Last week a woman stopped me, with my wet hair and bloodshot eyes, in the parking lot of the Mesa YMCA and asked if I’d been swimming.  “Yes,” I replied, “and it was great!”

“Isn’t it cold?” she asked.

“Not at all,” I answered, “the pool is heated and it’s always between 82 and 84 F [27-29 C], and it’s pretty clean, too.”

(Photo courtesy of Centiblab.com)

“I haven’t been in a swim suit in 10 years,” the woman said, gazing longingly through the fence where the light played on the blue pool..  She was easily ten years younger than I and had a lovely, slim figure.  “I hate my legs,” she continued, “so I’ll never wear a swim suit again.”

We continued our conversation a bit longer, with me trying to persuade her that a) she was lovely (she was), b) no one would care what her legs look like and c) swimming is wonderful exercise and if she likes it, why not do it?  But it was all useless.  She was paralyzed by her leg hate, and couldn’t imagine exposing herself in a swim suit to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

What a pity.  And how odd.

Or maybe not.

Many of us focus on some aspect of our appearance that doesn’t please us.  As adults, though, we usually get past adolescent insecurity and are able to accept ourselves, literally warts and all.  For some, though, this preoccupation can become a form of mental illness called Body dysmorphic disorder, most commonly, but not always, found in the young.  And guys – it’s not just for females, as a study in the British Medical Journal posited a few years ago. It can lead to self-hatred and a myriad of other disorders, including anorexia.

None of this is ‘news.’ Media has been yakking for years about the unrealistic expectations young men and women have for their own appearances based on how models look. There was a big faroo-farah in 2006 when Madrid banned overly-skinny models from the fashion catwalks, and Italy followed suit. In 2004 Dove soap began a campaign aimed at young women to help them be satisfied with their bodies.

I found myself wondering that day in the parking lot of the Y if this problem exists to the same extent in Italian adults.  I don’t know the answer.  To the casual observer at the beach, European bathers seem much happier in their skins than their American counterparts – but that’s just one person’s observation. Certainly my own friends there do not seem as preoccupied with their appearances as some of my friends here. Curiously, a Google of ‘where do people worry most about appearance’ brought up a raft of sites in the UK.  hmmmmm.  Interesting, and perhaps meaningless. This is not scientific.

I wish I could meet that lady again and persuade her to swim.  I wish I could tell her about all the lovely people who sunbathe on Rapallo beaches in all kinds of dress and undress, revealing all sizes and shapes of bodies. I wish I could tell her that it’s not what her legs look like that matters.  It’s what my legs look like that matters.  Just kidding.  By the way – that’s a picture of me when I was young at the top of the post.  Just kidding again; I’m definitely an expatriate in the land of the slim and beautiful… but I’m not upset by it and am happy just to be alive, and so grateful that no matter what I look like, I can still swim!

Expatriate is visiting another foreign country later this week: California.  Stay tuned.