the HAES® files: The Pool Party

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Stacey Nye, PhD, FAED

When I was in the 11th grade I took Junior Honors English. Back then, students didn’t take the profusion of honors and advanced placement classes that they do today, and so this was a big deal for me. It was one of my all-time favorite classes. Mrs. Gordon, the teacher, was smart, warm and funny. She inspired me to read books that I might have never read otherwise, such as Moby Dick and The Grapes of Wrath. Furthermore, my entire friend group, consisting of my closest girlfriends and the boys we hung out with, (including Sam, whom I secretly loved), was in the class. I looked forward to it every day.

At the end of the school year, Mrs. Gordon rewarded us with a pool party at her house. This generous gesture, practically unheard of otherwise, was a real treat. There was only one problem — I was terrified to walk around in a bathing suit in front of my friends, especially Sam. After much agonizing debate, I decided to go to the party, but didn’t bring a bathing suit. This way, I reasoned, I could be with my friends, but not expose my body.

I arrived at the party and all of my friends were in the pool, of course. Shouts and hollers from them to put on my suit and get in the water enveloped me. “I forgot it” I lamely replied, as I sat alone on the deck and sipped a soda. Mrs. Gordon soon approached me and offered to lend me one of her suits. I feared further protests would seem ridiculous, so I relented, and she showed me to a place I could change.

As I gazed at my reflection in the mirror, I felt sick to my stomach with shame and dread. My fat thighs were prominently exposed, and putting on a brown old lady swimsuit only made it worse. When I finally exited the changing room and began what felt like my death walk to the pool, a funny thing happened. Sam and his best friend Ben jumped out of the pool, ran over to me, picked me up and threw me in. It was terrible (my hair!) and wonderful (I’m one of the gang!) at the same time. They appeared to not even notice my thighs. I ended up having a great time at the party after that.

I can still remember this happening like it was yesterday. Since I am still in touch with my friends, including Sam and Ben, I recently told them both this story and asked them if they remembered it. They both said the same thing. They remembered Mrs. Gordon’s party, but they didn’t remember that I didn’t bring a swimsuit, that I ended up wearing Mrs. Gordon’s suit, that they threw me in the pool, or what my thighs looked like. Of course not, only I would remember those things.

Unfortunately, as I got older, my bathing suit shame continued after what should have been a valuable lesson. While I no longer refused to wear a bathing suit, I was never able to relax in it. I would spend way too much money on them, rationalizing that the more money they cost, the more confident I would feel. I was vigilant about the way I sat in my lounge chair, i.e., knees bent to avoid thigh spreading. And whenever I stood up, I would wrap a towel around my waist.

I remember the exact moment that I stopped doing that. One day my adoring yet straightforward husband looked at me in my towel and asked me what I thought I was hiding under it. “Do you think that people can’t see what you look like under there?” Although most people I tell this to have responded to that comment with horror, I thought it was brilliant. He was right and it freed me to stop hiding. And the more I walked around with my head held high and my body out there for everyone to see, the easier it got, the better I felt about myself, and the more positively people responded to me. I learned that confidence is beautiful and sexy, no matter how big your thighs are. Additionally, the more involved I became in the HAES® movement, the more passionate I became about the need to accept and appreciate body diversity. Bodies of all shapes, sizes and colors are beautiful and deserve to be cool in the summertime.

I continue to live and breathe that message. Recently, my husband and I were out with another couple. We were invited back to their house for drinks and a dip in their hot tub. As I changed into my suit and gazed at my reflection in the mirror, I remembered my pool party experience and scanned my emotions for any remaining traces of shame. Aside from some minor awkwardness at the idea of 4 adults going from being fully clothed to being (basically) in their underwear, I was okay. And I continue, to this day, to excitedly anticipate summer and the opening of our local pool. I strut back and forth from my lounge chair to the snack bar in my fabulous swimsuit (some things don’t change) sans towel, while women much thinner than me cover up. I feel tremendous compassion for them and for the insecure girl that I was. I didn’t know then that I didn’t need to change the way I looked to be attractive or loved. But if it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be the therapist that I am today, telling my pool party story to each of my body image groups and hopefully modeling positive body image for my peers. So dive in! The water is divine!

Stacey child Stacey teenager Stacey adult
Stacey Nye is a Clinical Psychologist and Founding Fellow of the Academy for Eating Disorders. She does individual and group psychotherapy specializing in eating disorders, body image, depression, anxiety and women’s issues. Her practice is in Mequon,WI. Check out her website at http://www.nodietdoc.com.

