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Being scared of my body in a swimsuit meant missing out on life

For years, Louise McSharry avoided situations that involved swimwear. Then, she realised that she needed to start swimming – and living

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By Louise McSharry on

My son will be two in October. At the moment, I’m teaching him to learn to love the beach. He’s against the sand, which, to be fair, is perfectly reasonable. Sand is a grainy nightmare, but we endure it to experience the joy of the sea, and so I am working to show him that the sand tax is worth it.

Recently, the weather has been perfect for these lessons, especially as we live in Ireland, where the sea is never far. This weekend, I swam with him twice and, as we sat in our swimming togs on a towel afterwards, I found myself feeling grateful that I was able to be there. Not in a grand, existential way; I mean literally that, 10 years ago, I would not have been sitting there because I would have been too ashamed to wear a swimsuit in public.

I spent years conveniently “forgetting” my swimsuit on weekends away and avoiding sun holidays. I was keenly adept at predicting when an activity that might require one was about to be suggested, and even better at making it clear that I had an alternative arrangement before anyone even tried to goad me into getting involved.

A complete and total avoidance of swimwear wasn’t the only clothing restriction I placed on myself. Much more of my body than those parts revealed by a swimsuit were shameful, so I covered them up, too. I wore opaque tights and cardigans year-round, no matter the weather or the location. I was the teenager travelling through Italy in July in jeans and a long-sleeved jumper, sweating out of every single pore, but saying, “My skin just reacts really badly to the sun, I can’t expose it at all.” I was the absolute best at reasoning away this totally unreasonable behaviour. And I was miserable.

I told myself that it was OK, because it wasn’t going to be like this forever – I was going to lose the weight. “Next year will be different,” was the mantra running through my head. After 10 or so years of this, I started to have doubts. I’d lost weight, of course, but I’d always put it back on, usually with half a stone added on for good measure. It started to dawn on me that I may never lose the weight. That maybe this was just my body. That perhaps there was no “thin person trapped within”. Suddenly, it occurred to me that if this was my body as it was going to be, I had better start living.

You are not going to look back fondly on the time you told your children you weren’t going to get into the paddling pool because your neighbours might see you in your swimming togs

I started to make baby steps of rebellion. I bought a pair of shorts. I bought a bikini (sure, it only revealed the tiniest sliver of skin between the top and bottoms, but it was a bikini!).  When I was too hot, I took my jumper off and revealed the sleeveless top underneath. I. WENT. SWIMMING. Was I scared? Absolutely, but less so every time I did it.

Louise McSharry and her son, Sam

The thing about lasting body hang-ups is that they often arise from a fleeting moment. Perhaps yours started with a cruel comment in primary school. Maybe a child referred to you as “thunder thighs” (that’s one from my own personal vault). It might have been a single unflattering photo taken at a bad angle on a university holiday. They are fleeting moments, but if we’re not careful, they’ll stay with us forever. Confront them, however, and you can move on.

For me, it was really a matter of making a decision about what kind of life I wanted to live. Did I want to sit on the sidelines, watching other people do things I would love to do because of a preoccupation with something as superficial as my body’s physical appearance? Or did I want to fight back and start doing what I actually wanted to do? Did I want to live my life, or did I want it to go to waste?

I refuse to live one more day sweating under too many layers of clothes because I am ashamed. I refuse to say no to one more opportunity to swim in the sea because I am ashamed. I refuse to be ashamed. Life is short, and you can be damn sure you’re not going to be lying on your deathbed thinking about how grateful you are that you left your cardigan on that time in Italy, or that you didn’t go swimming with your pals that day. You are absolutely not going to look back fondly on the time you told your children you weren’t going to get into the paddling pool with them because your neighbours might see you in your swimming togs. Screw the neighbours. Screw anyone who makes you feel like you don’t have the right to live your life to the fullest. You don’t owe anyone else any particular type of body, but you absolutely owe it to yourself to live. So, live today.

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Photo: Getty Images
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