Tan, Wet, Happy, and Fat?

When you look at old photographs of yourself, there are many that deserve to be burned and others that inspire a giggle or two. The constant shifts in fashion have meant that you may have stashed away some unflattering pictures that include neon colors, ugly prom and bridesmaid dresses, polyester, big hair, shaved heads, and velour jogging suits. A lot of these pictures spur laughter and some just leave you puzzled and wondering, “why in hell was I wearing that?!?” Then there are those you may be hiding for one reason or another: if you are blinking and look like you’re drunk or you just woke up after a night of partying and your best friend decided to capture your messed up hair, smeared lipstick, and bloodshot eyes as a Kodak moment. Those are not too pleasant, but after a while, although you might not show them readily, you chuckle when you look at them. However, there are pictures that never see the light of day. These pictures can be of anything, but I venture to guess that many of the photographs you bury remain hidden because you believe you look fat.

I have many of those, and to be honest, I rarely take pictures because I hate 99.9% of them. In fact, I asked our wedding photographer if he could somehow keep the photographs of me, the bride, to a minimum. I think he about fell off his chair. Anyway, I am not a fan of the camera’s gaze upon me. But in the last week, I’ve been looking at a lot of old pictures of myself, and I found the two that I always stuffed at the bottom of the box. In them, I was about eight or nine years of age, in a bikini, standing on the ladder of my grandparents’ neighbors’ pool. I look tan, wet, happy, and fat.

pictures of me 1

pictures of me 2
Now, before any of you say, “no you’re not,” I need to explain why I say this. First, though, I guess I should give you all some context. As a young girl, I lived only a half block from Lake Michigan, and when I wasn’t visiting my grandparents in New Jersey, Columbia beach in Chicago was my second home during the summer. Let’s just say if there was water, I was there. Needless to say, I needed a new bathing suit (or two or three) every summer. From what I remember, my grandmother or aunt bought me this swimsuit after I insisted that I had to have it (let’s just say I was bit spoiled). Obviously, the bikini was the “it” suit. If I think about why I asked for the suit, I know one of the reasons was because I wanted to look like other girls and women I saw on the beach or in magazines.


Unfortunately, this was a familiar pattern with me. Whether it was wearing adult sunglasses:

pictures of me 3

or trying to explain to the hairdresser that I wanted feather hair, like Farrah Fawcett, (but unable to articulate my desires, I ended up with something like this),

pictures of me

I always wanted to look like someone else, and this bikini would somehow make me look like, well, maybe this:

1976 Coppertone advertisement.
1976 Coppertone advertisement.

However, I was horrified the first time I saw the pictures. When I posed for them, I already understood the concept of being fat. My grandmother (my father’s mother and not the one who bought me the suit), had already made comments about my body (“she’s fat, but so active”). Yet I never identified myself in that way until I saw the photographs.  “I’m fat!” was the first thing I thought. I looked nothing like I had envisioned. For years afterward, I cringed each time I ran across the pictures and never showed them to anyone, until now. I took them out as I started to think about this blog piece, and I left them on my desk. My husband picked them up and asked who was in the picture.  When I told him it was me, he smiled and said “you were so cute.” My son and daughter saw them and just giggled when I told them how old I was (they think I am ancient). My sister-in-law exclaimed, “oh my God, I totally see Sophia!” (my daughter).

Now, many people have told me that my daughter looks just like me, but these particular words resonated because she resembles my younger self, and I would in no way say she is fat.  She has inherited my body structure, and if I am going to shape perceptions about her body, then I have to stop saying I was fat in those pictures, because as my husband said later on, “so you were not skinny, but I’d hardly call you fat.” The funny thing is, I felt the exact same way when I looked at them again.

