Bare midriffs, high-cut legs revealing cellulite thighs, visible rolls of flesh everywhere. Is there a woman alive who does not loathe swimwear? It’s made for shaming.
I’ve managed to avoid this fashion nightmare due to a lifelong pathological fear of drowning — a strategy that served me well for over 50 years until my left knee stopped working. The usual remedies and exercises offered little pain relief, so my physical therapist recommended aquatic therapy. He promised the buoyant effect of water would help me strengthen the muscles supporting my knee.
Although the name “aquatic therapy” conjured images of spas, cruises and fruity drinks with little paper umbrellas, I suspected that it was actually code for underwater torture. A health club pool was reserved for this purpose at designated intervals each week to allow the exit of all the glamorous bathers whose eyes must be shielded from what comes next: a low-speed stampede of old people who never should have left their houses looking like that but left their houses looking like that.
“Our patients love the pool,” my therapist enthused, “I’m sure you will, too.”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that. I can’t swim. I won’t even take my feet off the bottom,” I protested.
“You don’t need to. The water’s only four feet deep; you’ll be standing up the whole time.”
I panicked. “But I don’t even own a swimsuit.”
“No problem,” he offered cheerily, “wear shorts.”
Why didn’t I think of that? I’ll blend right in wearing street clothes in a swimming pool. People will just assume I fell in by accident and decided to exercise once I got there.
I was fresh out of excuses but still feeling defiant. “Oh, all right, but I am not paying that co-pay in advance!” And with that, we made an appointment for me to drown later that week.
Two days later, I checked in for my appointment and tried my best to look inconspicuous. Clutching the wet metal handrail for dear life, I slowly descended the steps and instantly lost my grip, my arm lurching forward. You know that escalator at the mall where the handrail is out of sync with the stairs and your hand arrives at your destination a minute before the rest of you? The inspiration for that feat of engineering was wet handrails at swimming pools.
One of the young PT assistants saw my arm give way — no doubt, the abject terror on my face was his first clue — and hurried to my rescue like Prince Charming on a white horse. “Want a noodle?” he purred. Yeah, like my flailing mass of dead weight’s gonna be saved by a floppy piece of Styrofoam. More humiliation.
Struggling to recover from my grand entrance, I proceeded with caution into the watery depths. Ahhhh. Almost as warm as bathwater.
Walking the first laps in the pool was painless, and the therapist noticed my relief. “It’s like walking on the moon, isn’t it?” I wasn’t sure I’d go that far, but he had a point about buoyancy.
After convincing myself I might not drown, at least not that day, we got down to business: balancing on one foot, mini-lunges, pelvic tilts, stair-stepping, pushing down a Styrofoam noodle, and more. Not too bad.
About an hour later, time was up and I staggered out of the pool at least 40 pounds heavier in my waterlogged get-up. I had neglected to account for this when I made the decision to outfit myself in a T-shirt and long denim shorts. Owning a swimsuit made more sense with each soggy step.
Weeks later, I finally caved and went shopping. It wasn’t easy to accommodate both my pear-shaped physique and puritanical modesty, but I found an acceptable suit with a black skirt and flowered top. The bottom fit well and the top was downright roomy. Shapeless, too. What older woman doesn’t want to let her non-gravity-defying bosom roam freely between her lower ribs and armpits?
Looking back, I see real progress. In a mere half-century, I’ve gone from fearing any body of water deeper than a bathtub to walking in the pool several times per week. That’s a big accomplishment for a swim-class dropout. And in swimwear, no less. I’ll never be on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, but at least I won’t look like I slipped on a wet noodle and fell in the pool by accident.
— Mary Kay Jordan Fleming
Mary Kay Jordan Fleming is a professor of developmental psychology at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati. She spends most of her time leaving notes for herself all over her home and office, and writes humor (and some serious stuff) in her spare time. In addition to HumorWriters.org, she has published at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Boomer Café and Sammiches & Psych Meds, and is the 2016 winner of the Erma Bombeck Writing Competition for humor.