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Si Hay Sol, Hay Panza: How I’m Reclaiming Summer as a Fat Brown Babe

When I was about 8 years old, my grandparents enrolled me in swimming lessons. I went to the community pool, excited and suited up in a one-piece bathing suit, swim cap, and goggles, my panzita proudly leading the way. The swim instructors were all thin, white jocks — the exact people you’d imagine being cast in a movie about an American summer. After getting registered as a guppy (the youngest aspiring swimmer group), one of the lifeguards walked me by the shoulders over to a fair-haired bro in sunglasses and said that I hadn’t been claimed for a swim class yet. “Well, look at her,” he said, sardonically. My chubby Brown body was a perpetual punchline, shorthand for everything negative that happened to me or even around me. 
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I did learn how to swim, but I think that was the summer that started my lifelong struggle with the season. It was definitely the last time I wore an actual bathing suit — rather than a long t-shirt and shorts — until adulthood.   
This started to change in 2011. I was 30 years old, and I had just become a fat-positive activist. One of my first acts of body reclamation was putting on a bathing suit again for the first time in 20 years and swimming in a pool with fat friends. Every summer since that one has been about reclaiming and rewriting my history as well as making room for myself and other up-and-coming 8-year-old guppy gorditas. 

"Body anxiety isn’t just about your unique experience with summer; it’s about a very long history of summer being a fucked up time of year for people of color, poor people, and fat people."

VIRGIE TOVAR
It hasn’t always been easy. I always remind people — and myself — that being fat-positive or body-positive in a culture saturated with toxic body norms is sort of like learning how to surf a 30-foot tidal wave. The days when the wave doesn’t completely swallow us whole are days worth celebrating. Occasionally, we get that perfect water and it’s smooth sailing, but it’s much more normal to get knocked down over and over. It gets easier over time, but it never stops being a little scary — even to a seasoned fat-positive activist. To help, here are some tools I’ve learned about navigating body anxiety in the decade-ish since I started identifying as a fat Brown babe.  

1. Recognize that body anxiety has deep historical roots in the culture. You’re not a failure if you feel body anxiety. 

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It’s easy to feel ashamed or disappointed with ourselves for having summer body anxiety. We feel like it’s getting in the way of a season that’s dedicated to fun. But is it really? While reading “Contested Waters” by Jeff Wiltze, I recently learned that my swimming pool experience isn’t that far off from the dystopian history of swimming pools in the U.S. 
In the book, Wiltze writes, “Throughout their history, municipal pools served as stages for social conflict. Latent social tensions often erupted into violence at swimming pools because they were community meeting places, where Americans came into intimate and prolonged contact with one another.”
I realized that my fat Brown body was — and still is — in the cross hairs of a long-standing culture war. Whether it’s because of the politics of race, class, or body size, summer is a loaded season. Add it all up: There’s bare skin, heat, sweat, bodies in close proximity, and water connecting us all to one another —  all during a season of leisure with a particular significance in the American dream. How is this not a recipe for serious body anxiety? 
Illustration by Kali Concepcion
Body anxiety isn’t just about your unique experience with summer; it’s about a very long history of summer being a fucked up time of year for people of color, poor people, and fat people. Anxiety is a precious, wonderful, wise message from our bodies. It’s one of the ways that our bodies say to us, “Something’s up.” Sometimes that “something” is our past, including the traumatic experiences caused by getting fat-shamed during swimming lessons when you were 8 (me), and sometimes that “something” is decades upon decades of an unresolved cultural undercurrent that we sense but can’t even articulate. Recognize that feeling of anxiety, understand where it comes from, and take care of yourself accordingly. 
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2. Throw a planning party for one (or more).

Making plans might sound boring (unless you're an earth sign like me; planning is my favorite “p” word), but you can make it fun by throwing a little party. Before your summer outing, set aside 30 minutes to an hour, prep a snack, cocktail, and/or a playlist, throw on a cute look or your comfiest pajamas, and just write out (or dictate on a phone recorder app) all the things you need and want to make this an amazing experience for you. Set up all the things you need to make summer feel as safe, meaningful, and as fun possible. Do you need an extra wide beach chair, an easy-to-assemble hammock, huge thermos full of cucumber water, that book on anxiety, your journal, your tarot deck, some CBD coffee, huge headphones (if you’re anxious about overhearing people talking), or sunglasses (for avoiding eye contact)? Pack everything the day before. On days when you take a risk, do you have something you can look forward to when you get home? Some tea, those chocolate-covered banana chips, some warm socks, or a movie that calms you down? Lay it out before you leave.  

