Is it possible to come out of a swimsuit store fitting room with your self-esteem intact? Each year, as I scroll through the perfection that is everybody else’s Instagram but my own, I chastise myself for not being more faithful to getting in shape. Even my upper arm can fat move me to tears in the harsh glare of fitting room lights.
This year, still reeling from a close encounter of the sagging kind in H&M’s fitting room, I went for my annual health insurance fitness check. Surprise, surprise. Despite the arm fat and tummy wobbles, I got full marks for the health check and full marks for the fitness test. So maybe I’m more worthy than my fitting room woes suggest.
This is nothing short of remarkable, considering my youth was littered with athletic failure. I finished the backstroke on the same side I started, was intimidated by hockey, ducked every volleyball that flew my way, and most certainly did not run around a track. I couldn’t even make a 50 m swim across the pool.
So how did I pass a fitness test now?
Two years ago, despite my misgivings about my body, I was persuaded to put my bikini on and do something while wearing it. I got on a stand-up paddleboard. I’d never been to back line before in False Bay, Cape Town, and so I was terrified my first time. As the months went by, I got used to the sinus cleanse and managed to catch a few little waves. But I was still scared. In fact, I was so frightened when I paddled out for the first time at Huletts, (a benign little right, next door to Bruce’s Beauties), my legs were visibly shaking. I cried more than once out of fear.
That first year I had more X-Rays than I have had in my life. Toes, fingers, face. No fractures, but I did endure a dislocated toe, a sprained finger, and a very black eye. I saw a shark. And sometimes I didn’t see anything at all but the siren went off nonetheless. Which is worse? Seeing the shark or knowing it’s lurking somewhere?
Despite all that, I kept going. I kept paddling out. Why? Well, I’m not completely sure. Maybe I got tired of being a spectator sitting on the beach. Maybe I caught a wave and was just hooked. Either way, the ocean lifted me up, gave me a ride, and it was amazing.
I’ve made it through this year with no X-Rays. At the beginning of 2017, we started training with our local SUP surf shop. Our coaches teach us paddle techniques, buoy turns, fitness drills, slipstreaming, and more. In winter, when we could see our breath in the cold air and we stayed out on that estuary, paddling hard and training more.
Now, I can paddle in tougher conditions when I surf and I hardly ever cry (except in fitting rooms) thanks to my training. My confidence still grows as I learn more about sharks, how to read the ocean, and understand weather forecasts.
And through all this, I learned there is a place inside me that is stronger than I’d realized. Sometimes in the ocean, you need to summon up all your strength – something you already have in you. Co-existing with the ocean is primal. It gives you the opportunity to see what you have in reserve, and when you find that strength, the euphoria is sublime.
I would not be able to testify to that if, on that day two years ago, I had not put that bikini on despite my body. This summer, when I contemplate wearing a bikini, I know I won’t look perfect. I am north of forty and I just spent a winter nibbling cookies instead of kale. But I do know that I will be strong. I have muscles that will take me out to the back. I have courage that will make me take off on a set wave. I have stamina that supports me over longer distances.
So, if you are struggling to be faithful to a diet or a bikini body program, don’t stress. Keep trying. But put your bikini on anyway. It’s not about what you look like in a bikini, it’s about what you can do. So let the ocean empower you. Let it lift you up and give you a ride.
And until they install dimmer switches in fitting rooms and Instagram filters in the mirrors, no one is going to look perfect in a swimsuit. But when you are riding a wave, you won’t even care.