memoir: the beach ball
When I was five, I owned a bright yellow bathing suit that was just fine and dandy for mucking about in our backyard paddle pool, which mum would set up against the back fence every summer, making sure it was not in splash range of her clothesline.
The yellow bathing suit was a one piece, which meant less burn marks on my tummy as I skidded down the makeshift slip-and-slide my older brother had attached to the pool. We actually ended up with a pretty fantastic obstacle course that summer.
We had the trampoline set up on its side with a sprinkler splashing against it, which caused extra thrill-seeking risk as we hurled our bodies against it and squealed as it was forced back onto its legs. We bounced across the puddles before hurling ourselves off it and onto the slip-and-slide that ran for about three metres along the ground, before smashing our way into the pool at the end. It was delightful.
Imagine that feeling. Carefree in a bright yellow bathing suit.
Nothing felt better than the droplets of water on my hot, sun-scorched skin; itchy wet grass speckled up my legs and my limbs aching from a day of play. The memories of those days include the memory of the grape vine that ran along our back fence. Full of the sweetest, blackest grapes, which we grabbed by the handful; plunking them into our buckets to gorge on later, before mum could stop us.
I had no opinion on my body parts whatsoever.
I had arms and legs and a belly button that was an inny and not an outy – that’s as far as I went with my critique.
When I was nine that all changed.
During one school recess, I was walking across the playground with a smile on my face and not a worry in the world. A boy in my class decided I had a different shape and he did not like that – he decided it was his job to tell me, so that I was aware.
Aware from that day forward. For the rest of my life.
You are fat, he told me. A Beach ball.
And so it was.
My inner dialogue confirming it again and again every second of every day.
I was fat.
A beach ball.
The truth of it all, looking back on old school photos, was that I looked no different than any other girl beside me, maybe a slight layer of puppy fat more than the more wiry limbed girls of the bunch, but no, he was so wrong.
I did not stand out with rainbow stripes and an inflating nozzle on my hip.
He made me think I did though.
My body was suddenly viewed as a commodity; the most valuable asset I owned to purchase people’s approval. And the shape I lived in was apparently not a high-end model.
That same year my nine-year-old body was abused and traumatised by a “trusted” male neighbour.
Again, my body was not mine to value, but a man’s to use.
My nozzle undone as I deflated.
I was wearing my yellow bathing suit that day too.
At 16 I was reminded again that my body was an object to be dissected and sold to the highest bidder, when my high school crush whispered in my ear so romantically that he thought I was good looking and that he would date me… if I just lost a few pounds.
My body has been in a discount bin, in my eyes, pretty much ever since.
Sometimes over the years I have tried shutting out the views of men – their white noise from their gold-plated patriarchal thrones, and actually feel good about the way I look.
I remember one summer in particular. 2001.
I was 22 and loved every part of my body from the tips of my toes to the top of my head.
It was a time in my life when I was my healthiest. My body was its strongest.
I was glowing.
A moment in time when I wore a bright yellow bikini over sun kissed skin and I spent a whole summer riding my bike, exploring the new suburb by the sea I found myself living in.
My friends and I walked to the beach more days than not. Swimming and tanning ourselves until the sun dipped below the hazy horizon and we waded through the cool high tide to make it home again.
Frangipani trees and jasmine filled the air and somehow so did the comments and cat calls.
My positive sunny outlook and view of myself soon got caught up in the attention my body now received from men. Changing the commentary from the high school taunts of ‘fat’ to ‘hot’ and ‘curvy’ and very much wanted in their beds to pleasure them.
Now when I walked past a man and he noticed me, it felt powerful and freeing and I stupidly got drunk on the high it falsely gave me.
Until I was 23 and I was pinned to my bed and forced to say ‘yes’ with the final relax of my arms after 14 noes.
How foolish I was to think I owned this power. This body. This good feeling inside.
It was never about my own self worth, my own sexual pleasures and desires, as I foolishly convinced myself at the time it was.
It was all man made.
A slip-and-slide my body is forced to shoot down as opinions and hands grab at me, while I close my eyes and squeal.
My name is German in origan, and means universal, and strength. Of the earth.
If only I had of lived up to my name and demanded the respect I deserved. Making my own identity with no influence from men.
If only they hadn’t trained me so subtly; without even they realising it most of the time, let alone me; like a performing seal, to apologise whenever I spoke up, to always come along with a joke to compensate for my discount-bin body, or to slump my shoulders and hide in the shadows when intimidated. Making myself as small as I could, to not dare cause anyone to notice my flaws.
And then I went and did the worst thing possible.
I dared to actually get fat.
So now the mirror taunts me every day too. Because I was taught at nine that being fat was wrong, and bad and not OK.
I know now, looking back, food was a way I dealt with any kind of pain and trauma in my life, which was exacerbated by an underlining chronic condition making it harder for me to lose weight once I gained it.
So now here I am.
Now my body shape gets completely ignored. Wishing for it for so long and now that it has happened, it is awful.
I am that dark smudge that passes men by. I’m in their blind spot as they scan the room for thinner, younger girls.
Beauty fading fast. So now what?
Men still telling me by the way I am ignored that my body is not OK.
Men still showing women what they should be, in the constant stream of images flung in front of our faces like some kind of obstacle course you try to navigate and make your way out of, self-worth in-tact.
Because you cannot be anything but thin and youthful in this world.
Women buy into this now too, reinforcing it all and making it casual.
According to Instagram I must have a tiny waist, a decent set of tits, slim toned legs, and a peach shaped butt.
When you are that, you get fire emojis.
Fire emojis is the payment now for young girls.
That’s the correct way for a woman to exist in the world.
I get that memo every second of every day.
And so too do nine-year-olds, and 16-year-olds and 23-year-olds.
Exhausting to have my looks be the rent I pay to exist in the world.
Exhausting to have to have anxiety to put on a pair of black (slimming of course) swimmers, to head into the water now and enjoy just a moment.
Too scared to get out and walk to my towel if there are too many people around to judge my lumps and bumps or, even worse perhaps, not notice I am even there.
Exhausting to continually listen to the opinions of men when it comes to my body, and not my own.
Not wanting to ever be noticed, while silently wanting to, so much.
I need more. It all has to mean more.
I am done apologising for what I look like and the space I take up. I am done putting men before my own self.
I bought a new pair of swimmers last week. They aren’t yellow, but they are bright and draw attention, their bright stripes kind of remind me of a beach ball.
And I have decided that is OK.
If anyone dares to make the mistake of thinking my body is anything but mine and mine alone to judge, I always have a big dose of double birds to flip their way as I hit the water.
40, 23, 16 or 9.
That’s how it should be.
Emma Brooker is a writer based in Newcastle, NSW. You can read more of her work here.