How Joining The Coney Island Polar Bear Club Taught Me To Love My Body

Since the age of 12, I had been taught to burrito myself in a beach towel at all swimsuit-wearing times or wear an oversized T-shirt to protect the delicate fat-phobic sensitivities of those around me.
Publish date:
January 29, 2013
breakups, body image, body issues, swimming, coney island polar bear club

It started, as things often do, with a breakup.

I was at home on a Sunday trying to figure out if I should call my boyfriend after 10 days of not hearing a peep from him or just let it go and accept that things were over. Just when I had decided that the best course of action was to drink excessively, the phone rang.

“Hey, listen,” he said, very casual, like he was just calling to say hi. “I think I want to go back to just being friends.”

One of the more difficult parts of breaking up with someone is that you sometimes end up with nothing to do on weekends.

Suddenly, I had to face that the long weekend away that my now-ex kept putting off was officially canceled forever. The Sunday morning brunches he would suddenly dash away from because he “remembered he had something to do” were no more. And even the “grabbing a quick coffee” on a Saturday before he had to “go take care of some work thing, um, an emergency” had come to an end. I suddenly had lots and lots of time on my hands to rethink my life choices and get good and depressed.

Of course, I called friends to make plans. I acquired some new hobbies. I read book after book and spent days staring at Netflix. But I still felt empty and lonely every single weekend.

And that was when my friend Jody suggested joining the Polar Bear Club.

The Coney Island Polar Bear Club meets up every Sunday starting November 1 and ending May 1. They strip down to their swimwear, walk out to the beach, and run into the Atlantic Ocean where the water temperature can dip down into the 30s during the winter.

I briefly thought that Jody was kidding, until she said, “I’m not kidding. We should do this. Jenna does it.”

Our friend Jenna was the type of girl you wished you were best friends with in high school because she would make you instantly cool. She just did things, like going to dance parties on a work night, riding through the city on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle, and dressing up like a sexy polar bear and striking a pose in the Mermaid Parade.

“But Jenna does stuff like that,” I said.

“We could, too,” Jody replied, raising an eyebrow. “And don’t you find weekends to be really difficult right now?” She had recently gone through a breakup as well.

I decided to think about it.

I was never a “joiner.” In 7th grade, when all the other girls were trying out for cheerleading, I was trying to sneak in a few more chapters of my book before class. I never felt comfortable in a crowd. It was easier to just not get involved, rather than risk drawing attention and possible ridicule to myself.

And did I really want to throw myself into the Atlantic during the winter? It seemed to go against everything my parents had ever taught me about not going outside in one’s underwear and freezing to death.

I thought about my conversation with Jody for the next few weeks. I read up on “winter bathing” to make sure it was safe. I got out my swimsuit and checked it for holes. At some point during this time, it occurred to me that I was cursed by my own insecurity. It was time to make a huge leap back into visibility and try something new.

So, when the first Sunday of November rolled around, I put my swimsuit on under a pair of sweatpants, grabbed my beach towel, packed two pairs of warm socks, and headed out to Coney Island with Jody for our first Polar Bear swim.

I have always hated my body in a swimsuit. Since the age of 12, I had been taught to burrito myself in a beach towel at all swimsuit-wearing times or wear an oversized T-shirt to protect the delicate fat-phobic sensitivities of those around me. And bikinis were out of the question.

So, when we got to the beach and I discovered that every Polar Bear swim started with a warm-up of jumping jacks and jogging in place, I was immediately uncomfortable. I realized that at some point I was going to have to drop my towel.

I looked over at Jenna. She was jumping up and down with her arms over her chest. “Women with big boobs do jumping jacks like this!” she shouted, laughing.

I carefully dropped my towel and began to jump up and down with my arms fastened over my boobs. I looked around at the other people on the beach to see if they were noticing my thighs jiggling with every jump. It was the first time I really looked at everyone.

There were guys my dad’s age, some with beer guts and sweaters made of chest hair. There were people covered with tattoos. There were women, some 20 years older than me, fat and thin, wearing bikinis and not giving a shit. Everyone was unique and interesting, and I admired every single one of them. And not one person was pointing at my thighs and remarking cattily, “Will you look at that?”

For one thing, it was way too cold outside for catty comments. And also, nobody cared. It was the first time I realized that not every situation in life was a junior high locker room.

“Everybody in!” someone called, and the swimmers all cheered at they splashed into the water. Rather than a cheer, I made a noise like this: AAAAAAAAAEEEEEEEEESOCOLDSOCOLD.

But as I jumped up and down in the water to stay as warm as possible, for the first time in a long time I realized I felt good. It was a weekend, and I wasn’t spending it on my couch trying to figure out where my last relationship had derailed. I wasn’t fretting or stressing. I was just having a good time.

At the end of the swim, I walked all the way back up the beach with my towel in my hands and not around my body.

In order to become a full-fledged member of the Polar Bear Club, you have to do 12 swims the first season. You have to go in up to your shoulders for it to count. As long as you do that, you can stay in for as long (or short) as you want. And they don’t cancel swims for rain, snow, waves or excessive cold. (Some members schedule special swims just to go while it’s snowing.) No matter the weather, the Polar Bears hit the water at 1 PM every Sunday.

We went almost every Sunday that winter. We bought special booties to keep our feet warm in the water. We accessorized with hats and gloves. There were always people with cameras, snapping pictures of the swim. I wanted to look good just in case, but I remained pretty camera shy.

One Monday, after a particularly cold swim, I was at my desk clicking through the pictures from Sunday’s swim on Facebook when I came across a photo of myself. Someone had photographed me from behind running into the water wearing my fantastic pink vintage swimsuit. I looked at it for a long time and then closed it.

And over the course of the day I went back to that picture again and again just to look at it. It was my body. From behind. In a swimsuit. And I really didn’t care who saw it. I looked good.

And not in that way like in the movies where the “unattractive” nerd secretly had a Glamour-ready body hidden under her corduroy pantsuit. I saw all of the things I had always thought of as flaws, but I realized they weren’t flaws, just part of my body. And that was OK.

That February, I was proud to finish my twelfth swim and take my place, officially, in the Polar Bear Club. By the end of the season, I did not give two shits about jumping around in my thighs and arm flab.

That was three years ago. Last year, health problems kept me off the beach and out of the water.

But in December, my latest relationship came to an end, and I decided to hit the beach again for old time’s sake. Not because I was dealing with a case of the post-breakup weekend lonelies, but because, as they say in Polar Bear Club, “It’s pretty cold out there. Let’s go for a swim.”

And I needed someplace to wear my bikini.