He told me to be careful, and warned me that the current was stronger than I’d expect. I shooed him away, playing the superiorly smarter wife — “I’ve been in the ocean before!” I remember stepping into Florida’s Gulf, feeling the pull of the waves out and in on my calves, taking extra caution to step while bracing my core for balance. I could handle the Pacific.
I stumbled a few feet, appearing as if I had been overserved, then caught my footing, only to be swept under and tossed out. As I washed ashore up the beach, the waves receded and I lay in the Hawaiian sun, laughing and crying at my silliness.
Naturally, I saw the irony. Mostly, I come across as kind and patient, cool and thoughtful, and this part of my personality wins out 80 percent of the time. But at my core, I’m a fighter. Those who love me know my stubbornness, my strong will and opinions. In work, this drives my decisiveness and clarity, and serves me well. In life, it’s fueled me through recovering from a car accident and brain surgery, broken bones, and the birth of my daughter. Day to day, it helps only sometimes: There are many instances that I fall into the pushback of the current as I did in the ocean that day, and I have to muster all my power to swim through the torrent and find my way forward in challenging situations.
Situations like a toddler throwing a tantrum. Breathe deeply, speak kindly and clearly; you’re the parent.
Or times when I’m dealing with a naughty pet. Breathe deeply, speak firmly and point to proof of misbehavior; you’re the alpha.
But usually, it’s when I’m handling my racing mind and self-doubt. When I feel like I can’t win, or I’m not good enough, or I have to have a certain “look” or body shape to be accepted (or to have self-acceptance).
Breathe deeply, speak kindly, be clear: You are amazing just the way you are. You’re the boss of your thoughts.
As many times as I repeat that mantra, it takes twice as long to really sink it. This approach is different from what I read in magazines while growing up and saw on television, that women (especially) — and more now, messages to men in men’s publications, too — need to be prettier, taller, thinner, richer, smarter (but not too smart!), etc., to have worth. How do you gain body confidence in a world bent on convincing you that, really, you’ll never be good enough? How do you appreciate where you are and your own value, regardless of appearance, in a society that has long marketed one type of woman as the ideal?
The added obstacle now for me is: How does one gain body confidence with those messages, in a postpartum body that’s forever changed?
It’s a concept I’ve been grappling with, but a recent revelation while shopping led me toward the light. I was searching for clothing for our upcoming trip to Kauai when a hip 20-something saleswoman approached me with the flowy two-piece dress pictured above. I actually laughed aloud. Did she not see me? Did she not know that I’m a mom? I can’t possibly wear that, I thought.
This sweet girl encouraged me to try on the dress, and when I came out of the dressing room she said I should not only buy it for a special island getaway but really own it, to take pride in my body in its postbaby glory and rock my curves.
As I looked in the mirror, I realized she did see me — even if I couldn’t. Maybe I’m not that boot-camping weightlifter I was before I became pregnant, but I’m also not the overweight girl from before who covered up when cameras came out. My softness now feels feminine, and it reminds me of the dear baby I brought to life. My body can and will change, as we all do, but I realized when I looked in the mirror and saw the smile on that salesgirl’s face: I must move forward with love for myself and what I’ve become. I knew that, even when I was at my fittest, strength in mind and spirit ruled over strength in my biceps. I resolved to know that, whatever form my shape takes next, only gratitude for my health will help me flourish.
She reminded me to see my beauty and be bold in my choices.
So on my 35th birthday in Hawaii, with a renewed appreciation for the 35 pounds that helped me grow my baby, I put on that dress and walked tall out to the beach. I thought of my many teachers along the way who told me to embrace the unknown and dared me to trust myself and the magic that the universe has in store. I was thankful for the wild ride that was the first 35, and if the next 35 are as fun and unexpected, I’m all in for whatever comes my way — even those times when I have to fight the current.
Because the ocean can throw me out if it must, but I’ll still get up and stand tall in the sunlight. And eventually I’ll dive back in.
For the story of Jacquelyn B. Fletcher’s red-pants epiphany, check out this video.
Photography by Kyle Opdahl