Last week, a woman named Madelyn Sheaffer was enjoying a day at a Missouri water park with her niece and nephew, when apparently two employees of Adventure Oasis Water Park -- which, it should be noted, is a public tax-funded facility and not a private business -- approached and asked her to put some shorts on.
Their problem? The bikini she was wearing was “too revealing” -- which gave Sheaffer pause, given that the park was apparently full of younger and thinner women in nearly-identical swimsuits. Sheaffer believes her treatment was motivated both by her age -- 43 (or maybe 42, as the news coverage has been spotty on this) -- and her body shape, which is, as media is fond of euphemistically putting it, “curvy.”
Sheaffer refused to put on shorts, calling the request unfair and asserting that she was being singled out for her age and her shape, and she also refused to leave, asking for a manager, who supported his employees’ position. When she called the police to file a complaint, they arrived and (sympathetically, at least) escorted her out of the park. All this because of her swimsuit bottoms, which, to be fair, were not particularly revealing.
Sheaffer has said she is considering suing the water park for discrimination -- not because she wants money, but to prompt a change in their unevenly-applied policy -- and good on her for standing up for herself in a truly ridiculous situation.
Naturally, though, I want to unpack this story -- and the way it’s being covered -- a little bit more.
To start with, much of the news attention repeatedly describes Sheaffer as a “mom,” which seems totally irrelevant, especially considering there seems to be no reason to even mention her kid(s), given that she was swimming with her niece and nephew at the time.
Unless, of course, “mom” is serving as code for “old,” or even “having a body positively devastated by the ravages of childbirth,” which is messed up for a bunch of reasons. (Even more confusing: this New York Daily News headline seems to have been changed from “Missouri mom booted from water park over bikini finds online support” to “Missouri woman booted...” The original can be found on Google and in the URL. Sheaffer does seem to be a legit mom, though, as she mentions her grown kids in a Facebook post.)
Secondly, all the coverage has heavily (heh) emphasized the apparent fact that Sheaffer used to be a lot fatter than she is today. According to an exclusive New York Daily News interview, eight years ago Sheaffer weighed 255 pounds.
It has been a long process for the Odessa, Mo., woman to achieve her goal of losing weight."Sitting in a chair and laboring to breathe is no existence," she said.But even that and a fall in her bathtub weren't enough initially to motivate her. Sheaffer said she was suffering from a compressed disc in her back when she fell in the tub and was unable to get out — for three days.Emergency workers tried to help, but she was in too much pain and requested that they leave her there."That should have been the first sign for me that I needed to lose weight, but it took me another year before I made the decision to do something," said Sheaffer.
Sheaffer lost a hundred pounds over the following two years, and is committed to body-building and weight training, which is awesome. And Sheaffer herself seems pretty awesome too:
"I have a hundred and one messages for women," she said. "My top message to women would be to say don't let anyone tell you that you are not good enough. Take time to honor yourself. Women should be comfortable in their skin and be comfortable with they way they look. Imperfections are what makes us all beautiful."
I am totally with Sheaffer on this. I think she’s a marvelous person who has stood up for herself in a vocal way that will have a positive impact on lots of women. I have no beef with Sheaffer herself. (And to be honest? I have NO IDEA why anybody would have an issue with what Sheaffer was wearing, as this woman is not even slightly flabby but is indeed muscular as hell.)
What I do have a problem with is the way that, in much of the media coverage linked about, Sheaffer's weight loss is being used to justify her right to wear a bikini in the first place. The interview with the New York Daily News pushes the tragic-fatty angle hard, taking Sheaffer’s early comment that she had only recently become comfortable enough with her body to wear a bikini as evidence that she’s “earned” the right to wear one, through hard work and most importantly, losing weight.
This bugs me because, as y’all know too well, I think anybody has a right to wear whatever swimwear they please, no matter what their body looks like. You don’t need permission to wear what you like. To suggest otherwise is to perpetuate the self-esteem-devouring idea that women owe the world a particular kind of beauty, and that bikinis -- or miniskirts or crop tops or whatever -- can only be worn by women who have taken that responsibility seriously and made sure their bodies are in keeping with what culture expects.
The thing is, bigger bodies often ARE considered extra obscene, on a cultural level anyway, simply because they are unfamiliar to us. Seeing slender young women in tiny swimwear is really no challenge, because we see that sort of visual constantly, everywhere, in magazines and in advertisements and on television and in movies. We’re numb to it. When a body looks like the cultural expectation, we don’t have to think too hard about what we’re seeing.
But when we get a glimpse at a different body, a body that diverges from social norms in major or minor ways, our ability to see and understand is taxed. We are startled, shocked, even scandalized -- in some cases enraged at being "forced" to look at a woman's body that we don't know how to read at a glance, resentful that the training we've had in How To Look At A Body over years of exposure to media did not cover this particular appearance, such that we have to figure it out for ourselves.
To employ one dramatic example, several years ago I saw a woman on the beach, in a bikini, who’d had a double mastectomy, and had evidently decided against reconstructive implants. (I eavesdrop on nearby beachgoers’ conversations sometimes, sorrynotsorry.)
I was mesmerized, for a bunch of reasons, but the main reason was her utter lack of shame -- she was so compellingly confident in her own skin and that came through like a freaking beacon of self-acceptance. Also, to put it simply, women without breasts are just not a thing we get to see very often, and witnessing that in a non-tragic context was powerful.
I probably stared, and I hope she didn’t notice or assume I was thinking “Ew, gross,” because it was totally the opposite. Seeing her had a profound impact on how I see women’s bodies in general. Frankly, it made me feel awesome by extension, because if she can be out on the beach in a bikini not giving a damn what anyone else thought of her, then certainly so can I.
And that’s just one example of what happens when we see bodies that don’t look like the meticulously-perfected and utterly impossible standard of what an acceptable body is supposed to look like. Even just looking at pictures of different bodies in swimwear can go a long way in building confidence and a kinder understanding that bodies are naturally diverse things -- Tumblr can be awesome for this, as well as xoJane’s own Fatkini Gallery.
So while I give Madelyn Sheaffer personally big props for standing up for herself, the way we’re talking about her story still shows how far we have to go. Because until we shed the popular ideology that only certain women ought to be allowed to show their bodies in public, that some bodies must never be seen by anyone, and that all women must work for bikini rights, this sort of thing will continue to happen.