Bathrooms, Bikinis and Thigh Gaps
I looked, and felt, absolutely ridiculous; 22 years old, tear-filled eyes blurring a reflection that made me squirm with discomfort and discontent.
Through the doors, I could hear kids laughing and playing and splashing happily in the indoor pool just outside the bathroom. I was here for a child’s birthday party, but I couldn’t even bring myself to leave the bathroom. I hated how I looked in a bathing suit, complete with shorts that covered as much as it possibly could without transforming from bathing suit to just regular clothes.
I was a woman for goodness sake, not a bullied adolescent girl in a locker room. I was an independent, self-sufficient graduate student sobbing over thighs that touched, untoned arms and stretchy material that clung to every flaw of my body in such a way that made me want to throw on a potato sack, which would certainly be more flattering than this.
It was a child’s birthday party, but I was trembling in fear, paralyzed by my imperfection, scared of being seen, being judged, convinced that ultimately and preeminently my body was a decoration under scrutiny, adding or subtracting from the environment, and mine was defective.
I looked at the red face and swollen eyes, still dripping tears, before returning to a stall and putting my clothes back on. I did not go swimming that day, and I certainly didn’t have any cake.
“Stori…you’re very uncomfortable thinking of yourself as sexy.”
My best friend spoke these words in a way that was not particularly intense, just a casual observation after I blushed when she complimented the way a certain outfit showed my shape. I don’t remember how I responded, but merely that the comment weighed on me for a long time.
I didn’t have controlling parents who expected me to be perfect. They did not pressure me to dress, act, or behave in a strictly western “feminine” way, but allowed me to make messes, explore, and grow with confidence and strength. They encouraged curiosity, intelligence and courage.
And, I think, as I consider and remember the girl who was sobbing in the bathroom as an adult, this is perhaps what scares me the most. Despite all of that, I looked in the mirror and hated how I looked. I have still internalized a certain narrative about my body, and it caused a severe disconnect between how I perceived myself and who I was as a bodied, physical being.
If the daughter of my parents grew up to be a woman who still struggled so deeply with these issues, then how much worse must it be for those who did not have the benefits of a home like mine.
For me, it wasn’t Victoria’s Secret models. It wasn’t in seeing and comparing myself to an impossible standard of beauty on billboards and magazines that made this deep insecurity take root in my later teen years and early adult years. I was never the girl who spent time flipping through magazines, comparing myself to the women in those and wishing I could be like them.
For me, it was the subtly corrosive messages and dialogue surrounding modesty and the body, it was the “Modest is hottest”-“you are a gift only your husband can unwrap”-“if it ain’t on the menu than don’t show it” style of dialogue that I bought hook-line and sinker.
Like many who spoke or wrote those words, I did not consider what happens to a girl’s perception of her body when she hears it compared to alcohol/cake/meat and what happens to her perception of boys when they are compared to alcoholics/food addicts/carnivorous wolves ready to consume what is “offered on the menu.” I heard these messages and unwittingly internalized a narrative that said a man will always be judging, looking, seeking and behave accordingly.
It was not the models, and half-naked women on billboards that did it for me, although I know that is the source of this kind of anxiety for many women. But ultimately, they are just different sides of the same coin and dialogue, one side saying dress sexy to get a man’s attention, the other side saying dress modest, because it’s hottest, to get a different man’s attention or to prevent a man from lusting.
Both sides lead to very similar problems. It is very difficult to teach girls body autonomy, self-efficacy and self-esteem when you communicate to them that if they truly loved Jesus, and their brothers in Christ, that the context, comfort and situational circumstances that determine clothing will always be trumped by the universal gaze of some other person, and not just one other person, but every single possible gateway to lust for the men who see her and to the whim of the changing and subjective definition of modesty.
The anxiety grew as I did, the line getting tighter and tighter for what I could and couldn’t do, narrowing expectations that chocked the life out of what I actually wanted to be. Terrified of the judging ever present gaze of others, I covered my legs, avoided v-necks, and secretly wondered of the girls who would buy sexy underwear, “Why would she want to buy that if no one see’s it but her” and “that bathing suit is not loving her brothers, what POSSIBLE reasons could have to wear a two piece except because she knows people are looking.”
All my value, my “holiness” and my “purity”, rested on a 3rd person judgment, a lot of 3rd person’s judgments to be exact. And God’s was certainly not the opinion I was concerned with, because, in my eyes, God’s opinion was perfectly aligned with those of the “lusting” men.
I had no concept that maybe the young, unmarried woman who shopped at Victoria’s Secret did so because she liked the underwear, or it was comfortable, or because she felt pretty in them. I never stopped to consider that she was wearing a bikini because it’s what she owned and swimming in a shirt was awkward and cumbersome, or that she wore it for the same reason I liked curling my hair, because she liked how she looked in it.
