As I clambered up to our unfinished roof, a version of the same urban tarmac beach New Yorkers flock to the second the temperatures rise, I noticed it. I sat down on a lawn chair, which my husband thoughtfully lined with our one and only beach towel, and I noticed it again: My bikini, this amazing, paperweight seersucker Lisa Marie Fernandez two-piece I picked up for our honeymoon, doesn't fit me any more.
I pored over the winter damage—dark ankle stubble, mystery thigh bruises, blips of fat around my lower belly, which was taut and concave the day I got married nearly two years ago—and I berated myself. How could you let it get this bad? I demanded, even though I had just run three and a half miles in the glorious sunshine. You shouldn't be wearing a bathing suit. It's safe to stay that a steady regimen of red-carpet fashion, boutique gym classes full of women with arm-size legs, and a group of girlfriends each of whom is taller than the next, has left me with a profound case of the Diet Starts Mondays. I glanced over at my husband who, in addition to having miraculous genetics and what he calls a "second stomach" reserved exclusively for ice cream, works out five days a week. He looks more like an out-of-work Abercrombie greeter than a 31-year-old finance guy with a thing for Moneyball. It's annoying.
I shifted around noisily in my chair. "You can take your top off if you want," he offered, clearly distracted by my presence. "It would be very European." I looked down at my ample cleavage, which was heaving up and around the strapless scarf of fabric like baking dough, and scoffed. "What would be the difference?" There was a moment of strained silence, and then he gave me "the look," a confused frown that always crosses over his face when I get into it over my body. "Well," he said. "I think you look great," and returned to the less-mercurial company of Michael Lewis. Annoyed with myself, I did the opposite of what I felt like doing, and, in one swift motion, defiantly freed my breasts from the napkin-size bandeau. As my sun-deprived skin basked in the afternoon's generous dose of vitamin D, I experienced an unexpected surge of sexiness. So what if the bottoms of my bathing suit were a little snug? The only person who gave a shit was me.
Two weeks ago, while on vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, 22-year-old Selena Gomez fell victim to an even-more-deafening level of scrutiny. After posting a photo of herself in a cutout one piece and high-waisted jean shorts, an image that received more than one million "likes" on the app, she began to field comments about what fans perceived as noticeable weight gain. Instead of ignoring the haters, or banishing the body-conscious suit to the trash, she posted a follow-up image: "I love being happy with me y'all," she captioned a picture of herself happily splayed out on a chaise lounge. And then, "#theresmoretolove."
Gaining weight in the public eye—or being told that you've gained weight—can't be an easy thing for any woman. And though in the past, I, too, have expected a certain real-life verisimilitude from the women whose bodies I admire in photo shoots, I am changing my opinion on the matter. Here's why: My half-nude body on the roof Sunday did not meet my own rigid requirements. Had someone snapped a photo of me, I'm sure I would have taken issue with the way my arms pressed up against my sides or how short my legs looked. There was no one around to document the incident, and yet, even in the privacy of my own home, I was trying desperately to reconcile what I might look like with a Photoshopped version I have in my mind. It's a dizzying and endless exercise that gets exacerbated by both "bad" and "good" pictures alike, as if I'm holding up each version of myself—me dancing wildly at a wedding, me caught biking down the West Side Highway in shorts, me "asleep" on the couch with the dog—and try to pin it, with the utmost precision, on a dartboard with an unreachable bullseye. Even when I look at my wedding pictures, a time during which this same teeny tiny bathing suit billowed around my hips when I jumped in the pool, I can find errors, bits of flesh that I should have tended to and disappeared before I made it my business to be photographed. Even then I noticed it.
Surely, the public reproach surrounding something as personal as her still-maturing body must have rocked Gomez. No twentysomething public figure purposefully posts a picture with the anticipation of being body shamed. But instead of getting overly defensive or, worse yet, taking down the image , she proved that the best way to snuff out the cultural weight of weight gain is by refusing to be defined by it. Since I first wrote this essay, unconfirmed reports have emerged that Gomez has responded to yet another commenter who urged her to "stop eating junk food" by writing, "You're disgusting...I could care less what 'they' or you say I should look like." The reaction is more confrontational than her original self-love stance, but again, it sheds light on the scrupulous and unfair demands placed on the female form. Her (reported) enduring refusal to apologize serves a greater purpose: Every time a woman admits to having gained a few but to also not really giving a damn, the algorithm changes ever so slightly. And it's these incremental shifts, these tiny victories, that will rescue us all from the time-consuming vacuum of hypercritical comparison. Every time one of us—famous or not-so-famous—balks in the face of a physical ideal, the myth that there's only one way to be sexy takes a hit. So with her eight-years-younger example in mind, I dropped my bikini top from one clenched fist, stretched out my perennially tanned and strong legs, and marveled at the pelvic muscle definition I've had since I was a teenager.
Perfect? No. More to love? Probs. Sexy? Oh, hell yes.
You should also check out: