My family moved from Chicago to Jacksonville when I was in fifth grade. We lived just 20 minutes from the ocean, a quick trip down Florida State Road A1A to St. Augustine. Most summer weekends, we would load my dad’s white Ford pickup early in the morning, piling the cab with Frisbees and coolers. Sometimes we’d stop at Publix on our way to the beach to pick up precooked chicken strips and potato wedges, deli turkey and macaroni salad. We’d coast along the coastal highway, windows down as the ocean breeze grew stronger, American Top 40 pumping through the speakers.
I always wore my swimsuit under Soffe shorts and a cheerleading t-shirt. The summer after sixth grade, it was a lime-green two piece with blue flowers: a halter on top and bikini on the bottom. My chest hadn’t developed much yet, and I didn’t know that I looked boyish; all I knew is I felt free.
In this swimsuit, I learned to boogie board and body surf, occasionally getting pulled under by the rip current and surfacing as I coughed up salty water. I’d come out of the ocean dripping wet, wrap myself in a rainbow beach towel, and hop onto the tailgate of the truck. My sandy feet swung free as I feasted on now-cold chicken and handfuls of Fritos and cans of Cherry Coke.
In this swimsuit, I also learned to see my body and judge its changes as I began to sprout hips and love handles. I began comparing my body to those of my friends’ — Robyn with her flat stomach and Andrea with her womanly chest, both a source of envy. I poked at my abs and pinched the new flesh around my sides, willing some of the fat deposits to move upward. Instead of turning cartwheels on the beach, I wrapped my arms around my waist, trying to cover up what I deemed too much and also less-than. I left my cover-up clothes on longer and longer, feeling a confusing new sensation when I would remove them — a sensation I now know as shame.
One day during my family’s first week living in Florida, before we became well-versed in the dangers of coastal living, we stopped at a drive-on beach. The sun was setting and the beach was nearly deserted, not many other cars around to set an example for us. We drove beyond the limits of the hard-packed sand and soon felt our wheels sinking into the silky dunes. My dad shifted from drive to reverse and back again, hitting the gas quickly and then gingerly, trying to free us from the trap. But the tires were sinking deeper, carving ruts we couldn’t power our way out of.
Like the spinning tires in the sand, the toxic thoughts about my changing body dug gashes into my mind and ruts into my heart — ones I’m still struggling to climb out of. No matter how hard or how tenderly I press forward, I find myself making progress and then sinking, climbing and then falling.
I trace these ruts through the movements of the scale and the times of transition in my life. Going off to college, nursing a broken heart, watching my body change rapidly while growing a child — these moments all dragged me down into deepening ruts. Falling in love with long-distance running, shifting to cleaner eating, laboring and delivering that same child — these moments pulled me out of the depths and set me squarely on a path forward.
I don’t know if I’ll ever make peace with my body once and for all. It’s possible that I’ll climb my way out of a sandy rut just to get stuck somewhere else further down the beach. But I do know this: the fluctuations of my body are signs of great freedom and altars to the moments when my world changed. They are moments not just when I came to a new awareness of my body in space but also moments when my body made space for change and heartache and loss and love and growth.
Rapid transformation of any kind is jarring, as we relinquish who we were for who we are becoming. Maybe an aerial shot would reveal my ruts to actually be roads, the starts and stops that mark the map of my life. And if that’s the case, who am I to dig in my heels? There is so much more traveling and transforming to do, so I will keep hitting the gas.