When I was 13 years old, I sewed my own bikini.
I grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands on an island of 32 square miles. In an oceanic microcosm, all social outings, from field trips to bar mitzvahs, occurred seaside. Seventh grade’s denouement was no exception. It was to be a soiree of Gatsby-esque proportions, complete with a full-sized catamaran and snorkel gear.
Three days in advance of the celebration I sat on the edge of my bed, sobbing. I was plagued with the age-old quandary of teenage girls everywhere.
I had nothing to wear.
Correction, I had nothing nice to wear. All I had was a garish polka-dotted one piece that was two sizes too big, and a turquoise tankini. It was the antithesis of vogue, cloaking my adolescent frame with lycra and awkwardness. To contextualize the tragedy at hand, this was 2013 on a tropical island. Bikinis were the end all be all, the norm, the expectation. Anything less (or more) than a two-piece suit would banish me to the outer recesses of the complex social ecosystem that was middle school.
Why didn’t I simply buy a new swimsuit? That’s simple. To do so would be proclaiming that I, Darby Williams, at the ripe old age of 13, was a slut. OK, maybe not a slut, but a show-off, an attention seeker and, frankly, a sinner. My family was Mormon, and good Mormon girls do not wear such things. We cover our shoulders, our knees and our stomachs. We learn early on to hide the things we are ashamed of.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged in the Mormon community that modesty and morality are interchangeable. To be covered is to be pure, chaste, conforming and safe. To be good is to remain unseen. To be beautiful is to be invisible. So from a young age, my friends, my sisters and I learned to be just that. We paired long-sleeved shirts with sundresses in mid-July and scoured the malls for knee-length shorts that didn’t exist. We cried in frustration before school dances and Sunday services in our competing desires to feel some semblance of self-esteem without invoking the wrath of our church leaders.
I was no fool. I knew that a bikini was out of the question. I couldn’t drive, and I had approximately $7 to my name. While my mother had both the ability to drive and the finances to support my swimwear needs, asking her for help would only bring about tears. Her tears, for my sinful unabashedness; my tears, for the sheer impossibility of fitting in without disappointing my family, my church and a god with an unusual obsession with how young girls dressed. I resigned myself to the reality that amid confident, stylish, perfectly tanned beauties, I was destined to dress like a turquoise sausage.
And yet, that garish vision in turquoise haunted me until the night of the outing. In a self-conscious spurt of desperation, I did the only thing I could think of: I took a pair of children’s safety scissors and slashed the tankini short. I hemmed the edges with superglue, and I had my suit. It was faded and out of style, but it was the best I could do, and the best I could get away with. In the safety of maritime isolation, I committed my first act of teenage rebellion. I didn’t feel pretty, but for the first time, I felt in control.
A year passed, I grew an inch taller. My mother saw pictures of my makeshift ensemble in the yearbook and promptly threw them out. She noticed the mounting stares, the whispers, the disapproving smirks from our church “friends.” She fielded tirades from my father about my lack of self-respect. She witnessed the men she regarded as holy staring at her daughter with discomfort etched in the lines of their faces. All of a sudden, the skirts grew longer. The pants grew looser. Disappearance became not only a method of conformity but a means of survival.
Meanwhile, I learned new parts of my body to critique. June rolled around and so did the annual end-of-year catamaran trip. Under the unforgiving glare of dressing room lights, I tried on swimsuit after swimsuit, each one more ill-fitting than the rest. A pile of reject pieces was scattered throughout the floor like lycra snowflakes. I looked in the mirror, my eyes boring holes into my hips, my thighs, my chest, my arms, my stomach. The hot, metallic taste of tears boiled in my throat. It was all too juvenile, too slutty, too tight or too loose. I could no longer tell where the issue lies, in the suits, or in me. I left the store without buying anything.
That was the year my mom realized I was making myself throw up.
For the life of me, I can’t remember what my swimsuit looked like. Perhaps because it never saw the light of day. True to my roots, I donned my trusty long-sleeved shirt. It was close to 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside, but I wore it nonetheless. My friends tried to get me to swim, snorkel, dance, let go for even an instant, but I refused. The damaging rhetoric of purity culture, bludgeoned into my brain since childhood, was slowly but surely ripping me at the seams.
The next year I didn’t bother going on the class trip. I couldn’t if I wanted to. To my parents’ delight, I no longer looked like a slut. To my parents’ dismay, I looked like a skeleton instead. In the course of a year, I took the narratives of chastity and modesty to heart and did as what I was told that God instructed. I not only learned to be ashamed of my body — I learned to be repulsed by it.
I went to high school on a tropical island, and during those four years, I can count on one hand the number of times I went to the beach. By the time I turned 15 I stopped wearing swimsuits altogether. I learned the hard way that to have a body, any body, is a tragedy. Showing off is a sin, so please, do your best to remain unseen.
I got my seventh-grade bikini. I got back my control. I bore my skeletal ribcage like a badge of honor because I created it. I was no longer the reflection of expectation or religious ideals. I was free.
And I was dying.
It was an exercise in being everything to everyone at once — at least it was for me. I had to be thin enough to live with myself, but fat enough to stay out of rehab. I had to bare my skin to be noticed, but cover up enough to avoid damnation. I never felt pretty. Pretty got lost somewhere in the ether of perfection.
I never found pretty. I still haven’t. Instead, I found survival. The precarity of it all clouds my memory somewhat, but I made my way through the labyrinths of ribcages and dressing rooms. My parents attribute it to the grace of God. My therapist attributes it to leaving a culture of religious toxicity. I attribute it to… truthfully I’m not sure what I attribute it to. Perhaps some cocktail of Prozac, rehab and good-old-fashioned circumstance.
I wish it didn’t take near-death at the hands of anorexia for me to realize the gravity of the effects of purity culture. Nonetheless, it did, and I’d like to think I’m better off for it. In the following years, I worked to unlearn the rules. The restrictions. The guilt. I left religion behind for good. I bought new clothes, baggy and tight. I got an IUD and named her Martha. I took the word slut out of my vocabulary and worked every day to stop hating everything about the way I looked.
And I’ve yet to be successful.
I’m 21, supposedly at my prime in terms of physical beauty, and still grossly dissatisfied. I’m not going to wake up one day and have an instantaneous feminist awakening. Hell, most days I wake up wondering if I’ll face damnation for the skirt I’m wearing. Most days I miss the deadly highs of starvation. Most days I assume that no one in the world could love my crooked nose, flat chest or penguin walk.
But, thankfully, most days are not all days. For some days, I wear the skirt anyway. I eat lunch anyway. I give a resounding fuck you to the backhanded compliments and passive-aggressive remarks from my family, my old community and my own brain. I feel like a fraud for the time being, but I fake it in the hope that someday I won’t have to fake it anymore.
A few days ago I posted a picture of myself in a bikini. My mother called me in tears:
“I don’t like you exposing yourself like that. I don’t like that it doesn’t seem to bother you.”
Was this a trite feminist manifesto, I would detail how I told her off, saying, “my body, my choice” or something to that effect. But I didn’t. I deleted the picture and proceeded to cry for an hour. So it goes.
Tomorrow, however, I’m putting it back up. I’m putting it back up for the 13-year-old who never learned to be comfortable in her own skin, and for the 21-year old who is still learning.
Statement Columnist Darby Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.