Making Room For Love and Hate | Samantha Duncan

I’m on the beach, reading Proust and feeling great. I’m laundered white waves and clean shells. I’m not giving a fuck, grains of sand on grainy skin. I’m on the beach unzipped, knowing my body can’t win any contests anymore, knowing the parameters of the contest are problematic to begin with, thus making winning futile. And none of it matters, because I’m on the beach, feeling great, not giving a fuck. But still, the desire to be out of my own skin, at least in this moment, on this beach.


There are few places at which people are more exposed than the beach, and within the realm of Giving a Fuck, the societal pressure on women to look their best is more prevalent than it is for men. While men merely have to choose from five different colors of board shorts, women are bombarded with styles, patterns, and colors of suits, as well as crash diets and workouts that promise to aid in wearing them. The media revels in breaking it all down for us: Tankinis are safe, but uncool. Halter tops are uncomfortable, bandeaus fall off if you’re flat-chested. Bronzer and wavy hair are essential. And, let’s not forget the creams that promise to zap cellulite. As with all American goods and services, the choices are endless, and making the wrong one threatens to be the difference between looking like an Amazonian goddess and the horrifying prospect of looking (brace yourself) average.

Then of course, the same sources will tell us to resist any desire to changes ourselves, because loving what you’re born with is more important than striving to look a certain way. It’s no wonder many women are left feeling criticized no matter what they do.


Confessions. I used to consider my stomach one of my better assets. I have great abs. When I hemorrhaged after giving birth to my first child and the nurses periodically came in to my hospital room to mash on my stomach (a pain much worse than the labor itself), I lay there gripping their arms, selfishly wondering if this would ruin my ability to have a six-pack ever again. It didn’t, and I was proud of myself for beating the ruthless inflictions of childbirth on the body, for packing away the tools of pregnancy into some neat little pouch inside me that would never be seen again unless I dusted them off to have another child.


A few beach chairs away, an extended family snacks and chats. They sit in a half-circle, with a spread of beach towels and colorful sand buckets and shovels in the middle. Everyone looks relaxed, though there is a noticeable awkwardness that’s always brought out in a family that gets together once a decade. The only young woman in the group tends to the children, none of which are hers, strapping floaties on and adjusting bathing suit bottoms on the girls. Her shiny blonde hair never gets out of place, and her fashionable bikini shows off a tan and some cellulite. She’s somehow thin and curvy and soft and childless and nurturing and youthful, all at once. Beautiful.


As children, we’re taught with every good intention that aesthetic doesn’t matter, and as adolescents, we learn it isn’t true. We learn it shouldn’t matter, but it does, because we cannot escape society’s influence on the perilous terrain of our own heads. Our looks manage to matter unfairly, even to those of us who don’t peruse women’s interest magazines or follow the glamour trends of Hollywood. They don’t matter and they do. I am the mermaid of fantasies and the beached jellyfish.

It’s ridiculous calling my truths “confessions.” It’s ridiculous to ever be on a beach and give a fuck. We create and enable a collective culture that fails us as individuals. We nod our heads in agreement on this, every time an actress is unrealistically airbrushed on a magazine, every time a female politician is criticized for her looks while her male counterparts are not, every time a pop star slims back down to her pre-baby size a week after giving birth. We nod our heads at the absurdity. And yet.


Confessions. I was never a person who felt compelled to take any drastic measures to look a certain way. I grew up athletic and skinny, underweight and flat-chested to the point that I was teased throughout childhood. It never made too negative of an impact, the way teasing someone for being heavy may do. I was the cliché teen who spent lots of time in front of the mirror, who nitpicked, who tested parental limits of what I could get away with wearing. As an adult, I’m low-maintenance, working out, practicing moderation over dieting, and only looking in the mirror to put in contact lenses. The balance is easy and satisfying to maintain.

