It's beach season, but for some, what should be a time of fun and pleasure is a time of dread.
Many of the people who dislike this time of year, because it means confronting fears about going to the beach and wearing a bathing suit, are overweight or obese. Considering the prejudice toward overweight people, it would make sense that some would have negative associations with summertime. However, this type of anxiety and fear isn't experienced only by those who are overweight, just as not everyone who is overweight has a problem putting on a swimsuit and enjoying a day at the beach.
Karla, a 26-year-old woman struggling with anorexia, is such an example. Here's her perspective on summer, the beach and wearing a bathing suit:
As someone trying to recover from anorexia, my mind was in intense conflict over an invitation to go to the beach, something that, normally, should be a happy occasion. Having achieved a healthier weight, but not having a completely recovered mind, makes the thought of wearing a bathing suit a huge source of anxiety for me. However, I knew that to overcome my fears and push through the distortions I know I have, I had to take a risk — even if it felt impossible.
I was tired of my eating disorder dictating what I did, what I ate and what I wore, so I decided to take the leap and go to the beach. However, in the hours I had to think about it, my mind became a battlefield and the war was between fear and freedom.
My thoughts tried to convince me to compromise my choice to accept the invitation to go the beach. "Maybe I'll just wear clothes and stay hidden at the beach. Then I won't feel so fat." "I just won't eat until after the beach. Then at least I'll be able to think clearer." I knew if I listened to this self-defeating voice I would just be avoiding the discomfort, but I'd never beat the problem. Clearly I was being irrational, and I decided that my all-or-nothing thinking wasn't going to work in my favor. I decided, instead, to make recovery the priority at every opportunity that day, no matter how difficult.
I know from past experiences that things that seem impossible usually aren't — when I try. And, even if things don't turn out perfectly, each time I face the challenge, the fear shrinks a little bit more. So, I vowed to give it my all without fear of failure.
I wore a bathing suit although my thoughts nearly put me in tears when I felt my thighs touching or I spotted my reflection in a car window. I reminded myself the next six hours, "I distort. My mind is not going to ruin this day!"
I made it to the beach — in a bathing suit! That was a victory in itself. Then, I was offered a sandwich. I felt the panic rising. I stared at the bread, meat and cheese and smiled, although I wanted to cry. "Why can't I just be normal?!" I thought. But then, my rational voice came to the rescue. "I can be normal! It just takes time and work." Normal would be to eat lunch. The sandwich was what everyone was having for lunch, so I ate it. I felt the panic reeled in by rational thought.
The same fear returned later when asked to play volleyball. This time, I reminded myself that I had already worked through those fears earlier and nothing horrible happened. So I played — freely.
I had lost out on so much enjoyment so many times before simply because I was worried my imagined fat would disgust others as much as it did me. I avoided the beach for six years because of imaginary fears. I don't want that to continue. I want to keep challenging my distorted thinking and not let an eating disorder or anything else get in the way of a normal, happy life — at the beach or anywhere.
Everyone has a right to enjoy the beach — even in a bathing suit. Discriminating against others is wrong, but it's also wrong to discriminate against ourselves. Why don't you have a right to enjoy the beach just like everyone else?
We should strive for health and fitness while enjoying the present moments of life instead of waiting to enjoy life at some nebulous time in the future when we think things will be perfect. Besides, if you let yourself be happy now, this summer, at this beach, in this bathing suit, the joy will encourage you to accomplish even more.
Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." Send questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.