Ocean City

by Angie Hay

I have a picture of myself at age 18 flying a kite on the beach in Ocean City, Maryland.  I am wearing one of my favorite shirts of all time, the same shirt I had my senior pictures taken in, a long sleeve black turtleneck sized 3XLT.  I imagined that I had this kind of flowy bohemian poet thing going on, but what you see in the picture is a tiny girl wearing a giant square.  The beach-goers around me are comfortable in tank tops and board shorts, but I am basically a head floating above a censor box of my own creation.

I should warn you in advance: this is not the before and after story you may already be imagining.  I was fat on the beach and I’m fat now.  I’ve been thinner than now twice in my adult life, each time the result of a crushing nervous breakdown during which eating slipped outside of the realm of concern or, really, possibility.  I lose weight when I spend lots of time crying; when I’m happy, I’m fat.  So I won’t be telling you I lost 75 pounds and finally wore that bikini.  This isn’t that kind of journey.

When I was a brand new bellydancer, I met an amazing Amazon woman named April who danced in the Advanced class.  She was bigger than me by a mile.  She was wide and tall, gave powerful hugs, and could out-dance anyone in any room anywhere, hands down.  She wore skimpy tank tops and sarongs that showed her thighs and she looked like sculptures of goddesses that cavemen worshipped by firelight.

One night a bunch of us were sitting around doing that thing we do, bemoaning our miserable bodies, and we riffed on the topic of arms for quite a while.  Oh, my fat arms, oh, my flabby arms, oh, the way this shakes, it’s awful, I keep them covered up all the time.  April listened for a while before interrupting us.  “I’m bigger than all of you,” she said, “and I wear tank tops all the time.  How do you think it makes me feel when you say those things?  You’re not just talking about your arms, you’re talking about mine.”

Oh.  Was that true?  To my shame, it was.  Our insistence on hating our arms was a direct and evil instruction to April, who was smart enough to kick open the door we were trying to slam in her face.

(April, I miss you, girl.  Wherever you are, I hope you’re dancing and happy.)

But could we really love these arms?  We had a list of their failings one hundred items long.  We had stacks of magazines that confirmed their ugliness.  Was there a deeper truth we had been missing?  There was.  It was the truth of April dancing.

Summer was coming, and we were tired of sweating in long sleeves on ninety degree days and acting like we were perfectly comfortable.  My roommate Andrea and I made a plan:  Tank tops, summer 1998.

We bought tank tops in spite of cringing in the mirror.  We negotiated tiny challenges.  Wear the tank top for five minutes at home.  Wear the tank top for a full day at home.  Wear the tank top on a little trip to the gas station.  Wear the tank top on an hour long trip to the grocery store.  The miracle was that Andrea in a tank top was just as lovely as Andrea in a hot long-sleeve shirt.  She wasn’t somehow fatter or suddenly way too much, she was just a curvy girl enjoying the breeze on her arms in a chair on her back porch.  We were mirrors for each other.  Accepting the possibility of April’s beautiful round arms and Andrea’s beautiful round arms meant accepting the possibility of my own beautiful round arms.  It was a practice, and we practiced it.  And it didn’t take long for the challenge to dissolve into two girls wearing what everyone else wore in the summer, and not thinking about it too much.

There were other challenges, some of which we did together, but mostly roads I eventually took on my own.  The getting-rid-of-control-top-pantyhose challenge.  The dancing-with-my-belly-bared challenge.  The not-keeping-my-butt-covered-in-a-long-shirt challenge.  The wearing-whatever-I-want-to-yoga-class challenge.  The getting-dressed-without-thinking-about-being-sexy challenge.  The no-make-up challenge.  The wearing-a-skirt-without-shaving-my-legs challenge.  (Did I lose you on that one?  Why?  Can only shaved legs be considered beautiful?)

This doesn’t mean that I now live a magical life of loving myself unconditionally every minute of every day.  There are still days when looking in the mirror makes me sad, or when trying to get dressed for a fancy occasion is a painful of hour of putting on everything I own and taking it back off in despair.  What it means is that when that happens, I try to love myself anyway.  It’s the loving-yourself-when-you-feel-ugly challenge.  The quieting-the-mean-woman-in-my-head challenge.  It’s a practice, and I practice it.

Every time I feel tempted to limit myself, whenever I feel those walls closing in, I push back.  Sometimes I do it for myself, and sometimes I think about who might need me as a mirror.  When I ride my bike, or practice yoga in public, or dance on a stage, or even take a nap when I feel a little tired, I can create space for someone else to love themselves a little.  Five minutes at a time.  Maybe just on a little trip to the gas station.

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3 Responses to Ocean City
  1. Sheila

    Thank you Angie. I needed this message. Damn… You are an awesome writer of the inner voices!

  2. Jill

    Yes, girl. Yes. <3

  3. Babette

    Your beauty is matched by your strength and your journey with self-love is a lesson to us all!