“Wow, nice catch, J-Man,” I yelled to my son after he leaped into the ocean and snagged — with one hand, no less — the football I misfired.
“Thanks, mom!” he smiled back, his face glowing with victory and the past three days of Florida sunshine.
I glanced toward our beach chairs to check on my daughter, Gabby, who stayed behind to tan and Snapchat. She was smiling, too, and talking to a girl a few seats away.
These are the times I hoped for when I became a mom. The beach has always been my safe place. As a kid on the Jersey Shore, I’d spend hours playing in the water, getting pummeled by waves, building sandcastles, and eating my favorite summer treats- Fun Dip and mega-sized Pixy Stix. (To this day, I still can’t pass up either of these pure sugar snacks, much to my husband’s chagrin.) That our twins seemingly inherited my passion for the sand and surf made me incredibly happy and more than just a little proud. By three years old, they were swimming on their own. By five or six, they took to their boogie boards. And by ten or eleven, they could go head-to-head with me, often demonstrating a better eye for the perfect wave than I managed to do. Which is why it saddened me the first time my daughter expressed angst when we headed south for winter break.
“Mommy, I don’t really like tropical vacations,” she admitted as we sat on her bed preparing to pack her suitcase, her colorful sundresses and tank tops neatly organized in separate piles.
“Oh, do you like it more when we go skiing?” I asked her. “You’re looking awesome on the slopes these days. It won’t be long before you’ll be better than me.”
“That’s not what I mean, mom,” she grumbled. And then picked up a bathing suit, crumpled it, and threw it across her room.
“Ohhhhh,” I said, feeling somewhat stupid and genuinely guilty for missing her message. Of course, beach vacations prove problematic for my transgender daughter. Most people spend their time in the tropics nearly naked. Which is fine- often fun, for people proud of, even ambivalent towards their bodies. But for someone like my kiddo, who tries to conceal her penis at every turn, traditional girls’ bathing suit bottoms leave little room for her to hide. And that could make a “day at the beach” anything but.
Enter the swim skirt.
Traditionally favored mostly by middle-aged moms and the residents of almost every fifty-five-and-over community in South Florida, the swim skirt is a trans girl’s best friend/worst enemy.
“Why do I need to wear the skirt?” Gabby asked as she got dressed on the first morning of our first warm-weather getaway since her social transition. “It keeps falling off.”
Which was true, even when she cinched it with a hair band. Long legs. Thin waist. Skirt that falls down. She was like the trans trifecta.
“Nobody will notice my penis,” said the same kid who often worried about the nonexistent bump in her sundress.
“Love, please wear the skirt,” I pleaded. “It’s safer.”
“What do you mean ‘safer’?”
I knew what I meant. But instead of telling her, I just said, “Because you don’t want anyone looking at you funny or asking you questions about your body.” I wanted to add, “And besides, every time you get out of a pool, your penis goes ‘boing!’” but decided that when it comes to some topics, less is more.
She hated her swim skirts. I’m not sure I blamed her. I was forty-seven at the time and still wore a bikini. (And vowed I’d continue wearing one as long as I could pull it off.) Gabby was just nine years old, and all she wanted was to look like the other girls.
“But Mommy, no one wears these!” she continued complaining as we walked towards the pool.
“I’m sorry that you hate the swim skirts so much,” I said, and I meant it. But there wasn’t much more I could say.
I decided these were the times I needed to listen and not try to fix things. To not try to change her mind. To not try to convince her that she looked adorable, which, of course, she did. These were the times I needed to hear her, really hear what she was saying, and try to imagine how I might feel if I were her and couldn’t wear what I wanted to wear- the same piece of clothing that all my friends wore, nothing more, nothing less.
I’m pretty sure I’d feel how she felt. Sad. Angry. Like life was unfair.
As her mom, I hate that Gabby worries so much about what she wears, that she tries incredibly hard to cover the parts she wished she didn’t have. I also feel guilty. As though it’s my fault that my daughter was born with a penis. Like I am somehow to blame. That my husband and I — but mostly I — have failed our daughter by birthing a child whose outsides largely betray her insides.
Thankfully, Gabby seemed to forget about the swim skirt once we got to the pool. Probably because we just happened to bump into one of her new friends from her new school. A girl who didn’t know our daughter was trans and who — get this, was wearing a swim skirt . . . by choice!
“Eva!” Gabby screamed when she saw her friend sitting with her parents at the corner of the pool.
The two girls ran towards each other and hugged like it had been two months, not two days since they’d last seen each other.
Gabby and her pal spent that first day jumping and splashing in the various pools while Eva’s mom and I sipped cocktails, swam with the kids, and laughed at our good fortune of randomly finding each other more than 12 hundred miles from the city.
Fast forward four or five years and Gabby has since ditched the swim skirts, opting instead for nylon shorts over bikini bottoms. Yes, she’s tried some of the newer bikinis brilliantly designed to disguise the body parts many trans girls despise. And yes, she looks like a model wearing said suits- she’s got a rockin’ bod with legs that seem to go on forever.
“Mommy, these are so uncomfortable,” Gabby whines almost every time she wears one of these suits.
I can’t say I’m surprised. The bathing suit bottoms feature “compression technology” designed to reduce any noticeable bulge. (Or as Gabby says, “Mommy, they squash my balls and penis!”) Keep in mind, my daughter is a sensory kid, particularly sensitive to touch, which only complicates matters. Now almost 14 years old, she still cuts out clothing labels because she doesn’t like the way they feel and steers away from certain fabrics altogether because they “bother” her. How could anyone expect this kind of kid to intentionally “squash her balls and penis” for a prolonged period of time — or any time, really?
So, for now, bikini tops and shorts will have to do.
“Mom, go long!” Jacob shouted, waving me further down the beach.
I chuckled to myself and started to jog. Five seconds later, my son hurled the ball in my direction, a near-perfect spiral…and after almost tripping over a kid making a castle, I reached out, grabbed the ball, and brought it into my chest.
“Touchdown,” I mouthed, and motioned my son back to our beach chairs. Gabby had switched from Snapchat to TikTok, and my husband was holding court under the umbrella, reading the Times online.
“Hey, guys!” I said, putting down the ball, positioning my chair to face the shifting sun, and grabbing some extra sunscreen. “What were you and that girl talking about?” I whispered to Gabby, gesturing a few seats away.
“She asked me about my bikini top.”
“Oh,” I replied glancing ever so slightly at her top, an abstract pattern of pinks and white with a splash of red. I couldn’t help but notice how the top perfectly cupped her newly developed (and long-anticipated) breasts, the welcome result of the female hormones she’d begun taking.
“She said she loved the top and wanted to know if it was from Blackbough.”
“And is it?”
“Yup, she said she’d seen their bathing suits online and wasn’t sure if they were good quality. I told her they were.”
“My boobs look really good in it, don’t they, mom?”
“They do, indeed,” I chuckled.
“And you know what, mommy?”
“What’s that, kiddo?”
“The girl was wearing shorts over her bikini bottoms, too!!” My daughter smiled, her face glowing with victory and the past three days of Florida sunshine.
“Hey Jacob,” she then said, turning to her brother, “let’s go up to the pool.”
Moments later, they grabbed their towels and jogged up the resort ramp. Even from the back, I noticed a little extra pep in Gabby’s step and couldn’t help feeling hopeful. Maybe one day she’ll feel safe at the beach, too.