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Meryl Branch-McTiernan Headshot

The Promise I'm Making for Next Summer

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As Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer with hoodies replacing sundresses, cider spilling over watermelon mojitos and bathing suits finding a home in the back of the closet, I make the same vow that I made last year. Like guests at a Passover Seder promising "next year in Israel," I promise next summer in a bikini. It's been a few years since I accepted that my stomach, once a sculpted stone, had dissolved into a bag of sand, and I felt more comfortable at the beach diverting attention elsewhere.

I got my first bikini when I was seven. My grandmother, a full-figured woman who donned a curly brown wig and busy floral dresses, gave it to me. It was not a teeny weeny itsy bitsy yellow polka dot bikini, but it did have black polka dots, and its tiny triangles were connected by a mini-piece of yellow. I never asked her why she bought it for me, but I can only assume she foresaw that it would get harder and harder to maintain a flat stomach, and I should milk it while it was still easy.

That first summer, I traipsed around Long Island's North Shore in my bikini, collecting sea glass and painting my face with rocks known as "Indian war paint" until my friend mentioned that she was not allowed to wear a bikini. I'd never noticed that others my age wore full bathing suits, and I was the only one with an exposed tummy. All of a sudden, I grew self-conscious, and demanded that my parents buy me some one-piece suits. I threw my little bikini in the back of my drawer. For a decade, I wore Speedos and TYR racing suits, until late high school when other girls began wearing bikinis.

Looking back, I wonder why my friends' parents had prohibited bikinis, and what the impact of teaching them to feel shame about their undeveloped bodies had as they transitioned into sexualized women. Fat boys who wore t-shirts in the water were ridiculed, but young girls were expected to cover their stomachs. At the beach in Spain, I watched topless mothers playing volleyball with their young sons and couldn't help thinking it was a more healthy way to behave. Brazilian women of all ages and sizes wear thongs to the beach. For American women, the rules are confusing. When are we old enough or thin enough to feel sexy, and who determines which body parts are ok to show or hide?

A few years ago, I discovered the nude beach on Fire Island (since shut down in the wake of Hurricane Sandy). Contrary to the expectations of many, it was not a place where people just mind their business and enjoy being naked. Instead, it was a playhouse of pervy behavior that I quite enjoyed. For the first time ever, I was approached by naked big-bellied men carrying trays of barbecued meat and offering me vodka and a puff of a joint after commenting on the state of my pubic hair. While some of my friends found the ambiance creepy, I found exhilaration in a land where nothing was hidden. There was beauty in not concealing or accentuating but simply enjoying velvet waves washing over naked skin that wasn't broken up by any cut of lycra; friendliness was born out of a community who had come to understand this secret.

Unfortunately, life is not a nude beach. At a recent hotel pool party, I noticed that I was one of the only women wearing a one-piece bathing suit. I wished that I still had my 7-year-old stomach to show off, but knew that I'd chosen to drink that sixth mojito rather than hit the gym, and that some women I knew wouldn't have even gone to a pool party because they were embarrassed about their "imperfect" shapes. For me, there's no season more special than summer; it would be nice if it wasn't so often associated with feelings of inadequacy.