Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families

Bikini Battles

How that itsy, bitsy, teeny weeny bikini ruins our days

It took me several trips to the community pool to work up to the horrific moment when I would bare it all and wear (gasp) a bathing suit. I had already staked out the pool to see what 'the competition" looked like.  Women who had several kids yet clearly spent at least an hour at the gym every day.  Women whose bodies came in all kinds of shapes.  Those who were self-conscious and trying to conceal every inch.  Those who immediately wrapped themselves up in a towel after leaving the pool and those who wore those bathing suits with little skirts.  I even examined what types of bathing suits were mom-ish.  Do moms wear one-pieces or can a young mom still wear a bikini?  Or do they compromise and go with the concealing, yet slightly sexy tankini? 

I checked out women's tans and compared my own pale skin to theirs and wondered how it was possible for women in the midwest to have such dark tans.  And I carefully estimated women's ages and counted the number of kids that they had trying both to comfort myself that they looked better than I did merely because of their young age and trying to plot the trajectory that my own body will take in the upcoming years.  After checking out the scene and gathering reconnaissance, I returned home to make some decisions about when (and in what) I would make my pool debut.

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Even then, I took great efforts to ensure that all was concealed.  I carefully picked out a long shirt to wear over my bathing suit and checked out how much the stuck out of the bottoms.  I did a walk to the mirror (and away from it) examining the amount of jiggle.  And I spent some time trying to determine if the little pooch was indeed belly fat or was simply post-pregnancy loose skin.

When I finally went to the pool, I sucked in my gut, walked with perfect posture (which I never do), and practically jumped into the concealing water the instant that it was possible.  I looked around at other women wondering what was going through their minds and how many had critiqued my body during the few seconds that it was revealed.  Since then I have vowed to begin a daily workout routine and have spent much time wondering when THIS became my body and wishing that I could do some 5 minute ab routine that would immediately whip me into shape.

So why does bikini season cause us so much anxiety?  And when do we stop caring and become satisfied with our bodies?  The anxiety took me back to my middle school days changing in the locker room, trying desperately to change shirts without anyone seeing anything and high school days of looking at the popular girls' bodies and wondering why mine still looked like a gawky colt.  At each era in my life, I thought that one day I would grow out of this self-consciousness and that I would embrace the body that I had.  But what I have learned is that the anxiety never seems to go away.  And that women look at one another and judge.  We compare breast sizes, thigh thinness, and amount of belly fat.  We look at the luster of one another's hair and the creaminess of one another's skin and disappear into ourselves when we see some sign perfection in someone else. 

Perhaps this evolutionarily made sense--when our bodies and skin were indications of our health and fertility, and therefore our superiority as a mate.  But in suburbia, in a pool filled with married and middle-age women and their kids, this hardly matters.  So why do we continue to stress about our bodies and worry about what others will think about how we look?  I honestly don't know. I just know that we do and it doesn't stop no matter what age we are, how successful we are in our careers, or how focused we are on being good mothers. 

Despite women's lib, when it boils down to it, many of us still judge ourselves by our bodies, spend hours self-depricating and searching for that bathing suit with the tummy panel and ruching that makes our waist look like it did when we were 21.  We have pushed an 8 or 9 lb human out of a very small orifice (or through a surgically installed sunroof in the case of those of us who had C-sections).  We've battled sexism and chauvinism.  We've paced the floors at night for hours to help our newborns to sleep.  And we've graduated from college and succeeded in ways in which women many years ago could not have imagined. 

Our bodies change as we age, have kids, and mature.  We will never get back the bodies of our early 20s.  We should work out not in the pursuit of that perfect bikini body, but in the pursuit of another 60 years on this planet to be amazing moms and role models.  So how about we call a truce?  I won't judge your jiggle if you don't judge mine and let's spend our time stressing about more important things.

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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