25 Comments to “the HAES® files: The Pool Party”

  1. Thank you, Stacey, for your candid and very personal story. It is definitely a lifelong process to practice self-confidence and self-love! It seems that so many cruel and mean things that were said to us as children really planted themselves deeply in our beings, and although the current media / retail / diet industry culture of fat-shaming feels like the same thing, it is different. The early hurts, if we take time to consider them, only existed for a second in time before we adopted them as part of us. Well, we are adults and we don’t have to agree with them anymore. Go away!

    The current fat-shaming that seems to be everywhere, stems from the greed of people and corporations wanting to profit from making people feel that they are not good enough the way they are. It is aimed directly at women and girls, and it is ubiquitous: you need makeup to look pretty, you need spanks to look smooth, you need soaps and scrubs and hair goo to qualify for a walk out the door. When we step back and notice these things, it is really quite ridiculous and enraging at the same time. The thing is, we can only change the economic grip by disagreeing with the messages and boycotting what we don’t need and hurting the bottom line of the “beauty industrial complex.” Don’t buy in, literally.

    Meanwhile, as we continue to do the work of self acceptance, love, and then joy at the wonderful beings we are, THAT is what will change the external messages. Yes, world, this is me in my body, enjoying my life. If you have a problem with that, I’m sorry for you that there is something within you that is so insecure, making you concentrate on what you perceive to be the shortcomings of others. Children on the playground need to learn these lessons at home and be held accountable for what they say and do. But they are, after all, still learning, and we can forgive them their mistakes. Let’s get ourselves off the playground and onto the beach!

    • Thanks Sandra for your important message. Although this story was not about me being teased, I’m sure you know that research shows that people never forget being teased as a child and tend to identify with the mean things that other people have said to them. And fat shaming is one of the few remaining socially acceptable forms of discrimination. Embracing diversity in ourselves and others seems to be a key ingredient to health, happiness and even world peace! Be well!

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. We are bombarded for years by the fashion and TV media. Today I see girls still being brainwashed to question themselves and hating their bodies. We are all beautiful…….even though there are days when I look in the mirror and think “if only….”

    • Thank you for your comment lianaguitarbabe. I agree it’s a shame that we are sold a very narrow image of what is acceptable and beautiful. Once you are no longer buying it, it’s quite a relief!

      • For folks with eating disorders, size perception is varied. I remember 2 girls in university class with me who in my eyes were barely skin and bones; however, both her anorexic and argued that they were obese. At the time I was much bigger than now and I asked them “if your obese what am I? ” Their reply, “oh you are perfect ..not fat at all.”
        It’s crazy in my mind because in my mind if we stood the two ladies side by side the two of them together were still smaller than me.
        In my humble opinion, how we see ourselves is more important than the predators. Yes I consider people who fat shame, etc, to be predators. Any excuse to hurt another human being by degrading …
        At the end of the day I say, be happy …that’s what matters. Choose to trust that you (me) have a right to be happy and screw off anyone that says otherwise.

  3. You are very fortunate that you were able to overcome your body shame and wear a bathing suit. I am 62 years old and I still remember as if it were yesterday the day I stodd before a full length mirror at the age of 12 and vowed never again to wear shorts (let alone a swimming suit or – since I graduated from high school, which required it, a dress or skirt. To this day some 50 years later I still do not own a skirt, dress, shorts or swim suit. I know somebody will respond saying, “Carpe Diem! Just Do It! Liberate yourself! Go buy a swimsuit and wear it loud and proud!” Its not that simple.

    Its no easier for a person with deep body shame to “just do it” than it is for a person with an eating disorder to “just eat more.”

    • Hi rg, thanks for your comment. Honestly, it took many years of hard work to overcome my body shame. But at some point I just had to bite the bullet and plow through it. I walk around my life as if I looked like a supermodel. I know that I don’t look like that, but it doesn’t matter. My attitude infuses me with confidence, and people respond to me in kind. It’s very reinforcing. Try it!

  4. I understand and sympathize with your plight, but am thoroughly unimpressed. You proudly post pictures of yourself and state that you walk through life “as if you looked like a supermodel” even though you know you don’t look like one. But here’s the thing. You DO look like someone that society deems at least of an “acceptable” size. You can wear a bathing suit out in public without people pointing fingers at you and staring. You can protest all you wish, but you do indeed fit into society’s narrow beauty standards. If you were a size 24 or 26, or heaven forfend, even a size 28, I could understand your hesitations. But you’re not. You at least at some point, even if you chose not to accept it, could walk out your front door, onto a beach, sit down and know in your heart of hearts the only person who cares about the size of your thighs is YOU. Try doing that when you are indeed fat and know that you don’t fit into society’s strict beauty standards.

