I love to hear stories of personal growth. I’m a psychologist; it’s a big part of what we do. Now and then I like to feature the voice of someone sharing their own story in their own voice. Summer is a season for grilling and swimming with family and friends. Sadly, for many it’s also a time for anxiety about appearance. A friend of mine writes about her experience with anxiety about her appearance and how she’s learned to cope. I was so impressed by her story that I asked her to share it with you.
“You name it – I can worry about it. My mother would tell you I “came out worrying.” For most of my life I accepted the worrying as part of who I am, much like my short stature or brown eyes. It’s just the way I was made! Sure, sometimes I couldn’t sleep or worried myself sick (literally – like urgent bathroom trip sick) before tests or important events, but for the most part I didn’t let on to anyone other than family or close friends that I was worrying or anxious. I could put on my game face and power through a speech, playing sports or performing in front of someone.
After college, I moved to a small town and began working as a medical professional. I didn’t know anyone there and I began to worry more and more about everything in my life- not just specific things like public speaking, but “How am I going to do this job? Am I ever going to meet anyone in this small town? How do I manage all these new bills and responsibilities of being an official adult?” One night as I was driving home from working at the local hospital, my worrying spiraled. I began having what I can now identify as a panic attack. I was breathing fast and felt light-headed. That episode was different for me, more intense. It led me to seek help.
I found a local psychologist who did individual therapy, but also recommended I join a group of other young women with similar experiences and feelings. The therapist and the women helped me immensely. I didn’t know it at the time, but she practiced cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). I made lists of my thoughts and then examined them rationally. I learned how to stop my “stinkin thinkin” (her words, not mine). The group of women became my community. We supported one another, laughed, cried, and gave each other reality checks. Gradually, I learned to stop the anxious feelings and worry before they gained any momentum. I was able to take away tools that have helped me in almost every situation in life: a new job, a new relationship, waiting for medical test results, even exciting (but potentially anxiety provoking) events like getting married or going on a vacation. I’ve learned that I can’t control the situation, but I can control my thoughts, attitudes and actions. There isn’t much that makes me anxious these days…well, there is one thing: swimsuit season.
The last time I was excited to wear a swimsuit I was 12. It was red and had “Coca-Cola” written all over it. It was cool. I was cool. The next summer, something changed. I noticed my body in ways I hadn’t before. I became acutely aware of a birthmark on my leg, and felt my larger thigh (yes, I actually measured them to determine that one was indeed slightly larger than the other!) jiggle conspicuously. Everyone was looking, right?!? I must have the strangest birthmark, weirdest shaped leg and wobbliest bits of anyone at the pool. Walking in front of people was a chore that I avoided at all costs without a large towel or cover-up. My swimsuit-body-anxiety was only amplified by magazines showing only “perfect” airbrushed bodies (I didn’t know that at the time) that were nothing like mine.
Oh, hindsight. Had I known the tools of CBT that I know now, I would have used them in the dressing room under the fluorescent lights as I dissected my body or before I walked in front of the “crowd” at the pool. I would have made myself examine my thoughts:
- “Is everyone really looking at you?” No – they are too worried about themselves or have fallen asleep in the sun or are chatting with friends.
- “Is your birthmark really that bad?” No – it’s unique and in a strange spot, but most people probably don’t even notice. Remember that one person who actually told you it was cute?
- “Can everyone tell that your one thigh is larger than the other?” No – not unless they take a tape measure and wrap it around your leg. Are you kidding me?
I would have encouraged myself to look around, engage with people, splash and play, have fun! I don’t have the same swimsuit anxiety that I did when I was younger, but each year I still feel some negative thoughts creeping in as I try on swimsuits or anticipate being in front of others in a suit. A few weeks ago I had a wonderful swimsuit shopping experience. Yes, you heard me correctly! I took my 7-yr-old daughter to pick out a suit. She tried on 10 suits, and with EVERY SINGLE ONE of them she said, “Oh! This is my favorite! Don’t I look great in this? I can’t wait to play on the beach in this!” Wow. If I could bottle that and pass it around… she taught me a lesson: Love yourself. Be excited for new experiences. Rock those wobbly bits and birthmarks and whatever you have that may be “different.” Life is too short to let those negative thoughts creep in. Get out there and enjoy it! Happy Summer…”