty of draughts that need excluding.