The Cancer Tankini

It was 2009 or 2010. I don’t remember her name. Maybe I knew it at the time, but what I remember is the First Lutheran Church assembly room full of tables, displaying one woman’s personal effects. Everything was available for purchase: costume jewelry, books, Tupperware, knickknacks, clothing, and shoes. The things a person accumulates over a lifetime, to fill a home and decorate daily life. The church was holding an estate sale following this woman’s death from breast cancer and the proceeds were supposed to benefit a cancer charity, or the church, or both. I hadn’t been working full-time again for long, and my wardrobe was transitioning from stay-at-home-mom of two kids under six years old, to career-mom. I think my purchase included a pantsuit, a dress, and a blazer. The bathing suit wasn’t a necessity for work, but I bought it anyway, with the price tags intact. Even though I knew it hadn’t been worn, I was ashamed to take it to the lady who was acting as a cashier. Who buys a bathing suit from a dead woman’s estate sale? Me, apparently.

 A rare moment in just the Cancer Tankini, without the swim shirt. Why am I taking a picture of someone taking a picture of me? God only knows. Even the bird is repelled by the irony.

A rare moment in just the Cancer Tankini, without the swim shirt. Why am I taking a picture of someone taking a picture of me? God only knows. Even the bird is repelled by the irony.

At 220 pounds, finding a bathing suit was torturous, expensive, and nearly impossible. Buying a pre-owned one for pennies on the dollar and waiting until I got home to try it on seemed like a low-risk investment. It was a reddish-orange two-piece halter-top tankini, giving me the illusion of wearing something that wasn’t found in the “Woman’s World” plus-size section of the store. You know it well, readers: a wide ranging assortment of muumuus, elastic-waist pants and floral tops, ranging in sizes from 1X to tent and awning scraps. New plus size bathing suits were rare, expensive and generally unflattering. I wore that used Cancer Tankini for 7 years, gaining nearly 30 pounds as its elasticity gave up the good fight against my increasing size. Usually, I wore a matching swim shirt over it, telling my husband that I was wisely avoiding UV rays, but I knew it was covering up more than just my delicate tan-resistant white skin (if it wasn’t for Jergen’s Natural Glow sunless tanning cream, people would have to wear sunglasses around my neon-whiteness). The swim shirt was like a quick-dry suit of armor, further defending me against judging eyes: “Yes, I know I’m fat, and I am properly repentant, as is evidenced by my shame-induced modesty.” No one was watching. No one was judging me, except for me.

THE TANKINI IN ACTION

I wore the Cancer Tankini at the beach with my family. Ah, family beach trips! If I never have to apply sunscreen to another human being for as long as I live, that’s fine with me. Putting sunscreen on other people grosses me out. Yes, even my own kids. They get sandy, then you have to re-apply, and it makes this gristly sandy paste that induces my gag reflex. I love my family more than life itself, but one day I’m going to the beach all by myself and it will be glorious. Days spent laying by the pool, not worrying about whether anyone is drowning, has eaten lunch, or is swimming too soon after eating. See that lady reclining in the shade with no sandy sunscreen on her hands? She is loving her life.

 My 6-year old daughter. I think she's wearing a life vest under a body suit, because you can never be too careful, people. Put on your own sunscreen, kid.

My 6-year old daughter. I think she's wearing a life vest under a body suit, because you can never be too careful, people. Put on your own sunscreen, kid.

I wore the Cancer Tankini to our lovely county swimming pool. Sara Babb Pool is the only public pool in our very rural county. We’re not fancy like neighboring Cobb or Douglas Counties with their multiple indoor and outdoor pools. No, Paulding County only has one outdoor pool, and you better get your tetanus shot before you go. The fact that I was wearing a bathing suit instead of jorts and an airbrushed t-shirt purchased at Six Flags automatically made me appear to be the most glamorous lady at the cement swimming hole, but the Cancer Tankini and I knew better. I didn’t feel glamorous or anything less than conspicuously large. Neither the origin of the swimsuit nor its fit made me happy when I wore it, but it was a means to an end. An answer to a problem. At least I had something to wear.

THE LESSON IN THE TANKINI

Sometimes I thought about the original owner of the Cancer Tankini. She had obviously not lived to enjoy her purchase. I was technically alive, but also not enjoying the bathing suit. While a doctor had given her a hopeless medical prognosis, I had condemned myself to a life of feeding my body junk and feeding my mind daydreams that I was certain would never come true. Losing weight. Feeling attractive. Solving the riddle to mastering my own body. The Cancer Tankini symbolized a compromised existence. I could go to the pool and the beach, but I had to drag along the extra physical weight that protected me from vulnerability and intimacy, while also threatening to drown me. Self-loathing makes one hell of a pool float.

