Toronto

Real Talk: Stranded at Sea

PhoebeWahl

If you’ve ever been on the train heading east towards Toronto, and you’ve passed the Mimico stop, there is a beautiful white sign on a fence. It surprises you, catching your eye in the midst of grass and brown buildings. The short phrase “Float On” is written in what looks like white flowers, like either a personal mantra or an urgent piece of advice. Hopping on at the Bronte station on a weekly basis, I began to wait for Mimico, for an extraordinary pairing of words in an otherwise banal setting. Yet on one totally regular afternoon, seeing the sign reminded me of floating in the literal sense.

Last summer, I traveled to the northern coast of Italy with my family. We stayed right by the beach, featuring a cloud-grazing mountain and the Mediterranean Sea. I had been physically uncomfortable for most of the trip. We had ventured to the tourist spots like Venice and Florence, which required long hours of walking in extreme heat, making my inner thighs rub together so the stretch marks on them felt raw.

I have never been a good swimmer, resorting to doggy paddling in most swimming situations, so I avoided the ocean. Feeling like I needed to escape the heat, I agreed when my cousins asked if we wanted to go kayaking out by the reefs. I thought I would be safe in the boat and stay cool at the same time. With this in mind, I faithfully boarded the kayak and we were on our way, me with my sister and cousin, leveraging enough strength to push far out into the ocean.

After kayaking beyond the yachts and into rocky terrain, we stopped to swim. The water looked black and yet clear, the sun’s reliable pressure on my shoulders and neck leaving me with a distinguishable thirst. I knew how salty the water would be on my tongue, but I jumped in. As everyone was getting tired, we began to hop back on the kayaks towards shore, but my kayaking partner was now my 15-year-old cousin who is half my size, and as everyone moved forward, we stayed behind. Since my kayaking skills were terrible, I was too heavy for him to sustain us. Jokingly I swam off saying, “I might as well swim back by myself.”

When I heard him agree with me, I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. In a matter of seconds I was in the middle of the ocean, totally alone. I started to panic. I noticed my heartbeat accelerating at the speed of light and decided immediately to start the long swim toward the colourful little squares I assumed were beach-goers. Purple, red, go, go, go.

I swam slowly so I could concentrate on breathing. Normally I’m rarely aware of the inhaling and exhaling my body does, but at this point I felt my chest expanding and the bizarre internal rhythm of survival instinct. To the outside observer, it probably looked like I was swimming half-heartedly, but in reality I was using all of my body strength. I moved along angrily.

Breathing was the trigger. In the quiet only interrupted by my flailing arms, I began to notice other things. The saltiness of the ocean made my thighs, big and marked, tingle like someone had applied medicinal alcohol on them. Noticing this, I was overcome by a sudden fondness for the sensation. Already raw, my thighs felt nourished by the water, but I couldn’t quite place the salt-induced tingling that both hurt and comforted me a little. These seemingly contradictory feelings reoriented my attention from anxiety-driven swimming to I need a break.

I lessened the intensity of my arm and leg movements to lie on my back, pushing my belly upward towards the sun. Pausing in this position, the pain in my thighs felt more acute, pronounced. I floated freely, trying to identify my feelings. The longer I let the water support me, the more eager I became to hear my body out.

You can know that something important is happening, but sometimes that’s all you know until you take time to process the experience. I didn’t try to connect the dots. I just let the water do its thing, and it continued to support me the whole 45-minute-long swim back. When I came back to Canada weeks later, the experience lingered. It was the floating I remembered, where I felt like I had overheard some conversation my legs were having with the water I couldn’t quite tap into.

I admit that often I will wear pants in my day-to-day to reduce the kinds of friction created when my bare thighs meet. The ocean had a funny way of giving friction a voice, tingling and stinging and bellowing out a defiant chorus years in the making. Avoiding, encountering, and embracing those frictions are part of my experience with fatness. By experiencing their effects firsthand in saltwater, my understanding of embodied consciousness changed. It became clearer that my stretch marks, as they interact with the world and with salt and heat, are directly embedded in the knowledge I create.

What I know about my body from floating, stranded at sea, is a consequence of steady stings that produce important feelings I have to detangle. From the heated discussions between my aunts about who weighs less, from the medicalization of fat, from being told to shrink and shrink. I know friction. I know about being offensive. I know how to take up space. I know the sense of shamelessness that comes with not apologizing for that reclaimed space.

Precious. That’s the word in my head I come back to. The stings are an expression gesturing to the complexity of my fatness. It is political and it is poetry. Pleasure and pain existing together for a moment, like so many moments characterized by a relentless visible growing. In the sea and beyond it, the growing reverberates and creates waves. My body that gives and speaks in complicated ways comforts me. I will not stop. As a fat babe whose existence alone is a problem for mainstream society, thinking through the pain I experienced is a conscious act of relearning, an attempt to make new connections. It is an attempt to take care of myself.

I might not be able to wholly access these feelings because they arose from a super basic place. They arose despite being told for years why, how, and what to know, but their primacy is exactly the reason I’m left thinking and rethinking. Sometimes the most immediate, uninhibited feelings are hardest to grasp in spaces that don’t facilitate alternative ways of knowing, that don’t actively value the indispensable act of women figuring it out on their own terms.

Sometimes I need to take a second to unearth the reasons, digging to that unshielded place in myself, peeling back a few thick, protective layers. Not only have I learned more about my fat body from my fat body, I hope that by processing the experience I’m troubling our ideas about knowledge-making and inviting more of that awesome trouble into my life.

As women with complicated relationships with our bodies, we must constantly negotiate our identities within broad and interlocking systems of power, choosing to reflect on moments that stand out to us, choosing to do things, like floating in the middle of the sea during a rescue-yourself mission, that resist those systems. My experience in the ocean is not isolated. Women have been linking the body with knowledge for a while. Women have been confronting their feelings in a culture seeking to discourage them from doing so for even longer.

Floating, my body taught me something new about my future. Developing a nurturing relationship with my body can take the form of many shapes unknown to the society in which we live, like the shape of being stuck in the water, or of staring outside train windows waiting for a sign. Ultimately they’re all steps towards self-loving, pointing to the surprising ways we learn about ourselves and the even more surprising ways we share our discoveries, afloat against the roaring, roaring tide.

** Photo is credited to Phoebe Wahl at www.phoebewahl.com **

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