This week I’m on vacation with my family in Daytona Beach. We have stayed on this same stretch of the Atlantic every year since I was a baby. The Sun Glow Pier has been my edge of the vacation world all these years—always, my family settles in north of it. “Don’t go past the Pier,” my grandmother said when I was a child running along the shore with my brothers. “Stay where I can see you.” The folks in our family are (and always have been) north-of-the-pier type of people.
Every morning, I walk on the beach—one mile south, turning around at the Pier. As I pass along the same sands where my feet have made prints for the past thirty-seven years, I reflect on my past, drawing my memories in close. While I do that, I check out women’s butts.
In my anorexic days, I spent my vacations examining every female I came across, always asking, Is she thinner than me? Is she better? In those days I blamed my discomfort in a bathing suit on the size of my body. Even at some forty pounds underweight, I felt too large and flabby to be seen in a bathing suit. I’ve been wearing shorts (or more recently, a skirt) to cover my butt since I was about ten years old.
My weight has gone up (way up) and down in the years since my anorexia, and I’ve still never been comfortable in a bathing suit. But for the first time this year, it hit me that it might not be entirely about my weight. I’ve come to realize that my discomfort might instead be because of sex.
This morning on my walk I saw a teenage girl playing Frisbee with a man I presumed to be her father. She wore a blue bikini, the kind currently in fashion that has, for some reason, a pleated seam along the butt crack. I was in awe–not because the girl looked like a model in her swimsuit (she did), but because she was wearing this skimpy bikini in front of her father.
Blue Bikini Girl ran after a Frisbee, breasts bouncing around in her top. When the disk skidded into the water, she bent over to pick it up, laughing, ass in the air in plain sight of her Dad. She scooped up the Frisbee and hurled it at her father. And, inconceivably, she didn’t pick the wedgie that resulted from her athletics. She just stood there with one butt cheek peeking out, laughing, waiting for the return toss.
It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever witnessed.
When I was twelve years old, my father accidently saw me naked. I was bent over a laundry basket in my bedroom, digging around for some clean underwear, and he walked into my room without knocking.
“Oh!” he cried in horror. “I’m so sorry.” He closed the door and left and never spoke to me again.
Okay, that was hyperbole. I’m sure he spoke to me that night at dinner. But still—-I do sort of trace back the loss of my father (or, more precisely, the loss of comfort around my father) to some time around that day, when he or I or both of us realized I was becoming a woman, or would be soon enough.
In the years that I was still trying to fix my “sex problem,” I would bring up this memory to my therapist, as well as other memories about being uncomfortable around my father. Sexually uncomfortable, it felt like.
“Has he ever been inappropriate with you?” she’d ask.
“God no,” I’d say, horrified.
No, never a lewd comment. Never a violated boundary (he always knocked on my door after that day I mooned him). He never looked at me as a sexual person at all, in fact. Never once did he ask me about my boyfriends, or suggest that he might protect me from them—-things my friends’ dads did, to their horror and annoyance.
For many years, my discomfort with my body in a bathing suit was about what it wasn’t, not so much was it was. I never developed breasts beyond an A cup. As an anorexic, I was flat as a boy, but even when I gained, I didn’t gain there. My hips were broad and wide, but not curvy. I never got a soft, perky, squishy butt like Blue Bikini Girl. I was ashamed of my body—both for its excesses, and for what it failed to be. I was not like the bouncy, sexy women that I saw my father’s eyes follow on the beach.
And maybe the scariest and most shameful part of all was that I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want anyone to be attracted to me, ever. Because I wasn’t attracted to anyone else, ever.
My father is a very sexual person. He loves my mother, and with both of them now in their sixties, he still talks about how sexy he finds her. He makes thinly veiled sexual comments to her (“I’ve got your tool” was a favorite for years) and she giggles and pretends to slap him away.
Growing up, I had the typical adolescent’s horror over the idea of my parents having sex. My brothers and I shared this revulsion. There are four of us, evidence that my parents had sex together four times, which is, of course, repulsive. We would put our hands over our ears and shout “la la la la la” to drown out our Dad any time he mentioned “alone time” with our mother. When I was thirteen, my parents announced they were pregnant with another child. One of my brothers stormed out of Applebee’s shouting, “You people are disgusting.”
The problem was, I never stopped thinking that sex was disgusting. Long after the other kids started becoming attracted to other people, I continued to look at sex between any people as just as gross as sex between my parents. And the idea of sex between myself and another person was even worse.
Now, in no way am I suggesting that my asexuality is somehow a lack of development, that I am stuck in a pre-adolescent “sex is gross” phase. This is not the case at all, though for years I wished it was. I wished my asexuality was fixable. Rather, I’m telling this story to try to understand why at age thirty-seven I still can’t be comfortable around my father in a bathing suit.
I think it’s this. Because I don’t experience sexual attraction, I can’t truly understand it. I don’t understand where it comes from, what causes it, what triggers it, what it feels like. Because of this, I find sex very threatening, even when it doesn’t involve me. Part of the fear is that I don’t understand how to make sure it doesn’t involve me. In my experience, sex always seems to pop out of nowhere, unprovoked and definitely unwanted, sort of like having a cock roach crawl up your arm in the dark.
Today on my walk I realized I have a belief that everyone travels around in a state of constant and indiscriminant attraction to nearly everyone else. So I can’t truly understand that Dad on the beach, playing Frisbee with Blue Bikini Girl, is not a total pervert lusting after his daughter (probably). Odds are good that he’s not attracted to her, even if she has the exact qualities of a woman he might otherwise be attracted to (bouncing breasts, perky ass wedgie). And in all probability, my father wouldn’t have the hots for me, either, if he saw me in a bikini.
Having realized this today, I vowed that one of these days, I will feel safe enough to take my shorts off at the beach. After I get to the perfect weight, of course.