I’m an Aquarius, and my love for water needs a bigger word. From the early years swimming around our pop-up pool to the endless hours in lakes and oceans — floating on my back until infinity, never turning blue, never out of breath…
It’s the most natural relationship with anything I’ve ever had. I would’ve slept in our swimming pool if my parents permitted.
While my winters were spent bundled up and hidden behind oversized sweaters, I spent my summers in the Catskills for sleep-away camp. Oh, how I loved this place. Warm friendships where people held hands and sang folk songs with guitars strumming in the background.
The times at the lake were the best part of my day. We’d grab our swimming partner and dunk our heads in and out of the muck-ridden waters until someone would blow the shrieking whistle to periodically check up on us, making sure our little bodies were safe.
“Buddy check!” the lifeguard screamed, and everyone quieted. I would grab my bestie’s hand and in unison we’d yell our numbers. “One, two, triple three!” Then we’d dunk our heads again or practice endless somersaults and watch the sun’s rays refract off the water. We’d play in the gelatinous lake for hours. I never wanted to leave. This was my oasis.
In my early years, I’d jump right out of the lake and dry off in the sun, letting the rays bronze my skin. This, too, was a magical time, letting the sun serve as a warm dryer slowly evaporating the droplets away. Once dry, I’d walk all the way to my bunk in just my bathing suit. My only worry was not slipping on the rocks with my sandals.
Puberty struck with a vengeance. My body changed, as if someone had taken a bicycle pump and inflated my thighs and buttocks overnight. I went from being a carefree young girl to a self-conscious teenager. Those seconds out of the water became the most vulnerable.
There’s a shift in teenage life when holding hands with your best friends changes to holding hands with your boyfriend.
I wanted so badly to be one of those girls. The ones who drew hearts around their initials and those of the boys they were dating. I watched from the shadows as they ran around the lake so freely in their bikinis, their bronzed bodies gawked at by the male staff.
But all I thought was how long it would take me to run out of the water and get my T-shirt back on.
In the water, I was safe from ridicule and judgment. It was just me and my friends and the water’s protective sphere keeping me insulated from the outside world. But eventually the lifeguard would blow that whistle, and I knew I would have to leave my liquid security blanket.
While I was plotting my escape, the other kids got to simply be kids. I, on the other hand, sat sweating in my T-shirt, talking with my friends and wondering why life was so cruel. Could I find the confidence to jump in again?
While I’m certain everyone thought I was a closet eater, I was far from it. From the age of 12, I started a severe regimen of diet pills and deprivation, but no matter how little I ate or how many glasses of water I drank, my body was never summer-ready. Or maybe I wasn’t ready.
It got so bad that I decided I didn’t want to go to camp at all.
Without camp I rarely found myself in lakes or pools. I purposely chose colleges and universities in cold regions so I wouldn’t have to worry about being seen. My summers were usually spent working and eating Slim Fast bars.
Eventually I began to travel, to see the world and discover more about life.
I chose Israel as my first stop and lived on a kibbutz with volunteers from around the world. Because it’s located near the desert, most afternoons in Israel reached a sweltering 100-plus degrees — the kind of heat where you could take a soaked towel, leave it on a clothesline to dry, and find it completely parched an hour later.
This intense heat led to afternoons in the swimming pool after work. I’d put my apron away after a long day of working in the dining hall and reluctantly put on my bathing suit. I began to wear a pair of loose-fitting boxer shorts over the Lycra one-piece in an attempt to hide my least favorite body parts.
Once in the water, I was at ease. There I’d do handstands and work with a friend to improve my crawl stroke. I can do this, I thought. I can swim without shame. This was my happy place.
Until it wasn’t.
As I got out of the chlorine, I made my usual beeline for my towel. I was so close when he yelled, “Such a pretty face, shame about the body!” I turned beet red.
The lifeguard just sat there in his red Speedo as if he was merely talking about the weather.
My friends looked at me in horror and yelled various reprimands of “You idiot!” and “Shut the hell up!” But the damage was done. I — pretty-faced and big-bottomed — would apparently never be able to blend in the way the thinner girls did.
All these years later and I was still self-conscious. My boxer shorts were supposed to be my buffer from ridicule, not what made me stand out more. I also soon realized that no number of hours of swimming could remove the shape I was given.
By the end of my 3 months in Israel, hours of physical labor and daily laps in the pool made my jeans loose. I had trimmed down some, but I was in no way waterfront-ready.
I’d never be able to lounge around the pool, even though in it, I was still me. Gliding seamlessly, gold star gymnast, conqueror of the world. But when the time came to leave the cocoon, I would be filled with anxiety, dreading eyes on me and my body.
I was a 22-year-old and just wanted to lie by the water without those ridiculous boxer shorts. Every time I came close, comments like the lifeguard’s would pierce so deeply I’d cover up even more.
These hot summer days, I find myself once again at a lake, not too far from the muck-ridden one of my youth. Its wooden dock is surrounded by canoes and kayaks, and thick, twisted rope keeps us in order.
Sometimes I sneak down early to just be one with the water. I swim beyond the restrictive rope, far into the distance, and, like a child, lie endlessly on my back, letting the world’s problems subside. Luxuriating in the safety of my liquid surroundings — heaven on earth.
Then I swim back to the ropes, climb the silver ladder, and let myself dry off like I did as a child until someone else comes down.
These days, my boxers are replaced by a sarong or cotton dress that I wear all the way to the dock.
When I get to the water again, I will quickly take my wrap off and jump in. The cool, thick water, the arena of emerald trees, all envelops me and makes me forget all my worries. It’s the one place I am free.
I will swim laps, tread water, lie floating on my back as the sun dries my face. I love the lake.
But I know I will have to leave it and be vulnerable all over again.
As I approach the metal ladder and flip my hair back. I see my dress, my buffer, inches away. I grab for it, but it’s out of my reach.
That’s when I start to panic. I’ll have to walk along the dock sans cover-up. Do I have the strength? I look around at the people on the dock and most are covered up merely for protection. Others are nose-deep in a book or putting sunscreen on their children. But then I think, I doubt any of them care what I look like.
So I walk back from the water, head tall. And in that stance, I feel more confident — like the water itself is shielding me.
I’m still trying to get more comfortable with my body — myself. But this I do know: I’d rather be content as a size 12 than starving as a size 6. I know that when I jump in the water, it’s up to me to shape how I live my summers. And I choose to swim.