It never occurred to me that a person may want to look sexy for themselves. In my mind, the only legitimate reason was because they wanted people to see them, to be sexy for others, to cause their brothers to stumble.
“Stori…you’re very uncomfortable thinking of yourself as sexy.”
Of course I was. Being sexy was bad, wanting to be sexy was bad, you weren’t supposed to be sexy until your wedding night…right?
You weren’t supposed to “offer that” to anyone but your husband, otherwise you are saying something is “on the menu” when it isn’t, and it never occurred to me to expect more of my brothers in Christ then to assume , as children, that just because it’s in their line of sight they get to have it.
The problem is it’s difficult to separate yourself into two. It’s difficult to live your life as an almost disembodied person. It’s confusing to live in the world, to live in a body, and have, at best, a casual, awkward relationship with that body. And as I grew up, that relationship did not remain neutral. I internalized so much hostility and resentment and discomfort, so I continued to attempt to separate from it. It’s difficult to love a body that you believe exists in its natural state as a source of sin and stumbling, a body with a butt, hips, breasts and other curves. Of course, these messages are usually added with some caveat of how “we are teaching you to respect your body, to protect your dignity.” However, that tagged on statement at the end does not undo the message itself.
And it’s difficult to contain that hostility and resentment, it doesn’t just stay in one place,but spills out into your entire perception of the body. That makes it easy to look at your body and see nothing beautiful, just the flaws.
The past couple of years, I have been attempting to dismantle some of these messages, and while it’s been slow, filled with uncertainty, prayer, counsel and discernment, I am learning the liberating, sacredness that can come with being comfortable in my own skin. To make wise, contextually and culturally appropriate choices when it comes to clothing, but also considering what makes me feel pretty and comfortable and good, taking into account my specific environment, without taking into account every single person’s sensitivities but my own.
When a young man at school approached me in my favorite pink pants and a dress shirt, an outfit worn with my father on several occasions, worn to church, to school, and to work, each time without comment, and said I needed to think about what I wore before leaving the house because the outfit was causing him to think inappropriate thoughts, I cried in the bathroom.
But, unlike at the pool, I didn’t stay there. I didn’t change. I cleaned up and stepped back out into the day, feeling confident and pretty. And that was a win.
A couple of years ago, I wore a dress I owned for several years for the first time. I had worn it before, but always as a shirt, because the hem stopped a little above my knee. I was shocked by how comfortable it was. And found, as I walked down the street, wind and sun on my legs, no one batted an eye. Apparently, everyone had better things to do with their time then to judge and scrutinize and “stumble” over calves and knees. In fact, it seemed rather unremarkable to wear a dress that showed a little leg in 103 degree Texas heat. These men and women had no concern for my hemline, why was church so different?
I’m 25 years old and this summer, my first Texas summer in four years, I wore a bikini. I stood on the edge of the pool, my bathing suit hiding under a long airy tank-top that I had no intention of wearing into the water.
My heart was pounding in fear as I stepped onto the first step, tank top still on. The water moved up to my thigh as I stepped down again.
I felt myself shaking as I waded out further, my arms raised so that my shirt lifted slightly out of the water while I mentally built up the courage. I had come a long way from that girl who cried in the bathroom at a kid’s party. I could still come a little further.
It was my first time wearing a two-piece in a semi-public place and I couldn’t believe how quickly the anxiety went away. I couldn’t believe that I felt strong and beautiful, even though my body was not much different than it was then.
I kicked legs that were built by years of soccer, and, yes, thighs that still touched. I uncovered a torso that was pale, without a six-pack and or flat as I may like. I churned the water with arms that are strong, and hug well.
The body has not changed that much. But how I see it has changed drastically, and how I respect it has changed completely.
For me, it was wearing a two-piece. For you the process of loving and being comfortable in your skin may require a one-piece, or not swimming at all, or maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with clothes for you. Maybe it’s going for a jog, or skipping an exercise day without being consumed with guilt, or eating smarter (whether that be less or more). Maybe it has to do with not seeing every other person as competition and comparing all your worst parts to their best parts. I am by no means saying that a two-piece indicates more confidence than a one piece, or that a skirt below the knee indicates less self-respect than a skirt above the knee. But in that instant, in that moment, for me, it did.
I used to think two-pieces were an indicator of the amount of holiness and love, and presumed to believe that you could judge every girl’s heart largely based on what she wore. And while they may not have been “sinful”, they were, at least, indicative of a heart issue, an invitation to be lusted after by guys who simply couldn’t help themselves.
But, looking back at those two girls, both believers, both dedicated to Christ and wanting to be more like him, and compare them, I can’t imagine the girl crying in the bathroom over her body is more holy than the woman splashing around in a two-piece, comfortable in my body, presence, and womanhood.