Amateur Psychology

Lately, I’ve discovered that all the hours of therapy I’ve been paying for over the last decade have really started to pay off. Sure, working with a mental health professional on a fairly regular basis has helped me start to sort out complicated feelings I have about all the people in my life. It’s helped me begin to figure out what the story it is I’m telling myself about lots of different situations, and then try to dig into exactly why I’m perceiving certain things and what I can do about shifting those narratives. Pretty much, my therapist helps me figure out how I’m contributing to conflict, why that is and how I can change.

Believe me, it’s all a work in progress.

But even though I’ve still got a lot of work to do, I find that I’ve absorbed enough basic information that I’m able to channel my inner-therapist when I’m working in the dressing room at the athlesiure emporium where I work part time folding leggings and dispensing free counseling to our customers. When it comes to trying on swimsuits, women require a lot of hand holding and it turns out, a lot of them feel really bad about the way they look. In memoriam, Nora Ephron should have felt pretty great that she only felt bad about her neck.

I can’t tell you how many women apologize to me for their bodies before they even pull the curtain back to show me how they look in whatever they’ve tried on. Like, even women in really amazing shape whose bodies I would kill for tell me they hate trying on swimsuits. “Et tu?” I think. Like, please don’t tell me that because that means the rest of us are screwed.

They tell me they’re going to lose 10 pounds or they haven’t been able to get to the gym or that breastfeeding their babies was the death knell to their once-perky boobies.

“Stop!!” I tell them. “You look great!”

Then I assess the situation as the swimsuit professional that I now am, and maybe we decide to try a bigger bottom or a smaller top. Maybe, I bring her a few different styles to see if she feels a little more comfortable in one of them. I want to help them feel and look good and sometimes, I feel like a customer is really feeling it and other times, I think it’s what it must feel like to be my therapist listening to me unable to let go of my past. She’d probably like to shake me and tell me to snap out of it much the same way I’d like to tell some of the women I help that having a flat butt is not the end of the world. That she needs to move on and stop staring at her rearview in the mirror.

For a lot of the younger women who come in and complain about their shifting midsections, I find myself playing the role of the Ghost of Summer Future and urging them to enjoy their current tummy situations and warning of what’s to come. “How old are you?” I’ll ask the young mommy, who’s usually somewhere in her early 40s. Sometimes they balk before telling me they’re, like, 42 — as if they’re sorry about that, too — and I tell them I’d kill to be 42. Then, like a real spook, I’ll tell her how shifting hormones and a slowing metabolism will begin to wreak havoc on once-trim tummies as they move towards menopause. Well, at least it did for me.

I mean, it doesn’t help that I offset lots of protein-laden smoothies and kale salads I eat daily with pizza and ice cream every now and then that camouflages the results of all my squatting and crunching. Somewhere under all that blubber I have some really strong stomach muscles just kind of hanging out incognito.

And this is where I need to take a good look at myself in the full-length mirror and say, “Amateur Doctor, heal thyself.” Because even though I’m telling everyone they look great – and I really mean that because aren’t we all beautiful just the way we are? – inside I’m no better than the rest of womankind. I hate that I’ve gained weight over the last few years and that none of my usual tricks are working in the fight to slim down. I hate catching a glimpse of myself in a mirror as I’m scurrying around at work helping other women feel good about themselves, only to see the dimpling in my upper arms or the love handles bulging through my workout top.

And all that feeling bad about myself makes me angry. Am I seriously going to waste whatever time it is I have left on this earth trying to conform to some bullshit cultural fantasy about how I should look, despite bringing four children into this world and hoping for a legacy beyond how I looked in a swimsuit?

It makes me think of a conversation I listened to not long ago between Ann Lamott and Kelly Corrigan, both of whom I love for their very realness. Like if I was ever interviewed by The New York Times for their weekly By the Book feature in the Sunday Book Review – and got to answer the perennial “which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite to a literary dinner party you’re organizing?” – these two would be in the running. I think we’d get along great and eat lots of bread together while laughing about the stupid patriarchy.

