I wrote this piece a few years ago, but it’s never been finished.  Have never been quite sure how to tie it up, I suppose–and I’ve also thought that more observation and time spent at the swimming pond is required.  Luckily I will soon have a chance when I return to London in June.  I hope for some reasonably warm temps and sun (I know, I know…it’s England, but my hopes are high nonetheless…) so I can take a second plunge into the ice cold water of the ladies pond.  We’ll see what happens, if I’m able to add to this piece of writing.


Hampstead Skin


Glancing at the map in my guidebook, lost in birdsong and the never-ending clink of dog tags, my mission was to find the ladies’ pond.  Months previous I had read a blog entry by a woman who chronicled the Heath’s history of ‘wild swimming’.

A venerable British tradition, ‘wild swimming’ happens year-round, through ice and falling leaves.  The Heath has three paddling ponds—women’s, men’s, and one mixed sex—each with a Celsius that seeks out the body’s weak points.  As much as the legendary cold weighed on my mind it was my body that I was thinking about most as I walked down the wooded path.  As soon as I lifted up the rope and swung the gate open I couldn’t help thinking about what kind(s) of women I would encounter and how my disappointing body would compare.

In Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions Gloria Steinem writes that “For women….bras, panties, bathing suits, and other stereotypical gear are visual reminders of a commercial, idealised feminine image that our real and diverse bodies can’t possibly fit.”  Listening to the stones crunch beneath my feet, I remembered the moment in my girlhood when I first became ashamed to wear a bathing suit.  It was a shimmering pastel rainbow one-piece.  My head danced with tight, shiny, black curls.  I was running beneath the sprinkler with two younger neighborhood kids, and when I looked down after stubbing my toe I saw the beginning of breasts and curving hips.  And I choked of embarrassment.  I felt more naked in that pastel rainbow than I did at the doctor’s office.  I was only 11, but like every other girl approaching puberty I had not escaped TV and magazines.

As the swimming pond came into view that 11-year-old girl walked with me, joining forces with the adult Amy struggling with the ugliness and frustrations of chronic illness.

Prednisone had been an unfortunate fixture since my diagnosis of autoimmune arthritis.  Fat had collected around my hips.  My cheeks were puffed out.  The cheap but potent steroid had gifted me with additional facial and body hair that no woman should have, while oddly enough, I had shaved my head to cope with how two other medications had thinned the hair on my head.  It’s freakish to have bushy eyebrows with a nearly bald head, overly hairy arms and chin whiskers, I thought.  What was I doing walking down a path to an all-female swimming hole?

I wanted to be washed clean.  I wanted to jump into that frigid water and watch the hair and fat float away and disappear among the reeds at the far end of the pond.

As I stepped up onto the deck and walked to the lifeguard office to pay for my swim, I looked around me and saw that small world Steinem writes of, where “each individual woman’s body demands to be accepted on its own terms.”  It was a haven, free from magazines and TV and all the things women are told they need to be and look like.

A sign asked visitors to refrain from cell phone usage out of respect to others.  There were at least six women on duty, and it was a tall butch blond who answered my unasked question.  “We don’t touch the money here.  Let me show you where you can pay.”  She led me to a wrought iron box on a post and I dropped the 2-pound coin through the slot.  Then she smiled and left me alone with my nervousness.

I just stood there for ten minutes applying chap stick and disrespectfully checking my cell phone before I finally found the courage to remove my shirt and shoes and bare all.  My swimsuit had grown too small in three seasons—skin bulged around the shoulder straps and hip fat hung over the open waistline in back.  I was mortified by revealing so much of myself, but also grateful for the shorts that concealed my thighs and backside, and the blue bandana on my head that made me look sporty.

There was a 50-something brunette in a bikini on the ladder who asked me if I was in a hurry to get in.  “Oh, no.  I’m going to put this off for as long as I can.”  As I laughed she dove in, resurfacing with a gasp: “Oh, it’s goddamn cold!”  Two chatty women approached to take their dips leaving me with no choice but to stomp down the ladder’s metal steps, suck in my breath, and jump.  I bit my tongue trying to stifle the scream of shock.

I was probably in the water a mere minute and a half, but every joint, tendon, and ligament seized up.  My lungs couldn’t expand.  Yet, I felt my cheeks grow into a smile.  It was just a moment, but I somehow felt as if I had gained back a tiny piece of the athlete I once was, that had been all but destroyed by my illness.  My arms and legs were kicking, powering through the cold and hurt.

When I eventually lounged on the grass beach with the other women who were visiting the pond that day, I took note of all that surrounded me:  Bikinis and one pieces.  Young and old.  Short hair.  Long hair.  Thin.  Rubenesque.  Covered and uncovered.  As we all sat and swam and napped and read, the smiles and glances exchanged from one woman to another acknowledged the hidden scars and wounds we carried.  In this one place, beside this water and behind a fence, we were alright; in this haven we were simply perfect as is.  As we drip dried on our towels we embraced our storied bodies:  Tales of love and touch; abandon, caution, indifference, and tenderness.  The objectified.  Beaten.  Hated.  Our complicated skin stories mingled and provided comfort.


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