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I was 10 years old when I had my first experience with body insecurity. I was at a mall somewhere in Orange County with my stepmother and two sisters, shopping for clothes for a family portrait. About thirty minutes in, I began to have a stomachache. I complained to my stepmom. She asked if I wanted to go home, and I said no. I sat down on one of the benches inside the Old Navy we were at. She had some crackers in her bag for one of my sisters. I nibbled on a few and felt better after a moment.

“Maybe I was just hungry,” I told my stepmom.

“You’re always hungry,” she replied.

That was the first moment I remember someone making a comment related to my body. It made me self-conscious. Did I eat a lot? Was it obvious to others? Did other people think I eat a lot? If people think I eat a lot, did people think I was fat, too? Was I fat?

My stepmother may not have meant to be so critical or not realized how hurtful her offhand comments were, but her criticism of my body over the next few years played a definitive role in the way I looked at myself.

I would hold my stomach in while walking around the grocery store. I hated looking at pictures of myself. Going shopping, especially with my stepmother, was always an emotional roller coaster. I wistfully watched Lizzie McGuire sing on a stage in Italy wearing low-rise pants and a crop-top style jacket top, and I knew my chubby tummy and thick thighs could never pull off something like that. These kinds of thoughts consumed much of my preteen years.

It wasn’t until I was 15 and getting ready to go to a water park with my family that I had an epiphany about my body. Having now spent several years being plagued with body insecurity and anxiety, the thought of walking around in a public park in nothing but a bathing suit should have sent me running. Yet I distinctly remember realizing that most other people had bodies like mine. In my life, I could only remember a handful of people looking like something from the billboards and commercials I had seen so often. The overwhelming majority of people around me, strangers and family alike, had wonderfully diverse bodies that were in many ways similar to mine. And we were there together, bathing suits and all, to go laughing down water slides and run underneath waterfalls.

Every summer is different. I’m in a different place every year, emotionally and physically. Three years ago I had an awesome bathing suit that made me feel fantastic. I loved the colors and thought the style was incredibly flattering. It also helped that I was working out regularly and felt confident not in just how I looked, but more importantly, in what I knew my body could do. This last year has been a struggle in more than one way, and I’m heavier than I have been in a while. I’d be lying if I said I weren’t a little apprehensive about throwing last year’s swimsuit over this year’s body.

But there’s something about summer that helps me remember the important things. I waste so much time when I worry about how my thighs look in shorts or whether my tummy sticks out too far. When I start to think about my body negatively, I fail to see how much summer fun I’m missing out on. As adults, it’s easy to forget what we started wearing swimsuits for. When I throw one on, it means I’m about to have a good time with people I care about. Some of my best memories as a child come from summers filled with swimming pools and lake days.

My insecurity didn’t disappear overnight. But whenever I feel down about the way I look, I try to remember that day at the water park. I make myself remember how much fun I had, not what I looked like.

Today, I’ve come a long way toward accepting myself. Putting myself through college and growing into my independence gave me the kind of confidence that comes from accomplishment, not appearance. When I learned to trust in my abilities and my mind—when I valued who I am—the focus on what I look like naturally fell away. That’s not to say I don’t still have my moments of dressing room anxiety. I’m very picky about pants and how different shirts fit me. Yet, despite all that, one thing I’m not afraid of is swimsuit season.

There’s a universal truth I find comfort in, the thing I realized all those years ago before the water park: Very few people have the perfect beach body. Life is more fun when I’m living in the moment, not comparing myself to my friends. My sister and I spent that day at the water park jumping on every ride we could. One water slide gave me a ferocious wedgie that I had to waddle out of; my sister and I laughed about it for weeks. I loved lying out on the sand after coming out of the water, the sun drying the water on my skin.

Now, I can look around and see all kinds of different bodies, in all their diverse and unique ways. And they’re all out, wearing whatever swimsuit they’re comfortable in, having a great time. I see my mother laugh at a bad joke my dad made. I see my sister proudly show me her sand castle. And when I do see a good-looking stranger, someone who looks undeniably good in that two-piece, I remember that all bodies are good bodies. Just because someone is skinnier than me doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with my weight. When it comes down to it, we’re all just out to enjoy a beautiful summer day.

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Photo Credit: Quentin Keller