A line of about 20 girls stood together, our hands and arms crossed, trying to cover our private parts. We shivered and avoided looking at our classmates’ bodies. A few girls leaked nervous giggles while the rest of us stared down at the tiled floor.
We were in third grade, standing in a locker room with three fully-clothed grown adults looking down at us. One was barking orders like a drill sergeant.
“You will shower! You will use soap! Then you will come up to one of us and we will measure you. You will follow our directions and wear what you are told to wear!”
The room smelled of chlorine, and we all had goose bumps. When I smell clothes that have been bleached, I always think of that locker room, of trying to cover myself. It wasn’t a scene of institutionalized abuse, this shower ritual was part of our city-funded swimming lessons as kids in public school. It was my first year at that school, probably 1986, and my first year of school swimming lessons.
In practical terms, the program was brilliant, and we were fortunate to have it for a number of reasons. Holland, Michigan is a coastal town on Lake Michigan, which is a powerful force of nature year-round. It’s also an alluring place for a dip during muggy summers, and there were large numbers of drownings every year in the lake.
Lots of people move to Holland from places without access to large bodies of water, and many of them don’t know how to swim well enough to battle the undertow and swift currents. People don’t expect a lake to behave like an ocean, but this one does.
It wasn’t just the nudity that was traumatic for us. The system for assigning the swimsuits, which were provided by the swim program, was significantly worse.
The suits were different colors based upon size. I can see the practical appeal of this system to the bureaucrats. People who, of course, would never have to do that walk of shame in front of their peers, wearing their size like a flag. If memory serves, red was the smallest, blue was the second smallest, black was third and brown was biggest.
Once you put on that suit, you were a walking, talking, shivering declaration of small, medium, large or extra large, and people noticed. The moment you got your suit assignment, your first thought was who was like you and who was different. Who was also wearing a black suit? Who else had gone up a size from last year’s lessons? Which infuriatingly perfect asshole was still wearing a blue suit?
And of course there was shit-talking. Childhood is, after all, an eat-or-be-eaten experience. Especially when there are no grown-ups giving guidance or teaching children how to use empathy in making decisions… and we certainly had nobody teaching us not to be jerks to one another.
When my dad was in high school, they had to take swimming lessons naked. Of course, the lessons were boys-only, but I still shudder to think of the enormous anxiety those boys must’ve experienced. It’s not like America in the early 1960s was very nudity-friendly.
In our classes, boys and girls swam together, and the boys’ suits were coded in the same way. Somehow it never registered with me that this would bother the boys at all. In my mind, the boys were immune to the body shame that seemed to be a mandatory part of the experience of being a girl.
That is, until I created a (highly unscientific) poll on my Facebook page asking people to talk about these swim lessons. As a mom raising little kids, I’d started to doubt my memories about them. How could they have made us all stand there in a line looking our bodies up and down, judging our bellies and our bottoms and our developing chests like that? Could it really have been that bad?
But I wasn’t exaggerating. What surprised me most was that the body shame was universal. It affected everyone, even the boys. I thought it was just those of us who felt big or had developed early, but of 22 replies from women, 21 commented on feeling shame or embarrassment.
A few samples:
Melissa*: Traumatized. I swear it is why I never liked swimming. Stupid brown suit.
Alyson: I hated being in red. I wanted blue, the next size up. Brown was the largest. How awful to remember that for 30 years. Scarred.
Marla: Great to hear everyone else hated these as well. I wore the largest size and was so embarrassed. Especially when you had to walk out in front of all the boys and when you would have to stand naked and they would choose the color for you. Kids should never have to go through that.
We all remembered how sometimes the suits were so stretched out that by the end of class, our chests would show. The coaches would often tie the straps up in knots on our shoulders, but it wasn’t a reliable system. On some of the suits, the crotches were so baggy that you couldn’t sit down or even stand with your legs open because of the gap.
Only one girl remembered loving swimming lessons, we’ll call her Alexandra. She was surprised that any of us had bad memories. Alexandra had always been popular, and more importantly to this story, she’d always been thin. Not just thin, but the sort of thin that was the “right” way to be. She looked like the girls in the commercials during Saturday morning cartoons. She was never scrawny, never had baby fat, nothing on her body seemed weird. Pretty much everything on my body felt weird to me.
For the rest of us, there was no escaping the sense of shame from that experience. In that Facebook conversation, one of my friends said, “It was the first time I felt judged for how my body was.”
The boys suffered, too. Two or three talked about fearing the day they’d be moved into a bigger suit, or about being teased for still wearing a red. But even more men sent me direct messages confessing things they clearly didn’t want to put their names on.
They’d learned shame from those swim lessons, too. Many had learned to hate their bodies from standing naked in front of the coaches in the locker room, and embarrassed to parade out in front of the girls. One man, a guy I’d always thought was cute and had no cares in the world, talked about how he’d have panic attacks in the mornings before swim lesson days at school.
By sixth grade, I was having panic attacks before school during swim weeks, too. My mom wondered what was wrong, and it was hard to find a way to tell her. Nobody had ever explained the word “shame” to me at that point in life. I wondered how I could be so afraid of something everyone else seemed to enjoy. I wondered how I could be so embarrassed to do something everyone else was forced to do, too. But I was.
When you move through the world as a girl, at some point you’re going to feel like you’re not good enough. You’re going to start to notice that you don’t look like the ads in the magazines, or even like the dolls in your bedroom. For some of us, the awareness of our differences starts as soon as we can remember, for others of us (I suspect mostly those of us who have race, ability, and thin privilege) it sets in later.
But one thing I know for sure is that not a single one of us needed the extra shame that was heaped upon us at that community pool when we were still such little kids.
*Names changed, obviously.