‘One day, tired of all the teasing, I stopped wearing bathers’

I once adored my body – adored the way it jiggled when I danced in my bathers around our house.
I am the youngest of five, all born 18 months apart. In summer, I was the first one up, yelling at my siblings that it was time to go swimming! Oh the excitement – the scramble to put on bathers, the fight for the one dry towel.

How we ran as a pack, toast in our hands, to the beach down the road, and threw ourselves into the water. I remember spinning, ducking, jumping, yelling in joy, “I can swim! I can swim!” Back then, I loved my jiggly little body, and all the things it could do. This is the me you see on the front cover of my new memoir, Your Own Kind of Girl – happy, in bathers, showing off for fun.

‘That summer, I discovered that diets do work – the first diet, anyway. The rewards were immediate and shocking: friends, attention, approval.’Credit:Courtesy of Clare Bowditch

Somewhere along the line, for reasons both simple and complex, my confidence evaporated. My nickname at primary school (Fatty-Boom-Bah) offers some clue. Mum said I mustn’t worry about the silly things those kids said, that I was a peach. But I didn’t feel like a peach. I felt like there
was something wrong with me – something I needed to make it right.

One day, tired of all the teasing, I stopped wearing bathers. Stopped swimming. A voice in my head told me I wasn’t allowed to swim, not until I was thin. I believed it.

When I was 10, a doctor pointed to a chart on the wall in his office and told me I was “here, obese”. From the way he said it, I took this to be a bad thing. I didn’t want to be bad. That summer, I discovered diets do work – the first diet, anyway. By following his strict instructions, I returned after the summer holidays to find the world had changed. Now, I was thin.

The rewards were immediate and shocking: friends, attention, approval. When friends’ mothers asked me for a photocopy of my diet, it felt as though, suddenly, I mattered. And I wanted, more than anything, to keep on mattering. I felt guilty for wanting this – it was against the values my parents had taught me, about how it’s our insides that count. My head, however, said I needed to stay thin, and I bought it.

Still, I did not allow myself to swim. Thin, but not thin enough – so said the voice in my head. I believed it. First as a child, then as a young women, what followed was a decade of vicious ping-pong trapped in the dieting cycle. I had no idea there were other options available.

I am a grown woman now, a woman who, once again, rather likes her jiggly little body. In my childbearing years – first a daughter, then twin sons – my body has continued its dance up and down the scales, yet I no longer think of its waxing and waning as a thing I did wrong. Instead, I think of my body as a walking, talking piano accordion, just here, playing its song. That, I believe, is what can happen when we learn to tell ourselves better stories.

I took a while getting here. The stories I’d internalised about size and power are not ones I made up on my own. Society really does hold in trust certain rewards for women who appear to know how to control their weight (their wrinkles, their feelings). One doesn’t need a PhD to explain how this privilege plays itself out, to this day, in the arenas of career, romance, politics, the arts.

But my life today is dedicated to a different theory. What if life also rewarded those of us who show up boldly and confidently despite the stories the world tells us? What if we just count ourselves in, regardless of our size, and what we take it to mean? What might happen then?

I have two pairs of bathers now – a navy one-piece with white polka dots, and a red two-piece, also with white polka dots. Old-glamour-Hollywood-style cuts. Just my size. For a girl like me, online shopping is the miracle I’ve been waiting for all these years.

My local pool is the very same pool around which Helen Garner set her seminal 1977 novel, Monkey Grip. Its bleachers are full of beautiful, golden people living the Offspring dream (yes, the TV show I once acted in – this irony does not escape me). I’m tempted sometimes to compare my body to theirs, but I resist, make a practice of reminding myself as many times as I need to that my body does not have to impress anyone. It is mine to be enjoyed. Bowditch, I say, get in the water. So I get in. It feels … delicious.

Clare Bowditch’s memoir, Your Own Kind of Girl (Allen & Unwin), is on sale tomorrow.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale October 27.

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