Northern thoughts about Southern exposure
Because I wholeheartedly believe the old adage that “Tan fat is better than pale fat,” I’ve been spending more time in the sun this summer. My waistline plumped considerably during quarantine, and I’ve found that lounging in a bathing suit in my backyard is infinitely more enjoyable than diet and exercise.
Despite my nice tan, I’ve always been somewhat uneasy exposing my body parts during summer, so I hide myself away where my neighbors can’t see. Born and raised in snowy Western Pennsylvania, I’m most comfortable packed securely into jeans and a turtleneck. Add boots, a wool sweater, mittens, hat, scarf and a hooded parka, and I feel downright sexy. All those layers of fabric not only cover varicose veins and stretch marks, but they also magically smooth away any flabby bits so I can live in oblivious denial of my body’s imperfections.
However, I married a Navy man whose career eventually took us to warmer climates. We lived in the South for 13 of Francis’ 28 years on active duty. Although most of that time was spent in the Norfolk area, I found our years in Florida to be the most challenging to my modest sensibilities. When we transferred there from Stuttgart, Germany, I was mentally unprepared to live in the South, where unseasonably warm weather required me to show more skin than I ever had before.
Having arrived in July, I learned quickly that in Florida, one can’t be covered in all those imperfection-hiding layers unless one is in the market for a serious case of heatstroke. To the contrary, the people of that sun-washed subtropical peninsula relish the hot climate and use it as the ultimate excuse to expose themselves in every skimpy garment imaginable. At the beaches, in the malls, and, as I regrettably learned one Christmas while in Tampa, at the amusement parks while wearing bathing suits and eating smoked turkey legs.
For two years, I tried my best to adapt to Florida’s relaxed couture standards, but it wasn’t easy, especially when surrounded by all that flesh-expanding Southern food. It was difficult for me to put on spaghetti straps when I’d eaten so much spaghetti. I found it tough to pull off a maxi dress while approaching my maximum weight. It was downright impossible to wear shorts at Epcot when my thighs were at epic proportions.
All the while, I witnessed aging snowbirds migrating from northern states to that bastion of retirement bliss, wearing their wraparound sunglasses and driving too close to the steering wheels of their Chryslers. They couldn’t wait to peel off their gabardine stretch slacks, kick off their orthopedic shoes and bare their potbellied paunches, flapping lunch-lady arms and gnarled toes to the world in sequined sandals, garish muumuus and tropical shirts.
And what about the thongs, er, I mean throngs of locals born and raised in the South, who think nothing of bellying up to a bounty of fatback bacon, buttermilk biscuits, barbecue and bourbon balls while bubbling out of their booty shorts? While living in the South for 13 years, I was consistently impressed with their endless repertoire of skin-cooling strategies and mastery of deep-frying techniques. But more importantly, I envied their ability to abandon stuffy notions of modesty and restraint in favor of simply enjoying oneself.
During our years in Florida, I often wondered, “Will I ever learn to let it all hang out?”
Our last two tours of duty were back in the North, and we finally settled here in New England. Here, where there are two main seasons — winter and July — I can safely avoid exposing my body parts for most of the year.
I’ve learned that the key to enjoying oneself while scantily clad is to be a Southerner. Or, to be so old, you just don’t give a damn. This summer, I’ve had no problems swilling sweet tea and slathering pork products in barbecue sauce like they do in the South. But considering my Northern heritage, it’ll be quite a few more years before I’ll be comfortable showing my armpit flab to my neighbors while tanning in the backyard.