Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


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A red Delicious apple. That’s about the colour of my midriff this morning. Not especially pretty, but not yet the boiled look of a bad sunburn. It’s been so many years since my middle was exposed to the sun that the surprise is not that it’s rosy red, but that I haven’t started peeling in long flakes.

That much I remember from childhood — the way sunburned skin can be peeled off in long chunks, like the skin of an apple. The worst was the disastrous day I fell asleep lying on my back on the beach at Gull Lake (which has no gulls and no shade) and woke up three hours later. I think I lost the first layer of skin just by standing up. The second layer went when my mother saw me and I tried to explain. As soon as I spoke, yet-another layer of skin peeled from my face. For a week after that, smiling was an exercise in pain management. My face cracked and peeled and if I had only known it then, the lines made by the flaking sunburn were an approximation of what I would look like 50 years later.

Somewhere in my collection of photo albums is a series of pictures on the beach at Grand Bend on Lake Huron in Ontario. There are three of us —me, my roommate in London, Jane, and my friend Marilyn Hehr, who started work as a reporter at a small paper outside Chicago the same week I started work as a reporter at the London Free Press, both of us from the Calgary Herald.

We were spending a week in a rented cottage at the lake and looking back at the pictures we took, I simply don’t understand what the problem was with me and bathing suits. Jane (who married soon after the two of us moved together to Toronto and whose last name has vanished from my memory) is a tall blonde in a yellow bikini squinting into the sun. Every time I look at that picture the song “she wore an itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka dot bikini” runs through my mind, although Jane’s bikini was missing the polka dots. Marilyn is a short and tousled-hair blonde, obviously comfortable in her one-piece suit. I say obviously because that’s how she looked, comfortable in her own skin. Of that week, there exists a single picture of me standing in the sand in a blue and green maillot. Looking at it dispassionately, the 23-year-old looks pretty good, even with a god-awful elaborate hairdo better suited to the city than the beach.

But what the picture doesn’t show is how uncomfortable that young woman was, standing in the sand and drinking a glass of lemonade, trying to pretend she was having a good time, acutely aware of how dismal was her inner body image. And I can’t even blame Barbie, having been raised long before Mattel created the now-ubiquitous doll. Personally, I don’t think Barbie is as much a threat to feminism as my feminist friends do. I believe she’s popular because, unlike the dolls of my childhood, Barbie fits comfortably in a little girl’s fist.

Of course, if scaled into real life proportions, she would be 5 feet, 9 inches tall and measure 36-18-33. Based on this, medial researchers at University Central Hospital in Helsinki have decided Barbie would not have enough body fat to menstruate. According to research by the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, Finland and published in Forever Barbie by M.R. Lord, she would lack the requisite 17 to 22 percent of body fat required to menstruate. But little girls are blissfully ignorant of such stats.

The reason I am slightly sunburned today has nothing to do with sleeping on the beach, pretending I’m Barbie, or living any kind of fantasy. It has everything to do with the fact that the middle part of my body — breasts to hips — hasn’t been exposed to sunlight for about the past 25 years.

The last time was a solo trip through Portugal and Spain and when it became obvious that no European woman was getting much use out of the top of her bathing suit, I asked myself why was I wearing mine? Of course, being a middle-class, bourgeois North American, doffing one’s bathing suit top doesn’t come naturally. So, if anyone spoke to me in English while was lying half-naked at the seaside, I’d pretend not to understand and would alternately make some comment in French or Italian or just as likely, in German. (Blonde hair, zaftig body and all that.)

I’d passed for German in Italy, largely because, and I quote the maitre d’ who insisted on speaking to me in that language until I responded in English: “Well, you’re obviously not Italian,” he said, gesturing at my hair, and “you’re too well-dressed to be an American, so you must be German.”

Do I speak any number of foreign languages? Of course not, despite my friend Eva’s attempts to drill her elegant French into my head to replace my high-school lessons. My secret weapon is a collection of language books, all entitled Just Enough. Just Enough French, Just Enough Italian or Spanish or, one I’ve never had to use, Just Enough Serbo-Croat. The brilliance of these books is that with the right attitude, you can be presumed to be a local. Well, local if your hair is the right colour.

And then, there’s the problem of the colloquial language, a difficulty I encountered when trying to find a hotel in Milan and when I pulled to the side of the road, to ask a couple of pedestrians where the Jolly Hotel was, they answered me in voluble Italian accompanied with the expansive hand signals most Italians use. I understood one word: semaforo and the gestures. Turn right at the next set of traffic lights. Worked like a charm, a tad better than the time I answered some handsome man’s query about whether I was married with my, er, impeccable Italian. He fell about himself laughing and then gently explained that what I had actually said was that I was looking for a husband, not that I was single. Such are the joys and pitfalls of single travel.

But it has been a long number of years since those days and certainly an even longer time since I felt confident enough to wear a two-piece suit. That was, until yesterday, when I ventured out to the pool here at the resort on Ma’alaea Bay in the black and white Tommy Bahama top and the recently purchased bottom. It felt bizarre. I felt more naked than I had on the beach in Marbella, Spain. Then I remembered my mother’s advice long years ago, when I was still insisting that a beach holiday didn’t interest me in the slightest. Go to Hawaii, Mother insisted. There are all shapes and sizes on the beach in Hawaii, and you’ll not feel out of place. You won’t be the fattest or the thinnest; the youngest or the oldest, she added. And get over yourself, she said with a particular Irish mother tone, nobody cares what you look like.

She was right, as mothers often are. So for years, Hawaii has been my beach destination of choice, first Waikiki and then Kauai and now, Maui. I did try Mexico once, but it was dispiriting and disheartening and the presence of so many dirty, barefoot children tugging at my shirt and begging for money just made me guilty and then angry, so angry that I rudely brushed off one persistent young boy.

But just coming to the Hawaiian Islands doesn’t make one feel more comfortable in a bathing suit.

I’m reminded of a couple of passages in Anita Brookner’s novel, The Next Big Thing. In a letter to Julius, the novel’s protagonist his cousin Fanny writes: “I had thought that my looks would last me all my life and this is perhaps a illusion from which women suffer until they look in the glass one day and see that some sort of fading has taken place as if a veil had obscured the original brightness that no amount of added gloss will restore.”

Women should be above that sort of thinking, especially with more than 30 years of feminism under our belt. Why does it matter? Who indeed cares whether some woman does or does not wear a two-piece (and a modest one at that) to the pool?

Further on in The Next Big Thing, Julius’ ex-wife says to him: “There comes a time in a woman’s life when she no longer wants to make an effort, wants to let her hair go, wear comfortable shoes, stop trying to attract men. And yet there’s a sadness to this. You lose a future. I’ve noticed this in women who give up. Men seem to go on for longer. You see quite old men looking at younger women as if they still had something to offer. The men, I mean.”

NEXT: Miles of sand and thousands of steps in and out of the surf.


Written by Catherine Ford

February 5, 2010 at 4:34 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. The best way to feel comfortable on the beach in a 2 piece bathing suit (tankini) when one is of a certain age, and also somewhat “zaftig” is with a group of amigas of about the same age,not necessarily all so “curvaceous”, and espousos. Attentive young waiters and a margarita or cervesa or two don’t hurt either. And a portable scrabble game, while we watch the surfers. (My beach is in Mexico; and we greatly appreciate West Jet nonstop to Los Cabos)

    K Schubert

    February 5, 2010 at 9:53 pm

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