Before I left for my Hawaii trip, I did some online swimsuit shopping. One of the many companies I explored had a line of copy that stuck with me – “the best beach body is the one you have now.”
What bulls#!$, I thought. That was obviously written by someone who’s only body image concern is 5 or 10 pounds she’s been trying to lose since she was 18. She’s never felt the utter despair that she will NEVER find a swimsuit that makes her feel comfortable, let alone even the slightest bit sexy.
But with snorkeling and lots of beach time on my mind, I dug a little deeper into my shopping and found some solutions that I’d never tried before.
- Swim shorts, with built in pockets – perfect for making strolls on the beach as pleasant as swimming (see: the perils of chafing). Perfect for those of us who want to hike to a beach and then maybe take a dip, but don’t want to have to wear a full piece swimsuit under normal shorts.
- A rash guard/short sleeved swim shirt (rash guard is a terrible name, by the way!) that was super comfortable and best of all, covered the upper arms, which have always been my greatest area of self-consciousness while swimming.
- And, shocker, a bikini top to wear under the shirt. Because, well, most gals with any, ahem, curves up top need a little support.
In this ensemble, while on my Hawaii trip, I went snorkeling, twice: once in a gorgeous cove in daylight, and once at night with a bunch of manta rays. Yes, you read that right. More on that in a moment.
First, daytime snorkeling. This is one of those activities that anyone can do – and a lot of people do – without any coaching or training. In my case, I just looked to my friend for how to do it, and she basically said: “Put the stuff on, stick your face in the water, and breathe. Don’t kick too much, and don’t touch the coral.” The rest – like how and when to put on your flippers, how to keep water from coming in to your mask, how to convince your brain that “No, you’re not about to drown. Yes, you can breath underwater” – the rest you have figure out.
For me, the breathing part was the hardest. I love to swim laps, and that entails taking large breaths that get expelled rather forcefully through both nose and mouth. Snorkeling requires breathing that is slow and purposeful, and doesn’t involved your nose at all. So for me, the first few moments were utterly terrifying. I kept thinking I needed to take a big breath to hold before I put my face in the water. My breathing was fast and panicked. My body was physiologically defying my brain, which knew that people all over the world do this thing all the time…without dying.
Once I got over this fear, and figured out how to keep water from seeping into my mask, the experience was magical. The fish in the bay were plentiful, colorful, and completely unfazed by my presence in their domain. I even managed to take a couple of pictures!
And here’s the best part about this experience: I never really thought about what I was wearing. I never really freaked out about if the entire world was judging my body. I just put my face in the water and looked at the fish. When I climbed out of the water, I walked gleefully across the beach and didn’t even consider being self-conscious. I was comfortable and it occurs to me, now, this might be the first time I was ever totally relaxed in a beach setting.
Later in the trip, I donned my water outfit again and went night snorkeling with manta rays. I say that as if it’s no big deal, but let me tell you; it was a pretty big deal. See exhibit A:
As magical as it was, this experience surfaced a whole host of self-esteem issues. For example, knowing that I would be hanging out with toned and attractive 20-somethings who managed the experience. And, in this case, knowing that I was the only one in a boat usually reserved for 6. See, circumstances contrived to cause me and friend to be unable to attend our original night snorkeling date. Luckily, the awesome company we booked was willing to rebook me, and they were willing to take just me out in their latest boat. Why is this intimidating to me? I don’t know, it just is.
However, my guides couldn’t have been nicer, and we were soon out in the bay (which is a mere few hundred feet from the dock) ready to meet some mantas. I zipped into my wetsuit top (thank god it fit!) clamored awkwardly over the edge of the boat, and then proceeded to wrestle for a few minutes with my mask, which insisted on trying to drown me each time I put my face into the water. My in-water guide gamely tried to help me, and we laughingly agreed that I have a haircut not well-suited to snorkeling. Eventually, we got me situated, and it was time to…float.
Float, while hanging onto a lit-up surfboard, with a fun noodle beneath my ankles to keep my feet out of the way. See, the lights on the board attract plankton, which attracts manta rays, which attracts crazy night-snorkeling humans.
So after all the anxiety and bustle of getting there…all I had to do was float.That’s it. That’s all I was supposed to do.
This was, surprisingly, a challenge. After a few minutes, and my first gasp-worthy sighting of mantas, I picked my head up and remarked to my guide that I had no idea how much time we had left. She gently reminded me that I had a whole 40 minutes, and I could use as much or as little of that as I wanted; it was entirely up to me.
See, it was very, very strange to just watch and float. I had nowhere to go. Literally. The guides moved the board when needed, and my job was just to hang out in the water and watch the manta rays. At first, I tried to snap pictures and videos, but soon, I just gave up and looked. And reflected on the fact that I am not very good at that kind of stillness. Most of my outdoor adventures involve needing to get from point A to point B. Sure, I might stop and have a snack or take in the view, but pretty soon I’m in motion again.
This was different. It felt strange. And pretty indulgent.
But also amazing.
Once I relaxed, the time flew by, and before I knew it, I was being towed back to the boat and climbed back in. I struggled to peel my wetsuit off, and the male guide just said “oh, we all deal with that” and helped me, as if it wasn’t my fault for NOT being a toned 20-something. 🙂 They gave me lukewarm hot chocolate, motored me back to the dock, and sent me on my blissed-out way under a hazy, full, Hawaiian moon.
The moral of this entire story? If you are a person who deals with body consciousness issues, there is power in finding comfortable swimwear for the body you have right now. It might not be sexy swimwear, but comfort is a good first step. If it can take you across the beach without triggering your self-judgement, that’s a win. And if it can help you get over whatever fears you may be harboring about trying new things, that’s a real victory.
Because there are beautiful fish and otherworldly manta rays in the water, my friends, and it would be a shame if you missed them. Get to it.