    • Erehwon, thanks for posting. Body image is a state of mind, and we can be our own worst enemies. I know people of all shapes and sizes who won’t wear shorts, sleeveless tops or a bathing suit in the summer. I may be thinner than you, but fatter than many more. Even at my thinnest, I did not fit into society’s standards of what is beautiful and I, too, have had my fair share of being teased and shamed by others about my body. I agree, it’s painful. Yes, upon first impression, people may notice your size, just as they would if you had a scar or a deformity. But what happens after that is up to you. We wear our self esteem on our sleeve and that’s what leaves a lasting impression.
      And finally, in the end, what other people think about me has stopped being that important. I’m sure there are people at the pool who think I have no business walking around in a swimsuit. I choose not to worry about or associate myself with those people. There will always be people who won’t like us for one thing or another. That doesn’t mean we need to roll over and play by their rules. Good luck and hang in there.

    • I want to interject and say that I hear rg and Erehwon saying something that doesn’t seem to be understood fully. I see the pain you are both expressing and I want to reiterate Erehwon’s point in order to make it understood more broadly: regardless of whether the author has experienced weight-related bullying, or is thinner than some and fatter than others, the fact that she is considered within the bell-curve of cultural normativity for her appearance is precisely that which makes “walking around like a supermodel” a very different experience for her than for someone who is systematically discriminated against because of their weight. One is a self-image issue while the other is a compounded issue of multi-dimensional oppression and the effects of THAT on one’s self-image.

  5. Thanks for your input and clarification, Amy. I, too, know what the others mean, and as I read the original post, considered that difference as I read Stacey’s post: for all my growth and work at self-acceptance, I am not at the point at which I feel comfortable in a swimsuit, and haven’t since size 18. However, I wonder whether the shades of difference are all that important, when the result is the same. The forces that made Stacey as a teenager feel that there was no way she wanted to be seen in a swimsuit are the same forms of “multi-dimensional oppression,” as you so eloquently put it, that plague those of us outside the bell curve.

    So, to me, the issue isn’t where or if you are on the bell curve, but how if affects your life. For example, I look back now on my firm, size 8 hourglass figure as a twenty year old, which I now realize was a total cultural “babe-shape,” and yet, at the time, I always wore a cover-up over a swimsuit, would never consider a two-piece suit, not wear sleeveless tops, etc. Why? Because, the beating I took as a child and young girl growing up fat prevented me from feeling the freedom to wear whatever I wanted, even though I was finally society’s “right size and shape.”

    By contrast, I now wear sleeveless shirts, and don’t try to “hide” my belly, or what I now lovingly refer to as “my equator,” so clearly, with time and work, a lot has changed internally. Yet, I am still not to the swimsuit-wearing stage. Fortunately, I don’t have the pressures of pool parties, young children with a long summer ahead, or an imminent tropical vacation. The point is, I think we can agree that the forces are there, they affect each person in different ways and orders of magnitude, and each of us has a continuous process of dealing and healing with our bodies.

    Personally, I like to focus on what _my_ body is and does extremely well, like breathing, sleeping, thinking, laughing, writing, walking, playing with my dog. performing miracles of minute functioning that regulate thousands of chemical biological processes, and being free of [fill in the blank] things wrong. Happy dance!

  6. My mother, born in 1916, was extremely self-conscious about being seen in a bathing suit until a lifeguard told her when she was a teenager that no one was looking at her. Self-consciousness for any reason can be so crippling and so difficult to overcome, obviously especially when one lives in a society in which many people have no qualms about being publicly nasty. My husband, a perfectly normal-looking man, did not want to be seen in a bathing suit in his teens and twenties.

    That said, I cannot go swimming because the medicos have left me with a big mess — drainage from a sinus opening in my belly due to remaining infected hernia repair mesh. The only way to repair the hernia is for me to lose weight, which is a foolish proposition. They made this mess and now I am left to live with it for the rest of my life unless I get well enough (I have serious adrenal problems) to ask a surgeon if he could remove the remaining mesh and close me up. I love to swim, don’t care who sees me in a swimsuit, and envy those of you who could go swimming even if you don’t.

    • Hi Dogtowner, thanks for your comment. I’m sorry to hear about your troubles. That sounds exceedingly uncomfortable and extremely frustrating. Your point is well taken.

