I can tell you the exact date I last wore a bikini in public: February 9, 2005. My husband and I were on a long overdue honeymoon in Punta Cana. I'd spent the previous six months dieting, was in the middle of training for a half marathon and was at my lowest weight ever.
And I still thought I looked fat.
I remember sucking in my stomach while I walked down the beach and self-consciously pulling my towel over my stomach every time I stood up. I remember a lot of things from that vacation I enjoyed, like the pleasant all-day beer buzz and the fact that there was always sand in our sheets—but feeling comfortable in my own skin was never one of them.
Of course, nine years and two babies later, I look at those pictures and wonder how I'd ever been so small (a diet consisting mostly of hunger pangs and baby carrots was my secret), and of course I don't see a fat woman. But I also don't see a happy woman either.
Shortly after our vacation, I got pregnant with Isaac and, despite everything I'd read about how many women feel beautiful and sexy with a bun in the oven, I felt none of those things. But I did feel fat (again), packing on 60 pounds during my first pregnancy despite a regular exercise routine. My second pregnancy went very much the same as my first—plenty of exercise, but also plenty of eating. I gained 60 pounds again. And even though my last baby is five years old now, I still carry an extra 20 pounds of baby weight. I'm pretty sure I can no longer call it baby weight.
Body image has been on my mind a lot lately, especially now swimsuit season is upon us. It seems like every day I'm reading a headline on social media about how I'm supposed to respect my postpartum body and honour it by donning a bikini—or at least a cute tankini with strategic ruching—and frolic on the beach with my kids. But that will not be me this summer. I'm the mom in a T-shirt and shorts nervously tugging at her bra to make sure all the saggy bits and stretch marks are covered (and yes, I'm sucking in my stomach, too).
If bikinis are brave, then I guess I'm a coward.
Champions of the postpartum bikini body tell me I'm showing my young daughter I have a healthy body image by showing off my figure, flaws and all. And by hiding it under a few extra layers of clothing I'm sending her the message that I'm ashamed of my body, which is a message she'll carry for the rest of her life. It's a theory that makes sense, since I'm sure my body image issues were inherited from my own mom, who always stayed on the shore while my brother, sister and I begged her to play with us in the water.
That said, I'm not so sure the act of wearing a bikini is brave. For women like me, who haven't yet come to terms with the havoc that pregnancy and breastfeeding wreaked on their bodies, even getting our pale, soft bellies into our matronly swimsuits is a mental battle. Those shorts and cover-ups are the best we can do on any given day on our journey towards a healthier body image.
The best I can do for my daughter is be there with her in the water, holding her high over my head and splashing her back down, like I have since she was a baby. I don't want her to remember the fact that I wasn't brave enough to wear a bikini, but I do want her to know I was strong enough to swing her until we were both dizzy with laughter. And I was strong enough to keep my insecurities to myself so we could have a day of fun in the sun together.