The Rear End

THE REAR END: Go, Team T-Shirt, Go

on self-consciousness and swimming

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Eva Paulus |

I grew up swimming in the lakes of northwestern Wisconsin. But allow me to engage in some Real Talk. I’m not bragging about how well I can swim. I was no humanoid muskellunge. No, I was just as freaked out by a stray strand of seaweed as the next Ocean Pacific swim trunks-wearing kid. What I mean to say is that most of my childhood swimming was done in lakes. Sure, I had swimming lessons down at DeLong Middle School, but mostly I got wet in the lakes up around my family’s little cabin near Webster, Wisconsin. 

We’d drive up north on a Friday evening, unpack the car, and after enough begging/pleading/crying/shrieking, my dad would take us down to the beach at Devil’s Lake. The sun would set on one side of the sky, turning it all purple, and it felt like we had the whole lake to ourselves. We were amazed at how warm the water was, not frigid like when the sun was out. I remember my dad throwing us up over his shoulders, so we’d land behind him in a huge splash of arms and legs.

I used to love it. I used to love swimming up there. I loved swimming anywhere, really. Most kids do.

And then, like an advanced robot designed by the military and accidentally struck by lightning, I became self-aware. I started comparing myself to other people. I started disliking things about myself, and I was embarrassed about how I looked. If the characters in The Goonies represent the different stereotypes of American youth in the 1980s, I was most definitely Chunk. And I knew it.

Luckily, I came up with a silver bullet solution: the humble T-shirt. Why not just wear a shirt while swimming? I know: genius. 

mike paulus

If there’s one thing being a dad has taught me, it’s that little kids operate in some sort of wonder-world where they’re basically sensory beings, exploring and reacting to what’s around them, finding sheer amazement in the things of this world that are honestly, purely amazing. For a time, they just experience. 

The loss of this world is a major causality in the relentless, ready-or-not process of growing up. Maybe the major-est tragedy. But such is life.

I’m not sure exactly when my own wonder-world faded away, but it coincided with me wanting to swim while wearing a T-shirt. 

See, while swimming at the public beaches up north, I had a few run-ins with the local kids. I’d be swimming with my cousins and some stupid high schooler would make some stupid comment to his stupid friends about how I looked. They’d snicker and I’d turn red. It probably only happened a couple of times, but it left me feeling very self-conscious, and the idea of swimming started to produce feelings of dread. And fantasies of kicking certain nameless older kids square in the nards.

Luckily, I came up with a silver bullet solution: the humble T-shirt. Why not just wear a shirt while swimming? I know: genius. 

Now, Adult Mike is capable of seeing the flaws in this plan. I’m sure my parents tried a number of ways to gently steer me away from wearing a turquoise T-shirt (with a single breast pocket) into the local public swimming pool. But my mind was made up. “Logic” and “foresight” where just silly words on TV shows that didn’t star Optimus Prime.

I later realized that, while the occasional northwoods bumpkin thinks a chubby kid at the beach is pretty funny, everyone thinks a chubby kid swimming while fully clothed is just plain weird. Eventually, I started feeling self-conscious again. And I went swimming less and less. And rarely in public. 

Why am I telling you all this? So all you self-conscious, shirt-wearing swimmers out there can know something: You are not alone. I, too, have stood by the edge of the water, wondering what to do with all those weird feelings, wishing I could just dive in without having to deal with what other people do or say. We’re all on the same team, people – Team T-Shirt – and we are who we are. 

And let’s be honest, that little breast pocket comes in handy when you need somewhere to keep your goggles.