      • Thanks, Stacey. I have come to a point of acceptance that I shall die this way (specialist at Dartmouth: many people choose not to have corrective surgery due to the risks of the surgery), but then I must confess that dying does not sound in the least unappealing to me.

  7. There is a big difference between FEELING fat and BEING fat.

    BEING fat is not a state of mind. BEING something that other people respond to as a freak show is not a state of mind. It is how you are responded to by others in the world, which is not something you can totally ignore unless you are a sociopath. Its like BEING a really tall really muscular guy (who could be the sweetest guy in the universe) but still having other people cross the street in fear when they see you coming. That is not a state of mind. It is a very real external condition that changes that guy’s relationship with the world. BEING (as opposed to FEELING) fat does the same thing. Its not something that just some mental gymnastics can completely erase.

    • My mother was a plump teenager, my husband thought he was too THIN, and I am, without doubt, quite FAT.

      • Dogtowner thank you for your follow up comments. I appreciate the distinctions that you are making about the reality outside your head vs. inside your head. I believe we are on the same page about that.
        Be well,
        Stacey

  8. rg, I do understand the very real discrimination and hatefulness from external sources that you are referring to. And please don’t think anyone is saying that it’s somehow trivial, because it is not. But developing one’s self-confidence and self-image is not a matter of “some mental gymnastics,” nor can one’s feelings in response to these external insults be completely erased, in all likelihood.

    But there is a huge difference between what others dish out and how you decide–and it is your decision–to respond. It is not a simple case of “well, just don’t let it bother you” which is really rude and disrespectful for anyone to say to someone struggling with anything, and shows a complete lack of empathy and compassion. Push away from you people who say things like that.

    What I am talking about is also not just “a state of mind.” It is nothing short of reinventing who I am at a visceral and elemental level. It is an evolution honed by deep introspection, humility, frustration, study, and a mule-stubborn refusal to let others define me, coupled with constant, unrelenting practice–kind of like becoming a concert pianist.

    I am inspired by others (especially kids) who are dealing with prejudice and hate due to their size, or disability, or the fact that they wear a hijab, or have a different skin color, or have been horribly disfigured, or whatever makes them an object of unwanted external reaction–and who have done (and continue to do) the important work that keeps them mentally healthy and in a position of power over their own lives.

    The thing is, it has taken a lot of very hard work over time (four decades in my case) to get to the point at which I am the one who determines my experience, regardless of what others say or do. I wish you peace and all good. 🙂

  9. So tell me how you are not saying that since you could come to this better sense of self through hard work, any fat people who aren’t in that same peaceful state with respect to our bodies are just too lazy to do the very hard work necessary to get there.

    Because that’s how it is too easily heard by those of us who probably are a little too sensitive to any suggestion that sounds like any pain (physical, emotional, whatever) we may experience is attributable to our own laziness or unwillingness to do the very very hard work to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and overcome it. We’ve heard that one before, and anything that sounds remotely like that may not be very well received.

    On a more philosophical level, I am really not into the kind of solipsism that holds that we create our own reality, the only things we can control are our own responses to things we experience, so it is incumbent upon all of us to train ourselves to respond to any injustice, or in fact anything at all that we may encounter, with some kind of internal response that doesn’t impinge on our own sense of well-being.

    I think that is B.S. For example, if somebody is beating me up, I can engage in some kind of emotional hard work to teach myself to be at peace with that reality regardless of how many bruises or broken bones I may have. But is that a worthwhile endeavor? I guess I would ask the same question about emotional bruises – the emotional bruises and lacerations that come from living as an actual fat person in a fat-hating world, for example. What purpose does it serve for me to do a lot of internal hard work to come to be at peace with that? And how is that different from coming to be at peace with a partner who beats the c*** out of me every time s/he has a bad day?

    • I can tell you the difference. If someone is beating you up — a partner or a stranger — do you just stand/sit/lie there and take it? Do you not react, both to save yourself and to tell the person attacking you that what they are doing is not okay with you? That is fundamental if you’re going to have any respect for yourself.

      I, too, do not believe that we create our own reality — reality objectively exists and is often unbearable. I am a marginalized person, and in an insane society — brutal and vicious where greed is worshipped as a virtue — I am PROUD to be a marginalized person. I pay a price for my own marginalization, but when I look around it seems a whole lot better than being someone who wants to take the food from children’s mouths (the governor and many of the people of the State of Maine), and leave the vulnerable to suffer and die with no public assistance.

