The Liberation of Lake Life (A Body Image Manifesto)

For four days in a row last summer, all I wore was a swimsuit, and it was unexpectedly glorious.

Some of our close friends had invited us to spend a long weekend on their houseboat on Center Hill Lake, just a short road trip away from the farm where we live south of Nashville. Now, if you can picture farming everyday in the sticky, unbearably humid Tennessee summer, you can imagine how blissful a weekend at the lake sounded: cool water, timelessness, dear friends, and a break from dirty fingernails.

We had heard about “lake time” and were so ready to be on it.

So we packed our bags, including such very necessary items as my chef husband’s entire knife bag (because apparently there’s nothing worse than cooking for a group of friends on a boat with a dull kitchen knife), a gallon Ziploc bag of cucumbers that I’d just harvested, and a 25-pound commercial gelato maker.

Upon arrival at the marina, and after loading up multiple golf carts full of our stuff (I hung off the end precariously while the gelato maker rode shotgun), we finally joined the other two families at the houseboat on the dock.

All already close friends, there were twelve of us – 6 adults and 6 kids under 8-years-old. We kicked sandals, Birks, and running shoes into a pile by the sliding glass door, crawled into bunks and cubbies, and blew up air mattresses for our four-day stay on the boat.

In the moments that followed, I realized a few things: 1) I wouldn’t need or even think about my shoes until the day we were leaving, 2) I wouldn’t bother taking a shower, and 3) apparently, I was going to be walking around in a swimsuit 24/7.

As soon as we unpacked our bags, everyone changed into their suits – without cover-ups – and just started walking around that way. Ohhhhh, so this is how it is here at the lake.

I had a decision to make.

Was I going to walk around for four days, self-conscious of my soft postpartum belly and thighs that have felt too large all my life? Or was I going to enjoy the liberation of lake life, the freedom of jumping in and out of the water, on and off speed boats and waverunners, without worrying about constantly covering up?

You see, for about 15 years now, I’ve been on an ongoing journey of healing from a lifetime of body image issues. Through lots of hard, intentional work, I’ve come a long way in accepting and loving my body for how it is, making the shift from trying to be a certain size to simply aiming to be healthy and strong (finding my strength as a farmer has definitely helped).

I think the unhealthy view of my body took root around 4th grade, when I was deemed “chubby” and overweight for my age. Following that were years of being overly conscious of my appearance and feeling like I was taking up too much space in the world.

Into young adulthood, I abused my body by talking down to it and restricting foods. I criticized it, tried to make it shrink and look better by adorning it with slimming clothes. I took pride in it when it was satisfyingly “small” after I lost 50 pounds in my early twenties. I was insecure about it when it was not “small enough.” I was not grateful for the body I was given.

Yet, it still grew and birthed two healthy daughters who, on this very lake trip, were repeatedly climbing up the boat ladder and then hurling themselves into the water with utter abandon.

Although I’ve come a long way, and I’m hyper-conscious of never talking badly about my body in front of my girls, do I desire for them to think about their bodies as anything less than beautiful and wonderfully-made? What non-verbal cues do they pick up on as I look down at my legs or at my reflection in the mirror with a critical eye? And do I want to carry these lingering, toxic attitudes further into adulthood?

So, as I put on my swimsuit in front of the full-length mirror in our room on the houseboat, I decided to choose life and freedom, not just as an example for my daughters, but for myself.

I decided that to really soak up the moments and gift of this trip, I was going to have to leave behind the self-absorption and appreciate my body for the strength and beauty that it is.

I was indeed going to walk around for four days in nothing but a swimsuit and believe that it’s okay not to look like someone else; it’s okay to look like me.

This wasn’t easy at first.

If I’m being honest, I can’t even tell you how hard it was not to focus on the cellulite exposed on my thighs. But even if I didn’t quite feel it in my heart, I spoke the truth to myself and moved forward as if it were true.

Maybe it was the visceral healing of all those negative ions in the lake water splashing around me, or maybe something shifted inside that propelled me deeper into healing. But ya know what? It started to actually feel true.

My thighs still touched at the top, my stomach pooched out, and it was okay – even wonderful. I realized that I can take up whatever space I want in the world, I can celebrate this body with all its stretch marks, scars, and wrinkles, and honestly and truly, people aren’t paying attention to my appearance as much as I think they are.

I hope what my girls remember from this lake trip is that we cannonballed off the top of the boat deck, sunbathed on the lilypad together, and catapulted down the slide approximately 864 times. I hope they remember that we rode the waverunner to the pine tree studded cliffs and then jumped off them with bravery.

Of all the times I’ve screwed it up in the past, I’m so glad this time was different, and I didn’t let a history of distorted body image keep me from experiencing the things that really matter – the deeper connection of our friendships, the beauty and joy.

After playing in the water all day, we feasted on bison burgers and sweet potato fries and epic charcuterie boards and wine and bowls of homemade ice cream (thanks to the colossal gelato maker).

And then at the end of the trip, we experienced my hands-down favorite moment when all twelve of us took the speed boat and waverunner to the middle of the lake at sunset.

We all got into the deep, navy blue water. As I bobbed around in my life vest, I took in a 360 degree view. The sunset had turned everything pink and purple, the surface of the water shimmering in rainbow colors like an oil slick. Every single one of us, from 40-years-old to age 4, was smiling so hard we could barely contain it.

As the sunset deepened, kids did cannonballs into the water, others floated on their backs, and speed boats zipped by in the distance. I asked my two girlfriends if we could capture a photo so we could remember this moment.

We hoisted ourselves out of the water onto the stern of the boat and stood in a line. Then, we jumped into the sunset.

One of our husbands caught it on video, and when I watched it later, I kept pausing it at the moment right before we jumped, when I reached out and grabbed each of my friends’ hands. I don’t remember doing it, but that small act of initiative floored me as I watched it over and over.

Years ago, I never would have let this image see the light of day, much less be posted on a public website. But today when I look at it, all I see is liberation.

It’s a mark of healing in this journey, joining hands with other beautiful, strong women along the way.

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