My own training as a historian meant I did not and could not look at the pictures in the same way. When I pestered my relatives to buy that pink two-piece, I was a full-fledged consumer of beauty and fashion. I might have been young, but retailers and advertisers have courted children since the early twentieth century, so as to train them to be life-long consumers. Most likely I had seen advertisements for swimsuits or related items in my mother’s Glamour magazine (I did not start getting Young Miss until I was 12) or on T.V. I was sold on the notion that certain clothing and accessories transformed me into something beautiful – a desire that still haunts my shopping excursions to this day. My grandparents and my aunt usually gave in to my desires, acting like very good consumers who spoiled the youngest grandchild and niece.

In addition, my feelings about my body when I saw the pictures, and for years afterward, developed not only because of my grandmother’s assessment (because her views were also socially constructed), but also due to the countless images of the perfect bikini body


and those that did not make the cut.


In looking at my pictures now, it is startlingly clear that I wasn’t fat and I wasn’t skinny: two words that have defined feminine beauty for far too long. So what was I? Overweight, plump, healthy, stocky?

Do I have to choose one?

No. I think I might just enjoy the memories of swimming like a fish every summer and being tan, wet, and happy.

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Elizabeth Reis

Thanks for this insightful article that I’m sure will resonate with many readers. Raising a daughter who feels good about her body (no matter its shape) is not easy. Daughters are very attuned to how we feel about our own bodies, and so I think you should put this adorable picture of yourself proudly on your fridge to model for your daughter how self-confident you were and are!


Thanks for this article. It’s even more startling when your artifacts prove your self-conceptions wrong. As I rummaged through a trunk of old clothes, I came across the dress I wore for an 8th grade event. My daughter, now an 8th grader, grabbed it and wanted to try it on. She has a lean ballet-honed body and I told her not to bother because it would be HUGE on her — “I have always been fat, honey.” She tried it on anyhow. Perfect fit. I was stunned. How could I have been so completely wrong about my own adolescent body? I took another look at myself in a picture when I wore that dress. I still saw my then-self as fat. Clearly I still have a problem.

Teri Tiso

Very good diving form! That is what I always focus on with kids- what they are doing, not what they look like. Loved this column and will use it in my teaching.


I like this! I kept my even keel about my own body, even when I was a teenager because I was involved in activities where what my body looked like mattered less than what it could do. You learn really freaking quickly to put less of a premium on size when you live example after example where being “skinny” doesn’t have any bearing on the situation. Plus, it’s hard to feel bad about your body when you take joy in something that comes directly from it.

My mom also was very good about making fashion about me and my life *as they were,* not *in comparison* with an ideal. It really helped me not care about how things looked on models, because my choices weren’t about measuring up to them, and it helped me to see what about my body was worth emphasizing in the present. Plus, did I really want to be like someone who would wear heels to the beach?

Tiffany K. Wayne

Love the photos! I was always super thin and didn’t really think about it until I was an adolescent and people started commenting upon my shape and *complimenting* me for being thin… something I had no control over! I think about the messages we send to girls of ALL shapes. Especially now that I have an almost-12-year-old daughter.

Margi Hansen

What a wonderful piece! Look at you, you’re adorable! I have a couple of very similar photos of myself. One at age 7, with my beloved Hang 10 (remember those little feet?) orange bikini waiting to go off a diving board at a friend’s house. I have the safety ring around me and one of the straps of my top had slipped off my shoulder. I have a cute round belly and I am freakin’ adorable in that picture. The second is about 5 years later and puberty had started. I was again wearing a suit, this time from Sears “Pretty Plus” line. (insert angst’y eye rolls here.) It had this stupid snap on piece to cover my belly. Which I lost, because I was 11. There are pictures of me in that suit on trip to California, and I’m having fun. My sister-who was my lifes tormentor until we were adults (4 years older) quickly pointed out how fat I looked. Well, I did, but I also was cute and having fun-had a goofy pre-braces smile and hair. I wish I had access to those pictures because I’d frame them and put them up where I could see them every day!

Sheva Bree

I’ve never been skinny but I have a picture that was taken by a boyfriend when I was about 18/19….. I would give my left foot to be that level of ‘fat’ again. After two kids I miss those boobs too…

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