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One of the most terrifying prospects for a fat person, even a fat person that totally loves their body, can be the beach. And with good reason. There are tons of blogs and galleries out there dedicated to how hilarious it is when we dare expose our skin to sunlight– and it’s not limited to individual thought. PETA’s chimed in, too.  I’ve even found a few videos on Youtube of girls giggling over fat people daring to sit at their beach. It’s a horrifying and daunting thought, knowing that making the same summer plans as almost everyone else on the globe could end with you being mocked on Youtube for … sitting.

Something about having to actually see our blubberous rolls makes people who might at least reserve their snickers until after we’re out of earshot lose what little semblance of social graces they might already have. If you think the hurled insults are bad when we’ve got our clothes on, boy-howdy do they increase to levels bordering on ridiculous when they have my offensive mass burned permanently into their retinas. How dare I brazenly walk around in a swimsuit like a real human being!

Man, I loved swimming when I was a kid. I learned to do it at a really early age and would spend all day every summer at the neighborhood pool. I was on the swim team for a couple of years, my hair would routinely be striped with strawberry blonde, skin coated in freckles by the end of the season and something vaguely resembling a tan would be stubbornly hammered into my road-reflectingly pale skin tone. I’d be there when the pool opened, pack a lunch and stay until my mom made me come home for dinner. Chlorine was my perfume of choice.

And then I hit puberty.

My thighs expanded. I got stretch marks on my hips. My chest expanded. Fat was developing across my stomach, and I knew I couldn’t swim anymore. Or rather I couldn’t wear a swimsuit anymore, no matter much I missed swimming. Nope, no whales at the pool! I’d seen my peers pick on fat people at the pools before, I knew the kinds of things they said even if they’d only turned to giggle about it after the person was out of range. My thirteen year old self didn’t have the capacity to love my own body; I didn’t even know what that meant. My body was weird, awkward, and way too fat. Hips and chest growth were alright, but fat anywhere else was a big no-no.

So I spent about a decade hiding it instead. Wrapping myself in the baggy jeans and black t-shirts that were thankfully en vogue in the late 90’s, passing my own body hatred off as stylistically enjoying a subculture that I was really just into for the cover.

I spent a long, long time being afraid of the water. Of swimsuits. A lot of years wearing t-shirts to the beach, of claiming to have my period as an excuse not to have to peel off my clothes and going into the water at summer camps. On the rare instance my shy high school aged self got invited to a pool party, I immediately rejected it because then they’d all have to see me in a swimsuit. I may have lost out on making friends for all the invitations I passed on, and I look back at photos my friends post up on Facebook or share via email of parties past and always note my absence from them. I didn’t have the perspective then to realize that the confidence I would’ve been exhibiting by brazenly wearing a swimsuit and having a good time just like everyone else may well have overridden any teasing those in attendance might’ve planned.

Or maybe not. High school kids aren’t the most open minded and forgiving, and there’s always that paranoid thought of the insecure that not mocking you to your face doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it behind your back. It doesn’t help when this paranoia is fueled with the knowledge that your friends have done this to other fat people in your presence, fueled by a culture that tells us that fat is something we do to ourselves and encourages us to shame the offenders thin.

It wasn’t until last summer that I broke my swimming fast. I worked up the courage to go to my University’s pool. I refused to give myself time to think about it, refused to let me talk myself out of it like I had the dozen or so times I’d tried before. I bought a swimsuit, went into the locker rooms to change, wrapped a towel around my waist and cautiously made my way to the pool area.

I had to wait a little for a lane to open; the University pool is divided into multiple lanes so you can get in and swim laps. So I huddled on the bench against the wall, self consciously clutching my duffel bag to my chest, keeping an eye on all the athletic college boys walking by. These were the kinds of guys who’d make comments about beached whales and thunder thighs; college students, especially jocks, aren’t traditionally known for being the big embracers of body acceptance and diversity.

But imagine my surprise when it was one of them that offered to share a lane with me. “Waiting for a lane? You can use half of mine if you want.” I was stunned. I even thought about turning him down, but I took the offer with a hesitant smile. I dropped my towel, grabbed my goggles and nose plug, and in the final moment of truth, walked bare-thighed across the way to lower myself into the pool.

The world didn’t end. A gigantic prank ending in erupting laughter didn’t ensue. I just swam. For the first time in over a decade I swam and I remembered how much I loved it. So much that I swam laps for a solid hour and a half before I realized the time and reluctantly pulled myself out of the pool to leave. I felt invincible. I didn’t even wrap my towel around my waist as I made my way back to the locker room, rinsing off before I headed out to class. The euphoria lasted all day, generating a kind of confidence that’s difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t overcome an intense fear before. From then on I went to the pool whenever I damn well pleased, and not only did I never have to deal with any disparaging remarks but I managed to stop that paranoid voice in my head. The one that told me everyone was laughing behind my back, making jokes about the whale coming to sea. I was doing what I loved, I was happy, and I felt like I’d passed that final milestone in my personal journey to accepting my fat body.

So this summer when I went to Los Angeles to visit friends, I packed a swimsuit. I knew they wanted to take me down to the infamous Santa Monica beach, and I wasn’t going to let fear keep me from enjoying it like everyone else. I was going to wear that goddamn swimsuit like a pro. And so I did.

Which is not, of course, to say I came away completely unscathed.

Don’t ever let someone tell you that you  need to change your body to make it “beach ready.” Every body is a beach body, and fuck anyone who tells you otherwise.