Ann talked about her own struggles with appearance — her thighs and arms in particular — and remembered a shopping trip she took with a dear friend, Pammy, who was just weeks away from succumbing to breast cancer at 37 and leaving a young daughter behind. The two went off to Macy’s to find Ann a dress for a date, with Pammy in a wheelchair wearing a wig. Ann came out of the changing room and asked whether the dress she was wearing made her thighs look big. “Annie, you don’t have that kind of time,” Pammy told her and Ann says that was like her Helen Keller-WATER moment. That moment when everything came together and she just got it like Keller recognizing that Annie Sullivan was squeezing the word “water” into her hand.

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting to have that kind of denoument. Case in point: while getting ready for the beach yesterday, I struggled to find the right bathing suit to wear. Lately, I’ve been favoring a black, strapless one-piece number from JCrew to keep the whole midsection situation under wraps. While my shoulders are nice and tan, I hate how pale the rest of me looks and wanted to start evening things out and yesterday was forecast to be long on sunshine. But I also knew that the beach would be packed like Coney Island and pretty much every person in my town would be there and obviously judging my less-than-toned-tummy (honestly, the ego can be so stupid).

I slipped into a swimsuit top I bought recently at my store. I’d been eyeing the twisty maroon number for a while and when it seemed that it might get sold out, tried it on one day when I was there shopping for swimsuits for my older daughter. One of my cute young managers came in to see how it looked and I found myself apologizing to her as I held the dressing room curtain in front of my torso.

“You look great!” she said, and even though the top really did fit well – my girls were tucked in and not jumping out like dolphins playing along the surf – I didn’t want her to see what was happening down below. I didn’t want her to know the truth about my bloated belly or pale, mottled thighs. “Stop!” she said, and told me to buy the top.

I called my daughter upstairs yesterday morning to assess my situation. I asked her if I looked terrible in the two-piece. “You look fine,” she told me. “Your stomach is just really white,” which I took as code for: DO NOT SUBJECT THE WORLD TO YOUR MIDSECTION.

Instead, I put on my dependable black tankini top and some jazzy floral bottoms and spent much of the day pulling the fabric up while lying prone to expose my white belly – the same one that cooked four little beings into tender golden morsels – when I thought nobody was looking. I ended the day with a red, painful square of burned skin that just makes my tummy look really, really angry. Honestly, I just need to go get a good spray tan and call it a day.

Obviously, I still have a lot of work to do in the body image department. I still have a long way to go before I give a fig about what other people think about how I look, which probably comes down to that they’re so busy struggling with their own body stuff, they don’t have time to think about me and my almost 51-year-old physique.

Ironically, it’s the older women who come in to the changing room to try stuff on who don’t give a hoot about how they look. They’re certainly not apologizing before they emerge from behind the curtain and sometimes, they don’t even close the curtain. Recently, a cute, little 70-something with a salt-and-pepper pixie cut had me stand by while she slipped on a pair of capris, which she quickly deemed perfect and chatted with me for a bit while standing in her skivvies before handing me the bottoms and getting dressed. She was trim and had obviously spent some time in the sun (note to self) but she looked like 70-something lady and didn’t seem to care about wrinkles or dimpling. She just needed some comfy pants.

And maybe that’s what it’s going to take for me to have my WATER moment. To get to the point that I realize I just don’t have that kind of time to worry about what I look like. I like exercising and eating healthy, but also like pizza and ice cream, and wonder when I’m lying on my death bed if I’m going to wish I’d had better abs when I was 50. Somehow, I think not.

But, as is often the case, it’s so much easier to solve other people’s problems. It’s so much easier to hold other people’s hands and tell them they are perfect just the way they are than to really feel that about myself. In the meantime, if you’re in the market for a swimsuit, the doctor is in.

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