I lifted my shirt over my head, took a deep breath, and pulled the strings of my bathing suit top loose.
Immediately, my mind began to race.
What if people stare at me?
I wish I would’ve spent more time at the gym.
I hate my breasts….
I waited for a moment, took a deep breath and tightly gripped the strings that remained clasped in my hand, then looked around to take note of any wandering eyes possibly starring in my direction. The other beachgoers were all casually sunbathing, splashing each other near the shoreline or bouncing up and down carried by the rhythm of the sea. No one stared. The only person making me uncomfortable was me. I had to get over myself and my insecurities. And being publicly nude on the beach was the next step in my “mind over matter” approach to becoming more comfortable with my body.
As a 26-year-old Black woman, I struggled with my body for most of my life. I remember my mother bringing home a bag with two white training bras and presenting them to me when I was eight- years old. “These will help you feel more secure,” she promised. I hadn’t yet realized the reason why I should feel insecure, but I accepted her gift and squeezed my body into the garment. The bra fit snug around the sides providing support for my breast buds that had just began to sprout.
“It fits?” She questioned. “Yeah,” I murmured with a shrug, then ran out of the house to play. When I came back inside, some hours later, I stared into the mirror and my chest covered in what seemed like an odd, unnecessary contraption. I hoped I wouldn’t have to wear it every day.
By the time I turned 16, those sentiments completely changed: I couldn’t go a moment without wearing a bra. I loved how perfectly round and perky my breasts looked with one and hated the idea that gravity would cause them to sag or droop over time. I also became hyper-aware of the fact that no matter how much I ran or played sports, my thighs remained “thicker” than the other girls who shared my athletic interests. My body was not like the petite blonde or brunette girls’ bodies who I played tennis and soccer with. It was strong, muscular and curvy. I had the body of a Black woman and I had no idea how to feel about it.
The understanding of my body as a “Black body” was not a self-asserted revelation. I was taught to view myself that way. In the safety of “Black spaces,” bodies that looked like mine were celebrated and even preferred. “I love thick women” was the motto most frequently stated proudly by men whenever discussions about body types arose among my Black friends. In the Black community, curves represented womanhood and femininity and I was proud to have them; to be a woman who was desired.
However, my self-esteem was not always protected by the acceptance of that world. By my late teens and early 20s, overwhelmed by the beauty standards set by White, Western society, I began to view my body through the lens of fashion magazines, fitness campaigns, Hollywood expectations — all ideals that most certainly were far out of reach. Surrounded by my White girl friends who measured their self-worth by every inch lost around their waist, I quickly grew uncomfortable with my body and rushed to find ways to “fix” it. I did everything I could to make my body more acceptable to the White gaze through which I came to view my Black body.
Diets. The gym. Running. Swimming. Low carb. Zumba.
At that time, I did not understand that I could not fix what had already been made perfect — a delicate process stitched together the patchwork of tiny, delicate molecules that predetermined, with precision and ease my weight, my height, my skin color. Psychologically, I was at war with a pathological society that found fault in that ultimate perfection. I refused to further internalize that pathology; I realized that it was not my body that needed to be fixed, but my mind. I made it my prerogative to change the way I viewed myself — to free my body and mind of the labels. All of them. Even those that once empowered me.
I purchased a Carnival costume and paraded through the streets of Trinidad and Tobago wearing nothing but a beaded bikini and feathered headpiece swinging my hips side-to-side to the rhythm of Soca music. I ate naked. I even cooked naked from time to time (and realized that was not such a bright idea after burning myself with hot oil). I did naked yoga. I walked around my apartment naked. Slept naked. Stared at myself in the mirror before taking showers and smiled. Eventually, I came to view my body as just that — a body.
So, when I stepped onto the nude beach and looked around to see other bodies peacefully bare, the insecure thoughts that rushed through my mind were no deterrence. I was already accustomed to and refused to be controlled by fears of imperfection. Perhaps six-pack abs would make me feel more confident. Or maybe perky breasts. But all I had was my perfectly imperfect body and I had to be OK with that.
I released the strings of my bathing suit top letting my breasts bounce freely as I stepped out of my shorts and bottoms, then threw my clothes aside and stretched my arms up wide, letting the sun kiss every inch of my skin.
“You are naked….. Now what? Better reach for the towel and cover up before someone sees,” my mind urged.
I laughed at the thought and slowly began taking small steps, Left foot…. Right foot… Left foot….towards the ocean, the curves of my body bouncing with every step. I paused when I reached the shoreline, to watch the waves crash against the sand, then took a deep breath and dived in. The cool water rushed over my naked body, sending chills up and down my spine. I splashed and swam carelessly and when I finally grew tired, I laid floating on my back in the water, my nipples erect, peeking out of the water. The warmth of the sun caressed my face. The chilly ocean rhythmically moved my relaxed body, up and down, to the beat of the current.
And my mind was completely silent.