THE TRANSFORMATION

On June 27, 2016, I walked into a Weight Watchers meeting and that compromised existence began a slow death. Day by day, I stopped accepting the fact that my life was just one long string of missed opportunities to be truly happy. I slowly awoke to the knowledge that I desperately wanted to feel loved, and that it would only be possible when I felt worthy of such love. Yes, I know that’s messed up. I might be 93 pounds down today, but I’m far from being healed of my fat girl mindset. I also realize that many people can feel worthy of love at any size or shape, but I could not. As the pounds came off, my confidence and self-worth grew. I began to feel strong and capable. Some days, a glimpse in the mirror would surprise me. Whoa, that waist DOES look a slimmer! When I hold my arms at just the right angle, they look muscular! That weight training is paying off! Just kidding. My arms get tired when I blow dry my hair. If I could find a two-piece that fit me like this high-waisted girdle and double push up bra (the boobs are GONE, people!), then I might be able to pull off a legit bikini! The last time I had worn a bikini was at a youth group pool party in high school. It was white with flesh-colored lining, and when it got wet, it appeared to be see-through. Exactly what I was going for, given my conservative Southern Baptist peer group. I’m pretty sure no photos exist. Please God, let no photos exist.

REPLACING THE TANKINI

In lieu of our usual week-long beach trip, we decided to get the house painted this summer and just spend three nights ocean-side. You know how those days before a family beach trip can be. Doing laundry, buying last minute items, packing, taking the dog to the kennel, and loading the car. During that chaotic flurry, I stopped at Target to get sunscreen and took a detour through the bathing suit section. Months ago, I had already purchased a modest new size 10/12 tankini, but I wondered if I might find something akin to my girdle-bra combo. The girl working the dressing room started to give me funny looks when I asked to try on my third set of swimsuits. The top had to be padded and well structured. The bottom had to give a certain amount of coverage on both the waist and the leg holes. No high cut Flashdance bottoms for me, despite my trip to the deceptively named “Relax and Wax.” There was nothing relaxing about that appointment. Now that I could actually see down past my belly, I knew some attention had to be paid prior to the beach trip. It takes a special kind of smart lady to schedule a waxing appointment the day before completing her first 10K, but hey, that’s ME!

 The actual, un-photoshopped selfie from the Target dressing room. My face says "Is this really acceptable for public consumption?" but my levitating body says "24K Magic."

The actual, un-photoshopped selfie from the Target dressing room. My face says "Is this really acceptable for public consumption?" but my levitating body says "24K Magic."

 In the last ladies’ dressing room on the left at the Kennesaw, Georgia Target store, the clouds parted and the angels sang. I finally found a combo that worked. A little voice asked me “Are you seriously going to walk around in public wearing a bikini and let people see your stretch marks and flabby belly?” I told that voice, “Yes, I am. This is the South, and there will most certainly be bigger people on the beach wearing less, with faded, sagging Harley Davidson tattoos, so WHAT HAVE I GOT TO LOSE?” Only my sanity, apparently, given this conversation. Staring at myself in the mirror, these two pieces of lycra and spandex made me feel imperfectly sexy. At 44 years old, I finally knew the answer to the question I had wondered for so long when I’d see other women on the beach who were fit and trim. I’d ask myself, “What does that feel like to walk around in a body like that? To bend over and not feel like the Michelin man reaching for another doughnut? To put your hands on your hips and actually feel your hips?” Now I knew. I might never be hot enough to dance in a Bruno Mars video, but this felt darn good. Scratch that. It felt amazing.

THE DEBUT OF THE BIKINI

Unlike the Cancer Tankini, this new bathing suit was purchased with pride and my head held high. I’m pretty sure that somewhere, the original owner of the Cancer Tankini cheered when I stepped onto the beach wearing nothing but my brand new two-piece and a smile. My 12- and 14-year old kids were thoroughly embarrassed (Double Win!). My husband was thrilled. I was terrified and excited. Was anyone watching or judging me? No, probably not. But maybe, some woman was looking at me and wondering what it felt like. And hopefully, she’s finding the strength to start her own journey toward shedding the smothering security blanket that extra pounds can provide.

The Cancer Tankini took one last dive into a garbage bag of clothes I gathered for donation. I know…gross! Would some other woman really want to wear my stretched out, used bathing suit? Probably not, but the only thing she risked catching from me was a resolve to stop settling.