We’re living in unprecedented times, and change is (finally) happening on all fronts — locally, nationally, and globally. This season, Unbothered and Target are proud to partner on a platform to keep that momentum going by sharing the stories of Black women who are reclaiming joy, defying stereotypes, and proving that summer is definitively not canceled. In a recent survey of the Unbothered audience, 78% of Black female respondents shared stories of the first time they became aware of their body image, recalling hurtful, long-lasting memories of name-calling and bullying by their family and peers. As adults, 40% said that body image holds them back from going to the beach. Here's one woman's story of learning to accept and love her body — and how the pandemic reset her perspective.
Something about the beach always felt like home. I was born in the Bronx, but my family was from the beautiful Caribbean island of Antigua. Growing up, every free moment from school was spent there, nearly 2,000 miles away from New York; the moment the soles of my feet hit the sand, it marked the beginning of summer vacation. Nothing else felt more right. My family wouldn’t even be fully settled into our house on the small island before I was already in a swimsuit, running toward the nearest of the 365 beaches Antigua has to offer. But all of that changed in my teens — that freedom I felt in the water started to feel like a prison.
I was never a girly girl. I was always playing a sport or dancing. And I was never not cracking jokes. You know when you look at old school pictures and there is that one girl who was always taller than the rest of the class? Last row, standing in the middle? That was me. I was 5'9" in fifth grade — my friends actually called me the Jolly Green Giant, but I never really cared. I was well aware I was tall, but I knew that everyone else would eventually catch up (and my cousin told me tall women grow up to become models, which I thought was in my future).
I was 15 when I spent my first summer in New York, staying in the city with my family to work as a camp counselor. And even though I was sad about not going to Antigua, I was excited by the prospect of hanging out at the pool with my friends — and boys. On the first perfect pool-lounging day, I threw on the first swimsuit my hand touched, a red-and-blue striped one-piece, not thinking to find a “cool” one, because I was just happy to swim. I packed my bag with my change of clothes, excitedly ran down to the car, and smiled as my mom dropped me off at the pool.
I was the first one there, and while I waited for my friends, I decided to get in the water to cool off. I immediately felt so much better as the pool engulfed my body. I was in my element. As my friends started to arrive, I got out, dried off, and waited until I could get back in with the rest of them. The energy felt a little weird, but I thought it was just because boys were there. Still, I was having a great time. I'm so glad I am not in Antigua and missing these summer moments with my friends, I remember thinking. I knew this was about to be the best summer ever.
I cracked a joke about school to ease the awkwardness, but as we were all laughing, I heard one of the boys remark, “Your fat friend is funny.”
My world crashed around me.
My eyes slowly met my friends’ and it was then that they confirmed what I was hoping was untrue: I was the fat friend. I was mortified. You know the story of Adam and Eve and how they ate the apple and became aware they were naked? That was me in that moment, in what had been my favorite, most comfortable piece of clothing — a swimsuit. I suddenly felt like a stranger in my own body. I reached for my towel and ran to the locker room where I must have stared at the mirror for 20 minutes, mentally gaining 50 pounds. How did I not notice I was the fat friend? Why didn't anyone tell me?
I got fully dressed, socks and all. If I had a hoodie, I would have pulled that on, too, despite the 90-degree weather. I wrapped my towel around my legs to cover what my shorts couldn’t. And for the rest of the day, I sat on a chair at the side of the pool, ashamed, watching my friends having fun in the water. I thought about all the times I wore a bathing suit around people and inwardly cringed. My relationship to my body, to the beach, to the water, to summer, to everything changed on the side of that pool at 15 years old.
After that day, I became cognizant of how much space I took up, and so I made myself small in other ways by blending into the background or shying away from attention. I rarely defended myself in situations because I immediately assumed the first insult hurled at me would be about my weight. I dreaded summers. Every time I sweat, I thought it was because I was heavier than I should be. For years, I avoided pools and beaches. I stopped going to Antigua with my family, because the water didn’t feel the same with a T-shirt on. The thought of wearing fewer clothes during warmer months induced panic. As soon as May arrived, I longed for the fall days when I could again hide my arms and stomach with a chunky sweater.
As I got older, my weight fluctuated, dipping whenever I went on intensive workout spurts or experimented with crash diets. Beaches and pools became somewhat more enjoyable with the right group of friends (and especially when cocktails were involved), but then came camera phones and my anxiety rushed back. I dreaded seeing the pictures, my body digitally memorialized. It was easy to live in the moment if the moment wasn't captured and brought to your attention after the fact.
At around 28, body dysmorphia had taken over my life, and it got to a point that my friends started noticing it, realizing I didn't have a real grasp on how I looked. For a stretch of time, I would work out three hours a day, eat very few calories, and refuse to acknowledge compliments. Instead, I’d counter with a self-degrading comment about needing to lose more weight. They tried to reassure me that it was all in my head, but “the fat friend” still rang in my ears. I didn’t believe them. I truly thought they were saying whatever they could to placate me, shielding the truth from me. No matter how excited I was for a beach or pool outing, or an island vacation, when the time came to put on a swimsuit, the word “fat” draped over me like my cover-up.
Currently at 35, I am the heaviest I have ever been. I made the move to the Bay Area for work, and it has been hard to shake not only the weight but also my insecurities. As the weather started to warm up again this year in Oakland, like clockwork, my anxiety warmed up with it. But then the world went on lockdown, and this stillness made me face things I had avoided for years, including my body image. Five members of my family in New York got sick, including my grandmother, and my anxiety shifted from my summer body to the survival of my loved ones. They all, thankfully, recovered, but that’s when I realized how I looked was the least of my worries.
Why was I tarnishing some of my best memories with the anxiety of my body? I've started taking this time to not only work on my health but also be happy with my body. There will always be something that will make me feel insecure (like every other human being on this earth), but I know now that it shouldn’t stop me from living my life. During this period of isolation, I’ve started wearing swimsuits in my house, growing comfortable in them again. And it’s made me realize just how much I miss the water and the freedom it provides. I miss the breeze on my thighs. I miss living in the moment. It took a pandemic to put things into perspective for me: Once social restrictions lift and it’s safe to venture out, I plan to make memories that make me smile — not cringe. And I plan on making a lot of memories in swimsuits.