Image Source: Getty / gilaxia
I've spent years feeling silently uncomfortable wearing a bikini. When I was a teenager, I felt self-conscious about the love handles I thought I had, despite the fact that I had no love handles and there would be nothing wrong with that if I did. My discomfort about having my stomach exposed was only magnified when I was diagnosed with an eating disorder and entered treatment. I became hyper-aware of every aspect of my recovering body and felt increasingly disturbed by how quickly it seemed to change. In the two years since then, I never fully made peace with my "summer body," which continued to feel shockingly foreign from the body I'd spent a lifetime trying to accept. But even though summer — with its constant pressures to slim down, tone up, and crash diet before bikini season hits — always seems to come around too quickly, this summer will feel different for me, all thanks to a beach day, a bikini, my boyfriend, a camera, and a spontaneous photo shoot.
My boyfriend and I are fortunate enough to live in a beach town, and throughout our relationship, the beach has been a safe haven for us. When COVID-19 limited where we could safely go last year, we spent hours upon hours on the beach — sunbathing, daring each other to dunk our heads into the frigid water, and talking about our lives and futures. So when the weather began to warm up this year and we realized it had been several months since we'd last been anywhere near the ocean, having a beach day seemed like an obvious choice. Despite my constant reservations about the ever-changing state of my stomach, my boyfriend persuaded me to wear a skimpy purple bikini he'd bought me. After agonizing over the decision, I donned the belly-baring swimwear, and we headed to the beach. I figured that trying to break out of my comfort zone might benefit me — but I didn't yet know how life-changing it would truly be.
When we arrived at the beach, I fiddled around with my new bikini, trying to position it so that I would show as little skin as possible. I didn't feel completely comfortable and secretly wanted to put all of my clothes back on, but I eventually forgot all about my nerves when we ran into the water together. After a couple of rounds of alternately letting the waves crash on us and sunbathing on the sand, my boyfriend suggested that we take some photos of each other on the beach. I was all for his spontaneous idea — after all, who doesn't love Instagrammable beach photos? But the moment he took out his phone to photograph me posing serenely on the warm sand, I realized just how much my stomach was exposed — and just how little it looked like my pre-recovery stomach.
Image Source: Kelly Douglas
Still, some small part of me relished in the idea of being photographed by someone I love while wearing a bikini in a color I adore. I stretched my legs out in the sand and gazed into the camera. I looked over my shoulder and fixated on the ocean waves. I contorted my legs into a position that rivaled a Britney Spears album cover and smiled brightly, completely forgetting that the entire time, my stomach — my biggest insecurity — was completely visible. I didn't "suck in" or strategically caress my stomach because I was completely caught up in the moment. For all intents and purposes, my stomach didn't seem to exist.
Later that day, when I saw the photos that my boyfriend took, though, my stomach was all I could see. I knew that my boyfriend thought I looked great no matter how my stomach looked, but I couldn't seem to move past my own perception that my stomach didn't belong in such a revealing swimsuit. I critiqued every inch of my body, even after multiple friends reassured me that I looked amazing no matter what stage of eating disorder recovery I'm in. All I could envision was my pre-recovery body — my sick body — and how much I wanted to fully slip back into my eating disorder. I ultimately posted the bikini photos on social media because I liked their beachy aesthetic, but no amount of flattering comments could fix my years-long struggle with my exposed stomach.
For the first time, I saw myself — half-naked and emotionally exposed, but happy and confident.
A few days later, though, after mentally removing myself from the beach and the photos and the Instagram comments, I looked back at the bikini photos in my camera roll. To my surprise, I didn't see my stomach — I saw a woman gracefully posing on a beach and smiling brightly, looking happier and healthier than ever before. I saw how well the striking purple of her bikini complemented her pale skin and dark brown hair. And I noticed her stomach, not because it was notable in any way, but because it looked perfectly fine, like it belonged in a bikini. For the first time, I saw myself — half-naked and emotionally exposed, but happy and confident, like any other person with any other "summer body."
I never thought that I could make peace with my stomach and feel comfortable baring it in a bikini, especially in eating disorder recovery, but my spontaneous photo shoot with my boyfriend helped mend my years of frustration with my recovering body. This summer, I'm forgoing diets and exercise regimens in favor of accepting my "summer body" — because my body, and all bodies, will always be worth showing off at the beach, no matter what society would have us believe.