As I walk up the shoreline with my son, I catch myself stealing glimpses at the other women. As if I should be taking a cue from them . As if anything good could come from measuring myself against someone whose story I don't know.
I know better, yet I can't help seeing the others as somehow more worthy than I.
My bathing suit is a two-piece, but it’s the kind with a tank top. Surely bikinis and navel rings belong on only the smoothest and the flattest of bodies. Not one like mine, all doughy and shredded up and down by stretch marks. I wouldn't want to offend anyone.
But it's so hot.
The sun, high in the sky and unobstructed, caresses my arms; my legs; my chest. The salty spray blows past me, cooling me off. The rest of my skin craves this connection.
I break my gaze from everyone else, look down at myself for a change. Surgical scars run down the length of each big toe and stop just short of my flip-flop tan. My calf is home to a varicose vein that ruptured when I was 40 weeks pregnant with my youngest daughter, leaving me with a baseball-sized bruise until long after she was born. My knees are dotted with a series of neat arthroscopic crosses. My thighs rub together as I walk. I can't remember the last time I shaved my legs. The pads of fat between my armpits and my chest peek out from the straps of my top. I roll my arms from side to side, revealing the burns I’ve accumulated over years of careless cooking.
All these small details combine to make my body my own. I've never considered covering my feet, or my forearms, or the mole at my throat.
So why would I cover the evidence that my body did the most amazing thing it's ever done?
My tummy is pillowy and carved into an intricate lacework of stretch marks — symbols of the three best things about me. And it deserves to see the light of day just as much as my arm or my leg or my chest.
I roll up my tank top and tuck it in under my breasts, leaving my back and belly to drink up the rays.
I look around once more. Are they staring at me? Shaking their heads? Whispering?
I search for some confirmation that I’ve got no right to be walking around like this.
I find none.
Instead, my view widens and I see what I couldn’t before. Bellies and chests and legs and feet and faces of all kinds dot the landscape: tattooed and pristine; cushiony and muscular; hairy and smooth.
They wear bikinis and one-pieces and Speedos and swim trunks, following no obvious pattern. To me, they all just look like normal human bodies. If they’re preoccupied with the way their skin shifts when they lean over to pick up something from the ground, I can’t tell. And it doesn't seem like any of them have noticed me, either. To them, my body is just one of a thousand out here on the beach. Nothing remarkable and nothing to be ashamed of.
I bend down and pick up a crab's carapace from the surf, not bothering to hide the rolls that form when I bend over and flatten out when I stand. I hand the shell to my little boy and he shrieks with glee before scampering along to find more of them.
I realize I'm smiling. I breathe in, allowing the warmth from the sky to seep into my skin - stretch marks and all. And, just for a moment, I am free.