When I was three years old, I joined the swim team at our Country Club. All the kids in our family were strong swimmers, and mom had taught us to be fearless in the water. My first competitive race was in a division for age five and under, and I was the youngest of the swimmers in my division to race the width of the 25-meter pool. By age six, I competed in full-length races in both breast stroke and freestyle.
All summer long, we spent the bulk of the day at the pool.
I loved the Country Club, with its winding drive past manicured fairways and smooth putting greens, to finally reach the wooden club house, and the gleaming azure pool. All summer long, we spent the bulk of the day at the pool. We had rigorous swim practice in the morning, then lazed around playing cards, reading (mom always gave us a summer reading list), and getting in and out of the water for the rest of the day. Mom would pack a thermos of lemonade, and a bunch of sandwiches wrapped in wax paper.
Each of the kids was given a dime, and we had the choice to buy either a soft drink or a candy bar to enjoy in the afternoon. Big decision. I loved that grape Fanta soda that turned my lips and tongue blue. I could make it last a long time, and I loved the feel of the ribbed glass bottle, and the sound it made as I used the stationary bottle opener in The Canteen to flip off the cap. Then again, it was hard to pass up a frozen Snickers.
On very rare occasions, we got to eat lunch at the Swimmer’s Porch. At six years old, this was a nearly mystical place, serving up juicy, grilled hamburgers with fries, and creamy milk shakes. Just a five-minute walk from the pool, eating at the Swimmer’s Porch was a treat reserved for two, maybe three times all summer.
I was somewhat oblivious to the social dynamics going on with the older kids around the pool, but there was always some cute teenage boy sitting in the lifeguard chair. It was a tall, wooden structure, painted white, and the Lifeguard had to climb up the slats on the side to sit in the high chair, with its vantage point to survey the full length of the pool. The Lifeguard mostly monitored dangerous activities such as running in the pool area, or aggressive rough-housing in the water.
Most of the time, the lifeguard sat tanning on his perch, enjoying being admired by the many pre-teen girls who hung around the base of the chair and seemed to find his every word riotously funny.
I was a tall girl at age six, with skinny arms, long skinny legs, and a little, round protruding belly in my one piece Speedo. One day, I was hurrying past the lifeguard chair to the diving board.
“Hey Lisa,” the Lifeguard called out to me, “Come over here!” I trotted over to his chair and looked up expectantly. The many teenagers around him were staring at me.
“Do something for me.”
“Sure!” I said, eager to please.
“Stand up very straight.” I obediently stood straight as a pin.
“Now, without leaning forward, look down. Can you see your toes?”
I didn’t know what it meant, but I felt the hot sting of shame.
“Huh-uh” I innocently replied. At this moment, the group of teens broke into uproarious laughter. I didn’t know what it meant, but I felt the hot sting of shame. I turned instantly, and dove straight into the deep end of the pool.
Under the water, I cried. What was wrong with me? Why were they laughing like that? I swam back and forth, coming up briefly for air, and then swimming under water again to hide my tears.
This is my first memory of body shame. Was there something wrong with my belly? All I knew for sure was that my body was an embarrassment.
When I’d stopped crying and composed myself, I climbed out of the pool. I got my dime and went to the canteen for a candy bar. I unwrapped the brown paper with the navy blue lettering and bit off a piece of the frozen Snickers bar. The sweet, chewy nougat and creamy chocolate sent ripples of pleasure into my body. I left the pool area and found a secluded spot where I ate every bite of that Snickers, not saving any for later as I often did. I wasn’t sure why, but something about it actually helped me to feel better.
I didn’t need those kids to approve of me. I had my Snickers.
Epilogue: Transformational Memoir Note
I didn’t expect this to be the next story in my blog. Last Friday night, I had just stepped out of the shower and was combing out my wet hair, when I looked down at my belly. I’ve put on a few pounds during this stressful time of quarantine, and it’s been nagging at me. As I looked at my naked belly, I could hear the part of me demanding I do something about it. Here was a familiar old voice of disapproval, with its solution of exerting greater control over myself.
In a flash, this childhood moment with the Lifeguard popped into my mind. I was flooded with images of the Country Club. I threw on a robe and went to my desk, with the intention of capturing a few thoughts I would return to later when ready to write the story. Ninety minutes later, the story was complete, and I sat at my computer in wonder, my wet hair still in a tangle.
What awed me was how intimate I felt with the sweet six-year-old me. The act of diving into the story and writing the specific details brought me viscerally closer to her. I felt every bit of her experience. I also had the sense that I’d “sent” a part of my adult self to sit with her in her solitary space.
I simply need to bring my consciousness to that moment, sit beside her, and hopefully give her the experience she is not alone.
Believing, as I do, that time is an illusion, and all time is simultaneous, I know she is still there, having finished the Snickers, feeling “better” but not realizing she has just laid the foundation for a habit of separating from herself when things became painful. I don’t need to change her in any way. I simply need to bring my consciousness to that moment, sit beside her, and hopefully give her the experience she is not alone.
In the few days since writing this story, I am aware that a subtle healing is under way. Several other memories have surfaced, and I expect to write a series of stories on this topic. The themes of food addiction, body shame and the evolution of my ambivalent and contentious relationship with my body, are themes that will surely be woven throughout my larger memoir.
I look forward to exploring all the small moments that formed the beliefs, attitudes, emotions and choices that ultimately precipitated into a series of protective habits and behaviors. I also look forward to bringing more attention, love and healing to those parts of myself, and being a witness to the healing that will surely result.