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Motherhood

What I Told My 11-year-old About Her Body, Her Swimsuit, Judgement and Shame

Summer is in full swing and with it has come all the joys of the season:
Lightning bugs on full bioluminescent display.
Lips stained purple, red and blue from frozen popsicles sucked lazily through a plastic case.
Bike rides, jump rope and asphalt turned a temporary chalky rainbow if it’s not too hot out, and hours indoors spent on tablets, game consoles and phones if the heat proves unbearable.
But if you’re really lucky, a benevolent adult will take you to the pool.

This is where summer woes make their unwelcome entrance.

There has been much written about the the politics of the pool and how race, class, religion, bodies and ability determine who gets access to swimming facilities. Earlier this year, a ward in London debuted a luxury ‘Sky Pool’ suspended 115 feet in the air. The structure, believed to be the world’s first transparent pool built between two skyscrapers has been built amidst a community where half of the children officially live in poverty. Articles abound on the ethics of gentrification and how it often leads to displacement and exclusion, as the Sky Pool has done; but today I want to talk about the politics of bodies and the pool.

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I arrived in the US at the end of April to fetch my youngest daughter. Some of you know that she has been “stuck” in the US for 18 months now, a casualty of the closed borders and ports courtesy of the pandemic. Now that international flights are opened, I took the first thing smoking with the aim of bringing my child back home to South Africa. It’s taken 3 months to get documents, visas and passports in order. She’s one of the millions of American children who has been cooped up in the house for a year (my other children did not experience the pandemic in the same way in South Africa because we live semi-suburban and have access to open spaces), so I made a commitment to take her on as many outings as safety regulations would permit. Her grandmother had COVID concerns that bordered on paranoia, and the general belief in the house is that if you stepped outside, the COVID that was lurking in the trees/air would catch you and you’d die. Better to stay inside where it was safe and eat pop tarts for breakfast. Consequently, my 10 year-old ballooned to 204 lbs. It is therefore only natural that she feel anxiety about her body.

I will not lie: I was shocked when I first saw her in the flesh. In the 12 months we spent video chatting, it was evident that she had put on weight, but there was no way to determine on such a small screen how much. I have – and still do – struggled with weight in my adult life and so I’m fully aware that shaming her into weight loss is a losing tactic. The good thing is that she was 10, soon to be 11, and so all she needed to do was go outside and play. A year spent in isolation has rendered her with diminished social skills, so making friends no longer comes easy to her. I only know of one place where you can be among people and still enjoy the benefits of solitude: The pool. Luckily, my daughter is a water baby and so it was an easy sell.

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“I don’t want a suit that shows my arms,” she said. “They have stretchmarks.”

We were in Khol’s trying on swimsuit options and she rejected each one piece after the other that I hoisted over the dressing room door. Finally, she settled on a pair of grey leopard print boy-shorts and a rainbow stripped scoop-necked tee shirt. It was a ghastly color combination, but it covered her body sufficiently and she insisted that as far as she was concerned, the two items matched. (These are one of the many benefits of being an 11-year-old: An imaginary world where rainbows and animal print match.)

I had gotten a YMCA membership for the two of us, and we began swimming three times a week. She made excellent progress, but there was only one problem: the struggle to extract her wet arms from the sleeves of the sodden tee made her question the effort. If you’ve ever had to take off wet clothing, you might relate to the frustration she was feeling several days in the week.

Not long after this series of frustrating undressing events, we were shopping at Sam’s and her grandmother pointed out a suit she might like. It had boy shorts, good support and several colors (an essential element in all her clothing).

“But people can see my arms,” she mulled.


With that statement, I could see much more than she was saying. She was struggling with confidence, existing in a body that did not belong and preparing for judgement from nameless, faceless strangers. I had to free her from the cage she was building for herself before she could close the hatch and trap herself in it.

“Let me tell you something, Swee’ Pea. Look at me.” I made her face me squarely. “99% of the people at the pool are there to swim, not to look at you. And even if they do see something off, they will glance and look away. They won’t spend the whole day talking about. Are there some mean people who make fun of others at the pool? Sure there are. But the only reason you’re worried about people making fun of your stretchmarks is because you might be one of those people who makes fun of other people’s bodies.”

I could literally see the scales fall from her eyes. We purchased the matching suit, complete with exposed arms, and she hasn’t worn that harrowing manic leopard ensemble since.

******

Who can say if this lesson in judgement will resonate with my daughter beyond this summer? One can’t tell, but one can hope that it does. I’ve seen the harm projection, shame and judgement can do play out in the lives of women most especially. The fear that their sartorial choices will lead others to take them less seriously causes them to question and scrutinize every stitch in their wardrobe and worse, judge others. Like two weeks ago.

It was hot. Too freaking hot for the conversation we were having.

A group of us had gone to a reggae and wine festival and as you might imagine there was booty and breasts everywhere. Shoot, even I had my thigh tat showing. A group of girls – beautiful young women of no more than 22 years of age if I had to guess – had come to set up their tent ahead of their party. One of them had on a pair of jean shorts cut in a manner that exposed the curve of cheeks in a subtle way. It was alluring, but half an inch cut higher it would have been offensive. The perfect tease.

“Oh she out here trying to catch something,” said one of the women in our group, eyeing Miss Cheeks from the shelter of our tent.
“Girl, she ain’t out here trying to catch nothing but a good time,” I laughed.

Me with my thick thighs saving all the lives!

The conversation about dress, Black womanhood and exposure soon turned serious. This particular woman raised a series of questions, chief of which was: What is the line between letting be free in their choices – and recognizing her right those choices – and the need to preserve the image of Black womanhood?

“I find myself looking at her now and I have so many feelings about how she’s dressed and how it reflects on us.”

I thought about the conversation I had with my 11-year-old to guide the answer.

“First of all, check your intentions,” I said. “If your intention is to degrade and dehumanize her for her clothing choices, then yes, you’re being a judgemental bitch. But if your intentions are from a pure place of concern for her well-being, then your feelings are not hypocritical and are sincere. But above that – look at where we ARE. We’re in a vineyard, drinking wine and it’s going to be upward of 98 degrees today. Let that child wear her shorts.”

I held my tongue about the 3/4 sleeved peplum shirt and thick yoga pants she was wearing, an outfit chosen in an obvious attempt to cover a body she had not developed confidence in. She looked hot and trapped, like she was living in the cage I’d hoped to steer my daughter from via our earlier conversation about the swimming suit. It was difficult to look at her stuffed in that shirt and not feel sad that someone hadn’t told her that she was enough; and above all, that judgement of others goes both ways; It ensnares you in the same standard that you set for others.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Monique Kwachou

    Thanks for this sis! I wonder who gave s the duty to “preserve the image of Black womanhood”? And how much are we being paid for this preservation job?

    • Malaka

      She said “how much are we being paid”. LOL!!! Dead.

      On the one hand, I get it: We all have a responsibility (to some extent) to present ourselves in a manner that doesn’t reflect poorly on the collective…but we certainly can’t impose that duty on *everyone*. And most especially not at a picnic, where mixed company is not present. Time and place for all things!

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