      I DO CREATE the reality in my own head, I am not going to allow my mind to be imprinted with propaganda from advertising, the government, my greedy neighbors, or anyone else. I will not feel like shit about myself because I am an aging, fat, disabled woman, something many people feel has no value and should be tossed aside like so much trash. I will never allow anyone to do violence to me, whether it be physical violence or the mental violence of telling me I am worthless.

  10. For folks with eating disorders, size perception is varied. I remember 2 girls in university class with me who in my eyes were barely skin and bones; however, both her anorexic and argued that they were obese. At the time I was much bigger than now and I asked them “if your obese what am I? ” Their reply, “oh you are perfect ..not fat at all.”
    It’s crazy in my mind because in my mind if we stood the two ladies side by side the two of them together were still smaller than me.
    In my humble opinion, how we see ourselves is more important than the predators. Yes I consider people who fat shame, etc, to be predators. Any excuse to hurt another human being by degrading …
    At the end of the day I say, be happy …that’s what matters. Choose to trust that you (me) have a right to be happy and screw off anyone that says otherwise.

  11. Wow, what a passionate discussion! I want to thank everyone for going out on a limb here and challenging me. I’m going to clarify some things below, and then I encourage anyone and everyone to submit a blog. This topic certainly warrants further discussion.
    First I want to remind everyone that this is a blog, and simply that. This story and my ensuing comments are simply my opinion and cannot be interpreted as fact, directives or a substitute for psychotherapy.
    Second, I want to clarify that this is my story. This is how I felt at the time and how I reacted to it. While I can appreciate how someone bigger than I may be having a different experience, that is not what this story is about, nor should it invalidate my experience. I would like to think that we are all on the same team here, fighting size and weight discrimination as well as negative body image (no matter what your size is). Sometimes those things will overlap and sometimes they will not. They are all valid.
    Third, this is a new one for me, to be accused of not being fat enough. I have always felt plenty fat. But as a psychotherapist I don’t believe that I need to be schizophrenic to help someone with schizophrenia. I do utilize my own experiences when I feel that it is appropriate, and although I may not really understand what it is like to live in anyone else’s body but my own, I will never back down on the idea that everyone deserves a positive body image. I’m not sure what else I can say about it, or what anyone else expects me to say about it. Yes, there will be haters. But what is the alternative? Stay home and hide? I will never agree to that.
    And fourth, rg, I’m sorry that you have interpreted my comments in the way that you have. I was simply responding to your initial comment about me being fortunate to have overcome my body shame. As I said above, this is my story. I was simply telling you what I did, and in no way meant to imply anything about anyone else. I would never assume or suggest that someone who still has body shame is lazy, and I really think that accusation was unfair and unfounded. And while I still do believe that we create our own reality, your examples of being beaten up are well taken. I am fortunate, and while my pain was real and valid to me, I had internal and external resources that allowed me to thrive in ways that I know other people are not as privileged to do. But I still stand by my belief that the only reality we can control is our own, and that we choose how we respond in any situation. That’s why I became a therapist, to help people take control of their realities and live a better life.

  12. Wow, I am sorry to hear that you are feeling a lot of anger and pain. In no way am I saying anything of the kind of what you read into my words, that fat people are lazy, or any kind of blame-the-victim mentality. Remember, I am one of those fat people, and I have all those scars, and lots of violence, etc, in my past, so I am not inured to your pain. I have only compassion.

    I was discussing a point of recovery that I have reached, along a continuum. Certainly each of us has to find her or his own path. I honor everyone’s spiritual sense of themselves in relation to the world, and espouse no single viewpoint: certainly not my own. I only hope my experiences can inspire others as those before me have inspired me. I guess each person has to sort the wheat from the chaff for her or himself and take what is useful, blowing the rest away.

    If you are, in fact, in a domestic violence situation, I encourage you to contact law enforcement or a domestic violence hotline immediately for help. If that was only for the purposes of illustration, then I am relieved, but encourage you to find professionals who can help you deal with these issues. That is a place to start. I wish you safety, help and healing.

    • Sandra — You said,

      “Wow, I am sorry to hear that you are feeling a lot of anger and pain. … I wish you safety, help and healing.”

      I realize that somehow I am not supposed to experience this as condescending, but lets just say that I am not at a place in my own journey yet where I don’t experience it that way.

      I am still at a place in my life where I greatly appreciate not being “diagnosed” for expressing disagreement or taking umbrage with what somebody else says.

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