The Liberation of Lake Life (A Body Image Manifesto)

For four days in a row last summer, all I wore was a swimsuit, and it was unexpectedly glorious.

Some of our close friends had invited us to spend a long weekend on their houseboat on Center Hill Lake, just a short road trip away from the farm where we live south of Nashville. Now, if you can picture farming everyday in the sticky, unbearably humid Tennessee summer, you can imagine how blissful a weekend at the lake sounded: cool water, timelessness, dear friends, and a break from dirty fingernails.

We had heard about “lake time” and were so ready to be on it.

So we packed our bags, including such very necessary items as my chef husband’s entire knife bag (because apparently there’s nothing worse than cooking for a group of friends on a boat with a dull kitchen knife), a gallon Ziploc bag of cucumbers that I’d just harvested, and a 25-pound commercial gelato maker.

Upon arrival at the marina, and after loading up multiple golf carts full of our stuff (I hung off the end precariously while the gelato maker rode shotgun), we finally joined the other two families at the houseboat on the dock.

All already close friends, there were twelve of us – 6 adults and 6 kids under 8-years-old. We kicked sandals, Birks, and running shoes into a pile by the sliding glass door, crawled into bunks and cubbies, and blew up air mattresses for our four-day stay on the boat.

In the moments that followed, I realized a few things: 1) I wouldn’t need or even think about my shoes until the day we were leaving, 2) I wouldn’t bother taking a shower, and 3) apparently, I was going to be walking around in a swimsuit 24/7.

As soon as we unpacked our bags, everyone changed into their suits – without cover-ups – and just started walking around that way. Ohhhhh, so this is how it is here at the lake.

I had a decision to make.

Was I going to walk around for four days, self-conscious of my soft postpartum belly and thighs that have felt too large all my life? Or was I going to enjoy the liberation of lake life, the freedom of jumping in and out of the water, on and off speed boats and waverunners, without worrying about constantly covering up?

You see, for about 15 years now, I’ve been on an ongoing journey of healing from a lifetime of body image issues. Through lots of hard, intentional work, I’ve come a long way in accepting and loving my body for how it is, making the shift from trying to be a certain size to simply aiming to be healthy and strong (finding my strength as a farmer has definitely helped).

I think the unhealthy view of my body took root around 4th grade, when I was deemed “chubby” and overweight for my age. Following that were years of being overly conscious of my appearance and feeling like I was taking up too much space in the world.

Into young adulthood, I abused my body by talking down to it and restricting foods. I criticized it, tried to make it shrink and look better by adorning it with slimming clothes. I took pride in it when it was satisfyingly “small” after I lost 50 pounds in my early twenties. I was insecure about it when it was not “small enough.” I was not grateful for the body I was given.

Yet, it still grew and birthed two healthy daughters who, on this very lake trip, were repeatedly climbing up the boat ladder and then hurling themselves into the water with utter abandon.

Although I’ve come a long way, and I’m hyper-conscious of never talking badly about my body in front of my girls, do I desire for them to think about their bodies as anything less than beautiful and wonderfully-made? What non-verbal cues do they pick up on as I look down at my legs or at my reflection in the mirror with a critical eye? And do I want to carry these lingering, toxic attitudes further into adulthood?

So, as I put on my swimsuit in front of the full-length mirror in our room on the houseboat, I decided to choose life and freedom, not just as an example for my daughters, but for myself.

I decided that to really soak up the moments and gift of this trip, I was going to have to leave behind the self-absorption and appreciate my body for the strength and beauty that it is.

I was indeed going to walk around for four days in nothing but a swimsuit and believe that it’s okay not to look like someone else; it’s okay to look like me.

This wasn’t easy at first.

If I’m being honest, I can’t even tell you how hard it was not to focus on the cellulite exposed on my thighs. But even if I didn’t quite feel it in my heart, I spoke the truth to myself and moved forward as if it were true.

Maybe it was the visceral healing of all those negative ions in the lake water splashing around me, or maybe something shifted inside that propelled me deeper into healing. But ya know what? It started to actually feel true.

My thighs still touched at the top, my stomach pooched out, and it was okay – even wonderful. I realized that I can take up whatever space I want in the world, I can celebrate this body with all its stretch marks, scars, and wrinkles, and honestly and truly, people aren’t paying attention to my appearance as much as I think they are.

I hope what my girls remember from this lake trip is that we cannonballed off the top of the boat deck, sunbathed on the lilypad together, and catapulted down the slide approximately 864 times. I hope they remember that we rode the waverunner to the pine tree studded cliffs and then jumped off them with bravery.

