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By Liz L.
My eating issues began about 17 years ago.
As a teenager, I turned to food to cope with my parents’ divorce. I battled the indulgence in college, working out frequently and taking supplements to slim down. No matter how hard I worked out or how little I ate, I always saw my body as a “work in progress.”
Eventually I felt exhausted and set myself into the mindset that a perfect body is impossible and not worth the effort. I convinced myself that I was just meant to be overweight.
At my heaviest, I tipped the scale somewhere near 260 pounds. By the end of 2009, I was going through a divorce and worried I would only get heavier if I didn’t make some changes in my life. I created a set of rules to curb my eating, like “never eating sad” and portioning out my food.
Eventually I added a fitness routine. It was a slow process and I was fascinated how my new body was taking shape. I went from a size 20 to a size 8 over the course of three years.
While I had certain expectations of what my life would be like once I hit my goal weight, I just assumed my body would look like it does in every dieting commercial. But I wasn’t satisfied. I was still soft and pudgy.
I would stare in the mirror, pulling at the loose skin and eyeballing my stretch marks, wondering if this was the punishment for letting myself go. After losing nearly 100 pounds, I was surprised how I thought parts of my body should look versus how they actually looked, particularly my stomach.
I figured it would be awhile until I ever got the courage to bare my midriff. As much as I was nervous about people seeing me in a bikini, I still felt all the shame for once being obese.
When making my resolutions for 2012, I set a goal of wearing a bikini.
I had never dared to even try one on, so I figured I had about 6 months to get “bikini ready.” As summer approached, my friend, Eddie, asked me if I was interested in participating in the World Naked Bike Ride in June. The event is a “bare as you dare” ride, with riders wearing little clothing to nothing at all. Most also wear body paint or various costume pieces.
The event is a peaceful protest encouraging public transportation and riding bikes, instead of being dependent on cars and oil. And while I agree with being green, my motive was simple: I wanted to participate so I could debut my first bikini.
I first heard of the World Naked Bike Ride in 2011. Two friends were out to dinner and left the restaurant, only to be greeted by hundreds of people riding through Chicago on their bikes, naked. One of my friends had really blurry pictures on her phone as riders zoomed past and we giggled about it over wine and cheese the following week.
A few months later, I met Eddie and he told me about his experience. The idea fascinated me and at the time, I thought I could never get enough courage to participate. The more I thought about it, the more I felt like there would be safety in numbers.
If I wanted to get over my body-shame, I needed to do something bold. Having countless strangers see me in a bikini seemed easier than being around a pool baring skin to people who knew me. I figured if anyone took pictures, I’d be a faceless blur on their camera phones. The anonymity sounded encouraging.
As the date approached for the ride, Eddie and I reached out to have friends participate with us. I started watching videos posted online from previous rides and saw so many girls wearing bikinis. It looked too easy, and almost a cop-out if I was going to truly shed the image that my body was “gross.” It was then I made the commitment if I was going to break-through my fear, I needed to at least go topless. Showing both my boobs and my stomach scared me, yet the bragging rights seemed worth it.
On the day of the race, my friends and I headed into the neighborhood hosting the starting location. Part of the mystery is that the actual starting location is kept secret. You show up at one location, show your bike, and you’re given the second location.
When we arrived at the staging area, we walked through an alley to a private, vacant lot hidden from the street view. Still fully dressed, I felt like a spy trying to smuggle in unnoticed as we passed by all the naked people. I was incredibly nervous while we started unloading our things. There were so many people in the nude painting each other and I didn’t want to seem like a pervert if I looked at anyone too long.
Trying to avoid eye contact, I immediately took off my top. I thought I would feel panic as I stood topless while painting my friends, but I actually started to relax. Occasionally I would forget I was topless until I’d turn my head and see someone staring right at my chest.
To live up to the confidence I was building for myself, I would pretend I didn’t notice, when on the inside I wanted to make a scene. I wore some Batman under-roos, we painted Eddie as my sidekick Robin and we waited for the bike ride to start. It was surreal to be so close to downtown Chicago that we could see the skyline, while half-naked.
The ride started at dusk and we began our trek through the most popular neighborhoods of Chicago. People began lining up along the streets, with their cameras focused on us. This year’s race was much warmer than the previous year, so there were thousands of riders.
My stomach was in knots with various emotions: fear, excitement, anxiety, and pride. I knew as soon as I exited the safety of the lot and started the ride there was no turning back. My clothes were on Eddie’s bike so I couldn’t chicken out and cover-up mid-ride.
My safety net of being able to whiz by on my bike as an unrecognizable blur was no longer an option as the bottlenecks were forming along the course. Our speeds were reduced to walking our bikes through some of the more populated areas.
Sometimes we were completely stopped and I felt on-display. I could have panicked, realizing how exposed I was to be straddling my bike without my shirt, but instead I used it as an opportunity to build my confidence for my natural breasts and soft tummy.
Eventually the group would move along and I’d breathe a sigh of relief. As the ride progressed, so did my confidence. When people would call out for Batgirl, I’d smile big and straighten my posture. It was thrilling and I wished I showed the same confidence at the beginning of the ride as I did at the end.
We were on the course close to five hours and when we returned to the starting point, I was a little sad. I had been anxious the whole day, curious where I was going to find the courage to remove my top and now I had to cover up.
The excitement was over, as if putting my clothes back on was the realization my horse and carriage had magically turned back into a pumpkin. It was time to go back to my regular life, except I had changed somehow.
Seeing so many naked people in one night made me realize how different and beautiful all bodies are. Before I had this idea that most bodies, no matter how curvy, are flat and perfect underneath clothing, when really it was an illusion my mind created to make me believe my body was uniquely disfigured.
In the months since the naked bike ride, my outlook on my self-acceptance completely changed. I felt like it enabled me to give myself permission to do things that make me stand out and draw attention to myself. I used to wear pants in the summer because I hated the appearance of my legs and now I was boldly wearing miniskirts and two pieces.
My clothing started to become brighter, my hemlines started to get a little shorter, and I completely changed my perspective. My body is completely unique and beautiful in its own way.
When friends ask me how I managed to gather enough courage to do a naked bike ride, I tell them, “It’s easy. Don’t think about it. Just take off your clothes and smile.”
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