Turning 60 has not improved my self-image, so I surprised myself when I signed up for a water aerobics class taught at Huntington Beach Adult School. I’d thought about doing it for years, but always chickened out. I could hack the workout, but what stopped me was the embarrassing 20-yard walk from the dressing area to the pool. With my less-than-firm body, those few paces were the Walk of Shame.
On the first night of class, I arrived wearing my swim- suit under a zip-front hoodie and sweatpants. I dropped my totebag by the equipment shed, where other bags were piled, but couldn’t summon the courage to disrobe and enter the water. My classmates already were in the pool doing their warmups, and still I stood there, too self-conscious to join them. But it was so hot and the water looked so refreshing that I finally sucked in my stomach, removed my hoodie and slowly pulled off my sweatpants. There, for the first time in decades, I appeared in public wearing a swimsuit.
Why had I done this to myself?
With slow, mincing steps, I started toward the pool, hoping a snail’s pace would prevent my thighs from jiggling. No such luck. So, I began taking even slower, more mincing steps. At this rate, class would be half over before I ever touched the water. When I finally reached the pool, I slithered into the back, hoping my entrance wouldn’t make waves.
The Huntington Beach High School pool is divided: Water aerobics is taught in the smaller, shallow part, while not three feet away in the larger, deep part, a girls water polo team practices. I could just imagine what those tanned and fit young girls were thinking when they saw my pasty-white, old-lady legs. Then it occurred to me: They’re probably thinking the same thing I did almost 40 years ago, when I was their age
Long before Leisure World became Laguna Woods Village, my great-aunt Dorothy, a longtime resident of the retirement community, invited me to a major summer-night event, a performance of the Aquadettes synchronized swimming group. The show was performed by women ranging in age from 50 to 90. Being a teenager at the time, all I knew of water shows was Esther Williams movies on late-night TV, so I didn’t know what to expect.
The performance took place at Community Pool One, which was lined with bleachers down one side of its length and a lighted proscenium arch on the other. Excitement built when the house lights dimmed and the theatrical lights came up. Colorful roving spotlights made the water sparkle like shimmering diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. Then slinky, sexy music began and row after row of women in bathing suits emerged from backstage. Every conceivable body size and shape strutted into the water as if each were Venus.
I remember being awed by their confidence and poise, how they held their heads up proudly, unself-consciously. I also remember fixating on the assortment of dimpled thighs and saggy upper arms, on protruding stomachs and double chins, on age spots and knee surgery scars. I could never put myself on display like that, I thought. I wondered how they got the nerve. I also remember telling myself that my body would never look like that. I laugh now, but at the time, I believed it. Ah, the water follies of youth.
Although some of the women still looked terrific for their age—or any age, for that matter—most had seen their best beach-body days about 50 years earlier. But these women, with their admirable composure, didn’t care what others thought; they were with their friends, and they were having a ball doing something they loved. With each step down the pool stairs, the women seemed more in their element, as if the water imbued them with youth and vitality.
I still remember a few of the numbers. In one, the women were costumed in white bathing suits and white bathing caps with long, floppy ears, and large hot-pink bows and a nylon net pouf on top. With more poufy netting and bows adorning their wrists, they became prancing French poodles, flicking water and shaking their ears, displaying that special I’m-in-control-of-my-life Aquadette attitude. In another, costumed as busy bees, they executed underwater headstands and twirls with their feet projecting out of the water. The highlight of the evening was a solo by the group’s oldest member, a spry 90-year-old, whose face beamed a contagious joy.
The Aquadettes ended their show with an old Beach Boys hit, “California Girls”—the perfect song for strutting your stuff. With strains of, “Yeah, but I couldn’t wait to get back in the States, back to the cutest girls in the world,” the women stepped out of the water, took their well-deserved bows and, amid cheers and whistles, filed off stage.
Now, all these years later, I wished I could muster this same self-confident attitude. They faced aging with a smile, knowing it’s just another stage of life, a time to be enjoyed, to be shared; a time that allows for dressing in silly poodle costumes. My teenage self had it all wrong. Those women were not old; they were fabulous. My 60-year-old self wished I could be exactly like them. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could be. I simply needed to take a risk, to live the life lesson they had taught me that night.
So, the next week at water aerobics, I embraced my inner Aquadette; I knew she was hiding in me somewhere. This time, with “California Girls” playing in my head, I tossed off the hoodie, dropped the sweatpants, and like those many Venuses, I held up my chin and strode into the healing waters.
Illustration by Pushart
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue.