Note from Cher: Traveling or living in Italy isn’t just about the weird cultural differences that you are thrown into, it’s also about the moments being in Italy gives us to reassess how we’re showing up in the world. In this installment of Tiny Alleyways, Rachel, an expat in Florence, reminds us all what it feels like to wake up from a mindset that’s been holding us back, whether or not we have the Italian coast as our backdrop. She wrote this at the end of last summer, but now as it’s getting warmer and we’re all thinking of our summer plans, I think that there is an important message here to keep in mind.
Summer is officially over, but as the days slowly cool into fall, I can’t help but feel grateful.
I am grateful because this summer was largely different than all the other ones I have experienced in my life – not because I was in Italy or it was particularly exciting but because of something that happened one special day.
On this particular day, I was invited to the beach with two dear Italian friends. But not just any strip of coast. We were going to Il Golfo di Baratti, which is unparalleled as far as Tuscan beaches go.
It’s only accessible by car, and being a couple hours from Florence, I knew I was in for a treat.
I gleefully accepted the invitation, picked out my swimsuit and packed a beach bag the night before.
On the day of our trip, after squeezing into my bikini that seemed a little tighter and a little more revealing than I remembered, I almost canceled.
Despite the fact that going to the beach is one of my most favorite things, and I pretty much turn into a dolphin at the sight of the sea, I had my phone in hand as I surveyed myself in the mirror.
The full-length view wasn’t very forgiving. After a year of uncertainty, meals on the road and no time to sunbathe, I was pasty, soft and a little larger than I remembered.
By no means am I going to call myself “fat” in the classic overuse of the word, but I had put on around 15 pounds, which seemed more like forty as I criticized myself that morning.
I finally decided that I could just wear a dress all day and no one would know, and with that thought I self-consciously headed out to meet my friends.
I had two hours in the car to forget my uncertainty, but as my amici stripped down after arriving at the beach, it all came flooding back.
I started to head towards the water, fully clothed, only to be called back.
What was I doing?
I forgot to get undressed. (Silly, strange, American habit perhaps?)
I headed back to my towel and in sheer matrix style managed to remove my dress while lying down without exposing my backside.
I lay like that, sweating for 15 minutes, terrified of getting up and walking to the water with all my flaws hanging out for everyone to see.
Out of sheer desperation and the ever-present pull towards the water, I caved and, moving as quickly as possible without causing too much disturbance to my “wobbly bits” (thanks, Kate Winslet), I made it to the beach and blissfully into the water where no one could see me.
I stayed there until I turned into a prune, until my mouth was dry and my stomach was rumbling for lunch.
Partially, because I LOVE the sea and can swim all day everyday, but also because the beach had gotten more crowded and now the group of people I had to parade in front of, in my itsy bitsy bikini, suddenly looked like the biggest swarm of people I had ever seen.
But, I did it. I slinked back to my towel, eyes cast down.
My friends had made me a sandwich, and I ate half, ever so sure my stomach would pop out like a well-fed infant if I did much more than whet my appetite.
I was feeling OK then though, half hungry and delirious from the joy of spending hours in the water…until the inevitable happened.
My friend C wanted to take a walk. Down the beach. And take photos of each other.
Oh, the horror.
Gingerly, I got up, and started to put on my dress.
“No, you’ll ruin the photos.” C said. “We’re at the beach, bikini photos!”
“OK,” I reluctantly agreed.
We started walking, and with each step I felt more and more like people were judging me, wondering what I was doing, parading around like I had the body of someone younger, prettier and thinner.
It was almost too much to take.
C had it in her mind to walk a sizable distance, and I just couldn’t take it. I stopped, turned to C and told her how I felt.
Normally, I am an intensely private person, but I laid it out for her.
I said I felt hideous, fat, disgusting, unworthy, judged and unwelcome.
And bless her heart my friend did the one thing I couldn’t have ever imagined.
She started taking my photo.
After she had taken a good dozen with me protesting all the while, she showed them to me.
Clever girl that she is, she even managed to even take some of the people around us; people older, bigger, smaller, but most of all HAPPIER than me.
What she told me next I will never forget and have tried to remember everyday since.
“The only person who is concerned with how you look is YOU,” she said.
While forcing me to look at my photos, she told me the positive things I was overlooking – how gorgeous the coast was, how my salt-water dried hair had just a slight wave and blew freely in the sun.
She also showed me, through those photos, how everyone around me was laughing, enjoying themselves and entirely unconcerned if their bikini was a bit snug or their cellulite was showing.
I told her my self-consciousness was distracting me from the day.
She shook her head. “You’re missing EVERYTHING, Rachel. Not just today, every single day if you think this way.”
I felt like I had been punched.
SHE WAS RIGHT!
And as I looked around me, at a 90-year-old granny rocking a bikini much smaller and flashier than mine, laughing a deep belly laugh as her granddaughter poured sand on her feet, I understood.
Most people weren’t at the beach to show off or flaunt their assets; they were here to spend a priceless day with family and friends.
They didn’t wear bikinis and speedos because they wanted to be sexy, but so the sun could kiss more of their skin.
I suddenly felt foolish, self-centered and silly.
No one cared what I was wearing, and no one cared if I was a bit softer than usual because they were too busy enjoying themselves to worry about me.
I kept all the photos C took, even the ones I considered less flattering, and I force myself to look at them when self-loathing creeps back in.
It’s not about me, my hair, my skin, body or bikini.
It’s about enjoying, reveling and experiencing life.
What else have I missed being so caught up in trivial things?
How did I become so concerned with my own appearance that I almost missed out on the most beautiful day of my summer?
I am not sure when I started to feel this way or when a difference of ten pounds decided my self-worth, but I am determined to rebel against it.
Armed with photographic reminders by my amazing friend, I am choosing to see the good and let the rest fade into the background of the beautiful Italian coast.