In Sydney, the tail end of summer is long, and if you get off work on the early side, you might make it to the beach in time to catch some sun, or a few waves, or, if you’re like me, to spend a heavenly hour reading in the sun while your swimming costume slowly dries. Today was one of those days, and the beach was littered with school kids shedding their uniforms and delighted to start the weekend off right. Not far from me on the sand was a trio of girls who were clearly awfully glad it was Friday.
Three girls, all of them 13 or 14 years old. As I sat on the beach reading, two of them — lean and long-haired, wearing all-but-matching string bikinis — posed for photos as the third girl held up her phone. They put their hands on their hips and cocked their heads to the side, then held their hands up in the heart shape that marked them as Taylor Swift fans. They ran into the water holding hands, looking back over their shoulders and laughing. “Did you get it? Did you get it?” they asked the third girl, over and over again. The photo shoot went on for 10 or 15 minutes. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, remembering how badly I, at 13, wanted my life — and my photos — to resemble a teen magazine photo spread.
The third girl didn’t pose for any photos. She only took them. Not as lean as her friends, she wore a baggy pink romper over her own string bikini. When they announced that they had had enough of posing, they dove into the water, splashing each other and squealing. She walked up the beach and slipped her phone into a pocket of her school bag, then walked back down to the water. But she didn’t get in. About ten meters back from the water, she stopped and sat down, and stayed there, her knees hugged to her chest, watching her friends play in the small waves.
I wanted to hug her. I have no way of knowing what she was thinking as she sat on the sand, the average-looking photographer outnumbered by model-esque friends, and I don’t want to presume. But I can make an informed guess.
I thought about how I myself as a 13-year-old, self-conscious about my legs and my stomach and my flat chest, and how I avoided letting anyone see them unless it was absolutely necessary (or legislated by a dance teacher with a cruel taste in costumes). I thought about how I wore full-length jeans, to the beach, at the height of summer in Sydney. I thought about how, when all my friends were bending school uniform rules by hiking their skirts up, I kept mine long, and about how I envied the skinny girls at the top of the high school food chain, whose upper arms flopped around in the sleeves of their school polo shirts when they rolled them up. My own sleeves dug into my flesh, and well into my college years, I would try to cover my upper arms.
I wanted to hug this girl and tell her that though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, there really are more important things in life than being skinny. I wanted to tell her that looking like a model will, in the long run, be largely worthless if you aren’t also kind, and thoughtful, and hardworking. I wanted to tell her that looking good — as others define it — in a bikini isn’t a talent, or a trade, and it isn’t a marker of your intelligence, or of anything other than what you look like in a bikini. I wanted to tell her that the skinny girls at the top of the food chain can be miserable too, because again, though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, looking “good” in a bikini isn’t the path to happiness.
But I also wanted to tell her that even when you grow up a bit, even when you’ve come around to how much more your brain is worth than your body, you need constant reminders. And if you were once the kind of girl who wore jeans in the baking heat of summer, you are, in some ways, always going to be that girl. Even if, in the years since, you’ve chosen to be smart over hot, you never forget what it felt like to do something stupid and uncomfortable and nonsensical just to keep the world from seeing parts of you of which you were ashamed. You may always feel like the ugly friend. You never really outgrow that feeling, or forget it, and it never stops shaping how you look at the world. Would that it did. Women would hate themselves — and each other — far less.
I wanted to tell her all those things, and I wanted to tell my 13-year-old self that, too. But I know I wouldn’t have listened, and I suspect she wouldn’t have, either.
After fifteen or so minutes of sitting on the sand, the third girl stood up and walked back to her towel. She took out her phone and played with it for a moment, then hastily took off the romper and walked down to join her friends in the water. They splashed her as she was wading in and she squealed as she retaliated. For a few moments, at least, she looked like she was having a hell of a time.