On the beach, I eye their bodies: the young women with smooth, golden shapes; the older women whose skin has gone slack. I notice whether they have cellulite or not, whether their breasts are the size of plums or cantaloupes. Almost against my will, I compare and contrast my own body, usually coming up short.
I stop feeling the sting of hot sand beneath my heels, the sun on my shoulders. For small moments, I forget about my children who smile and skip, enjoying the warmth after a long winter. Instead, I notice how my shorts feel too snug, how the back of my tank is riding up, exposing the soft pockets of flesh around my hips.
Let's rewind 35 or so years: I'm 12 and in middle school and, like a lot of girls my age, I've recently come to the conclusion that I wasn't good enough. From beneath my large-framed glasses, I gazed at pictures of women in magazines and measured the difference between them and me. Pear-shaped, my butt and thighs were unacceptable. My boobs were too small, my hair too short. I began keeping a food diary and weighing myself several times a day.
My battle against my body continued through high school, even after I got contacts and grew my hair longer. My life was a constant loop of dieting and overeating. I stood in front of my full-length mirror naked and frowning. I fantasized about getting breast implants, getting a nose job, getting liposuction on my hips and butt. I spent hours at the gym climbing the Stairmaster to nowhere. I cut out bread, fat and cheese. I drank Slimfast shakes and Diet 7-Up.
If only I looked a certain way, I was sure that my life would begin: some beautiful boy would fall madly in love with me, and I'd be happy. I'd finally attain what those magazine models had, the glossy promise of smiling, perfect bodies.
I got thin. I got chubby. But (spoiler alert) I didn't get happy.
Eventually, I grew up. I went to therapy and discovered yoga. I slowed the constant efforts to tame my body, to hate and deprive it into submission. Instead of focusing on what I couldn't do—be perfect—I learned about what I was capable of: conceiving, birthing and feeding two lovely children. Running a 5K. Melting into my yoga mat, my muscles warm and tingling.
And yet, the dream of a perfect body, or at least a better body, stays deeply rooted. The image of smaller jeans, the seductive arc of slender hips, lingers and whispers. The thoughts creep up from time to time, despite my best efforts to keep them at bay, despite my good, full life.
Last week on the beach, I looked around at all those bodies. Bodies firm and sagging. Bodies overflowing and bodies that looked hungry. Bodies that were younger than I'll ever be again, and bodies at ages I'm heading straight towards.
And I caught myself sinking into those old thoughts: If I could just lose a little weight.
I'm right smack in the middle of the sea of bodies at the beach. I'm strong and healthy, but far from magazine-ready. I'll never be 20 and smooth again. Even when I was, I didn't appreciate it—I still wanted to alter myself, to carve myself into something different, into an image our culture has somehow deemed the most desirable.
And I realized that I'll never have that perfect body, the one that was just a fashion magazine illusion, a glittering promise that only a few genetically blessed souls receive. And those bodies too, will age and wrinkle. As we all do. There's no diet or surgery that can cure or change that fact.
I'm not gonna lie, letting go of the fantasy hurts a bit, but it's also incredibly freeing. The thing about letting go is that it usually makes room for something else, something inconceivable until we pass through the discomfort and into whatever's next.
Shaking my head, I walked into the turquoise water, warm as a bath. The ocean swirled around my ankles, my calves, my waist. I held my breath, closed my eyes and dunked under. When I stood up again, squinting and spitting salt, I saw my son's laughing face and my daughter and husband waving from the shore.
I stood there with the same bones I had when I was 12, in my messy, real, amazing body, and I waved right back.