From the ocean emerges a tall, slim, toned woman in a one-piece suit, her three young daughters splashing ahead of her. The moment her upper body is above the water, she motions to her husband on the beach to bring her towel, which she quickly wraps around her lower half and keeps in place for the rest of the afternoon. A mother’s concealment. Beautiful.


Birthing a second child furthered the wear that the first one started, so when I lost the weight, resumed workouts, etcetera, my abs were left buried under a small bulge of loose extra skin that hung down like a little pouch when I leaned over. I was proud, but perturbed. A skeptic by nature, I still tried the creams that promise to tighten. The only wrinkles that withered away were those of my denial that childbirth could do anything to your body that you couldn’t reverse.


Confessions. I’d be lying if I said childbirth hadn’t increased those mirror checks. The natural inclination to assess changes to the body, whether they’ve come about under your control or not. Plastic surgery and high-waisted, long shorts are still against my religion, as they always have been. But my mind is more open now, and I understand so much more about the beauty standards I resist.


The waves are aggressive, today. Three heavyset young women in tiny bikinis play in them, fight them, embrace them, don’t give a fuck. I feel like I’m watching a scene from a high-production pop music video. Beautiful.


Let’s get the clichés out of the way. I’m fiercely proud of the things my body has done. I find immense satisfaction in lifting weights and seeing the results, and in the stretch marks that show how my body gave to grow and house two children. Nobody believes women when they say they love their maternal scars, but I do truly cherish being able to wear my marks of accomplishment. We only get one body, and I’m lucky to have one that mostly does what I push it to do, whether in the gym or the delivery room.

Some other clichés. I miss my old stomach. I am a thirty-one-year-old woman with a sixty-year-old torso. I can work out as much as any celebrity and still not bounce back as well as they do. As their airbrushed cover photos do. Giving a fuck, not giving a fuck. All of this means nothing, but the meaningless stuff can weigh about as much as that extra five pounds.


Early afternoon is prime tanning time. Two older women in beach chairs raise their eyebrows at every woman who walks by, no matter their shape, size, or bathing suit choice. Gazes that last a lifetime, heavy with knowledge (and perhaps judgment) that spans youth and aging. Beautiful.


Do societal expectations allow us to have conflicting views of ourselves? American media certainly isn’t short on mixed messages. Women’s magazines produce endless lists of ways to erase belly fat, cellulite, wrinkles, and anything else that symbolizes a lived life, a lived-in body. Alongside these are articles urging us to love what we’ve been given. In my hometown, I once saw an ice cream store next door to a Jenny Craig. The back-and-forth can be maddening, if we’re to assume we can only have it one way or the other.

A prevalent but ambiguous message that gets tossed around is that we must be kind to ourselves, and I believe the way to that kind of self care involves relaxing the standards a bit and embracing whichever of them we want. If you want arms that look like the girl’s on the fitness magazine cover, go for it. If you want fake boobs, go for it. If you don’t want to wear makeup on your wedding day, go for it. Be prepared for pushback on all these endeavors, from family, from friends, from the mainstream’s idea of what’s beautiful and not. The negative feedback may affect you or it may not. Either is okay.


Also okay: loving your body and not loving your body. How authentic, to embrace the human complexity that enables us to feel one way about something one day and another way about it the next. Give a fuck, don’t give a fuck, and don’t feel ashamed about either.


I wore my swimsuit cover-up, yesterday, and today I go without it as I walk past the upraised eyebrows of the two older tanning women into the ocean. In my movements, I feel every physical change motherhood has left on me, and I think of everyone out here seeing them.

I’m in the water, my body cleansed of nothing.

Samantha Duncan is the author of the chapbooks The Birth Creatures (Agape Editions, 2016), One Never Eats Four (ELJ Publications, 2014), and Moon Law (Wild Age Press, 2012), and her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Pinch, Fruita Pulp, and Menacing Hedge. She serves as Executive Editor for ELJ Publications and reads for Gigantic Sequins. She lives in Houston and can be found at and @SamSpitsHotFire.


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