3. Before summer outings, do a “Set & Setting Check.” 

Set is short for mindset. Check in with yourself before you do things that might create a sense of stress or heightened sensitivity. Be honest. If you know you’re in a sensitive body place, you don’t have to push yourself. If you have the emotional reserves to push through despite anxiety, remember that you’re allowed to feel all the feelings: excitement and anxiety, fear and joy, openness and caution. Welcome them all in. Take care of each appropriately. 
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"We get all these messages that summer 'should' feel fun and simple. If it feels hard, it’s because some part of the experience brings up memories or anxiety that are founded in real experiences and emotions that actually matter. "

VIRGIE TOVAR
Setting is about the environment you’re about to enter. Recognize that a setting might not feel emotionally safe for your body, and that may be the cause of your anxiety (not necessarily your body image). Let me explain. I have no problem wearing a string bikini as a plus-size woman in my apartment or at a friend’s pool party because all my friends are fat-positive. I like it. I feel cute. However, would I wear that same string bikini to a Southern California beach? Hell no. That doesn’t have to do with how I feel about my body. It has to do with the very smart recognition that I’ve experienced fatphobia in spaces like that. It has to do with my awareness that these spaces are not safe for fat people to relax and enjoy themselves. Check in about where it’s safe to be in your body, and take emotional and/or physical safety precautions accordingly. If I’m not sure whether a space is safe for my fat Brown body, I’ll either opt out or I’ll bring a few swimsuit options or layers that I can shed or add depending on the vibe. 

4. Please don’t gaslight yourself. Your feelings actually do matter.  

We get all these messages that summer “should” feel fun and simple. If it feels hard, it’s because some part of the experience brings up memories or anxiety that are founded in real experiences and emotions that actually matter. Name and normalize those memories and experiences rather than question yourself. Have patience with yourself as you deal with them. Again, yes, you and your feelings actually matter. 
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Illustration by Kali Concepcion

5. There’s a difference between intellectually believing that “every body is a beach body” and feeling like you’re ready to wear a bikini at the beach. You don’t need to be a body love warrior. 

I know we all want to show up for the movement. Now more than ever, right? Let me personally give you permission not to put yourself in anxiety-provoking situations with your precious body. There’s a common misconception that really loving an idea (like “every body is a beach body”) is the same as being able to fully incorporate it into your behavior and your psychology. That’s not how ideas work. Ideas don’t trump a lifetime of body-based trauma (like fatphobia) or a lifetime of negative messaging. There’s an entire cultural machine dedicated to making you feel like something is wrong with you. While you’re sleeping and going to therapy and working through your mother wound and eating cornflakes, that machine is churning and working. I don’t mention this so that you feel hopeless. I say this so that you understand the stakes and normalize that it takes time — often a lot of time — for a radical message to become truly internalized. 

6. Try to focus on how you feel, not how you look.

This takes concentration, but the more you do it, the easier it gets. If you start getting really lost in your thoughts, bring it back to: What do my toes feel like in this sand? How does the sun feel on my skin? How does water feel like on my fingertips? How does fabric feel on my body? You can practice doing this embodiment work in the shower by closing your eyes and concentrating on temperature, sensation, and texture (of the soap, the loofah, or the bottle of shampoo). 
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"Accepting — and taking care of — our emotions, trauma, memories, and anxieties are also integral parts of body positivity."

VIRGIE TOVAR

7. Whenever anxiety hits, always ask yourself these two questions. 

Am I hungry right now? Please eat until you are full.
Am I sleepy right now? Please take a nap or take things off your agenda.
Think of this article as a permission slip to do what feels right and good to you without need for apology or explanation. It’s OK if you want an anxiety-free summer and it’s just not the right time. It’s also OK if you want that, and it feels really hard, but you’re doing it anyway. Body anxiety doesn’t have to stop you. You can feel big, huge, hard feelings about something and still do it anyway. You get to decide what your values and priorities are. People often think of body positivity as something that’s just about what we do with our physical, tangible bodies in public spaces. That isn’t so. It’s also about all of the internal realities of having a body. Accepting — and taking care of — our emotions, trauma, memories, and anxieties are also integral parts of body positivity.
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