Of all the times I’ve screwed it up in the past, I’m so glad this time was different, and I didn’t let a history of distorted body image keep me from experiencing the things that really matter – the deeper connection of our friendships, the beauty and joy.

After playing in the water all day, we feasted on bison burgers and sweet potato fries and epic charcuterie boards and wine and bowls of homemade ice cream (thanks to the colossal gelato maker).

And then at the end of the trip, we experienced my hands-down favorite moment when all twelve of us took the speed boat and waverunner to the middle of the lake at sunset.

We all got into the deep, navy blue water. As I bobbed around in my life vest, I took in a 360 degree view. The sunset had turned everything pink and purple, the surface of the water shimmering in rainbow colors like an oil slick. Every single one of us, from 40-years-old to age 4, was smiling so hard we could barely contain it.

As the sunset deepened, kids did cannonballs into the water, others floated on their backs, and speed boats zipped by in the distance. I asked my two girlfriends if we could capture a photo so we could remember this moment.

We hoisted ourselves out of the water onto the stern of the boat and stood in a line. Then, we jumped into the sunset.

One of our husbands caught it on video, and when I watched it later, I kept pausing it at the moment right before we jumped, when I reached out and grabbed each of my friends’ hands. I don’t remember doing it, but that small act of initiative floored me as I watched it over and over.

Years ago, I never would have let this image see the light of day, much less be posted on a public website. But today when I look at it, all I see is liberation.

It’s a mark of healing in this journey, joining hands with other beautiful, strong women along the way.

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18 Comments

  1. Maggie

    Such a great story! I love that part of your decision was made because of your girls. I did that too, years ago. ‘It ends here!’ I said.
    (I wish I had also decided to speak up to the people that have tried to sabotage this, but at least my girls know those people were wrong and that helps.)
    I love that last picture! You still mention you wouldn’t have posted it years ago, but all I see are three strong and healthy women having fun together.

    • Christine Bailey

      Thank you, Maggie! I love how you said “it ends here” – I SO feel the same way. I’m not passing on those toxic thoughts to my children, as much as it’s in my control. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts 🙂

  2. Ginny

    Wow! Christine, all women need this and your words give us courage to live this for ourselves! Bravo, friend! 😉

    • Christine Bailey

      Thank you friend – cheering you on!

  3. Dee

    What a beautiful post, and such a wonderful trip! I can imagine what a hassle such a weekend would have been if it was filled with doubt and insecurities about body image.. what a waste of a beautiful opportunity that would have been!

    I think I’m getting better and better about accepting my body as I grow older. I don’t care who I impress anymore, and realizing that nobody probably cares much anyways also helps 😀

    • Christine Bailey

      I’m with you! Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts! 🙂

  4. Linda

    Oh girl. Amen an amen. What a weekend. 🙂

  5. Rebecca

    This is wonderful. Thank you.

  6. Lynn

    Thank you so much for this important message, I am a mom of six and have decided for myself my body is good and not less than because of age or shape.

    • Christine Bailey

      Lynn – that’s so encouraging to hear!

  7. Diane Pierre

    Boy, does this resonate within me and my history of negative body image. Thanks for your raw honesty. You have given me hope for this season of facing others in my swimsuit. Bless you, Christine!

    • Christine Bailey

      Diane, I’m so glad we can encourage one another in our journeys. Thank you for reading!

  8. Michelle

    One word: BRAVA!!!

  9. Kathleen

    I resonate with your words so much. I just returned from a week in Belize with my husband and made what felt to me like the brave decision to buy a new bikini for the trip. After three kids, I’ve been going the tankini route for a while but found some great high-waisted bikini bottoms and a supportive top online (I tried on some lower-rise bikini bottoms too but felt more comfortable in the high-waisted ones). While there is still a part of me that feels self-conscious about the cellulite on my thighs and my softer belly, I also just wanted to have fun and feel good. My body has done some incredible things, including creating three new humans, recovering from severe illness, and propelling me on some amazing adventures. I should feel proud of it, not ashamed. And it’s so true that we often worry about our bodies way, way more than anything else does – time to lose our self-absorption and focus on living our lives, connecting with our loved ones, and using our bodies freely to explore the world!

    • Christine Bailey

      This is so beautiful, Kathleen. This inspires me so much to hear! Thank you for sharing and I’m so glad you made the brave decision – sounds like it paid off 🙂

  10. Katka

    Christine, thank you for sharing this beautiful story, your encouraging words, and spreading the courage! I love the picture!

    • Christine Bailey

      Thank you 🙂

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