The Vacation That Finally Made Me Embrace My Body Once and for All

"The second I untied my top, it was like an out-of-body experience. I didn't feel fat, or thin, or self-conscious. I felt EMPOWERED."

I was invited to spend a week aboard the Carnival Vista cruise ship at the perfect time. My husband and I hadn't been on a real, adult vacation since our daughter was born over two years ago. My current stress level was sending my blood pressure through the roof, causing my doctor to "prescribe" a vacation. I'd also set out on a mission to accept my body, end my lifetime of dieting, and throw away these hang-ups before my 40th birthday in September. What better way to execute that operation than by taking a trip with a dress code of bathing suit-chic for six straight days? It wasn't going to stress me out or bring up any internal struggles, right?

Lauren and Nathanael West-Rosenthal on Carnival Vista

Well, wrong, wrong, and more wrong. The problem is that agreeing to a cruise is like agreeing to board the "Triggers of the Sea." In addition to all the bathing suit wearing, my food nemesis-buffets, 24/7 pizza, steakhouses, and free-flowing wine-were there to taunt me and tempt me too. I was screwed. But, I was determined to leave my body hang-ups at the port and embrace "Cruise Ship Me," including a uniform of modest two-pieces, flip-flops, and sheer cover-ups.

We were barely off shore when I made the bold decision to throw caution to the wind and face all my bathing suit-related fears and audition *poolside* for the Lip Sync Battle competition, an offshoot of the famed Spike TV show. If selected, you spend all week rehearsing your song and learn a dance routine with the ship's actual performers, enjoy a photo shoot, and make "appearances" all week before the big performance on the last night of the cruise. I went out to the pool ready to do my best Steven Tyler impression and lip sync to Aerosmith's "Walk This Way"-my go-to music for an instant confidence boost. Instead, I took one look at the movie-theater-sized screen flashing the auditions over the pool-and mind you, girls of all sizes were giving it their all-but still, I choked. I got out of line and hyperventilated over fears of getting booed, or worse, heckled over my appearance. My warped body image does a weird number on my personality-I'm an extrovert but those insecurities sometimes morph me into a hermit. Not off to the best start.

Lip Sync Battle on Carnival Vista

Ready to move on from my bumpy start (and burning jealousy whenever I saw the Lip Sync Battle contestants raking in their fame), I threw caution to the wind and wore a two-piece bathing suit to a private beach the next day during our first port stop in Ochos Rios, Jamaica. I channeled Chrissy Teigen, someone I admire for owning her beauty and perfectly shutting down haters. I strutted around the beach, tempting those around me to make me cover up or get out of their view.

No one cared.

No one even tipped their sunglasses in my direction.

Everyone was focused on enjoying the three hours we had at the Bamboo Beach Club until it was time to get back on the boat.

My husband and I clinked glasses and I went to explore, finding myself at a massage tent. I'm a sucker for a massage-and getting all those knots and kinks rubbed away is something that I know helps me connect with my body. There was just one small problem: This massage wasn't happening in a private room. I had to take off my bathing suit top-and keep it off-on the beach, in plain view of anyone walking by. No one cared or noticed or paid attention when I treated the shoreline like a catwalk... why would they care if I flashed my boobs? Thing is, I cared. But the second I untied my top, it was like an out-of-body experience. I didn't feel fat, or thin, or self-conscious. I felt EMPOWERED. I wasn't worried about my double D bra size or plump waist or higher-than-I would-like-to-see number on the scale. Reactions from the strangers on the beach weren't going to do anything to change that except remind me that I didn't need their validation. I needed to start getting validation from myself and only myself.

Lauren West-Rosenthal in Jamaica

So, I unhooked my top and flashed my boobs, lingering for a minute before I lay down for the most incredible massage of my life. When it was over, I sat up-boobs still out for anyone looking in my direction to see-and stretched for several minutes before jumping off the table and getting dressed. Sure, it took me weeks to tell my husband, but it only took minutes for the experience to rewire my brain. It was so refreshing to remember that no one can see inside my head. And there's no doubt that whatever I think about my body is harsher than what anyone else thinks. That is if they're thinking about it at all. Which, sorry ego, I know now that they're not.

Back on the boat, body acceptance was still an uphill battle because I was seriously half naked for almost everything-the ropes course that's suspended in the air, the Skyride bike, the water slide, and even the Cloud 9 spa. I paid extra for access to the spa's thermal suite, a "bonus" area with amazing heated lounge chairs, a whirlpool, and a variety of saunas. I saw it as a place to hide, read, relax, and practice being in my bathing suit amid the steam in the saunas covering me up. One afternoon, I walked into one of the steam baths to find an older couple naked and not afraid to scrub each other down-they were laughing, ecstatic and oblivious to the rest of the world. I'm not saying that I felt the need to grab my husband and start groping him in public. But I envied that couple. How amazing that they were clearly not worried about body hang-ups casting a shadow on the moment. They were living, enjoying, and going with it. (Even if they should have been, you know, doing this in their cabin.)

The other major demon to tackle was all the food lurking on every inch of the cruise ship, ready to tempt me whether I was hungry or not. I mean, this ship had a Guy Fieri Burger Joint AND Pig and Anchor BBQ , a steakhouse, 24/7 all-you-can-eat pizza, a buffet, and family-style Italian and Asian restaurants. When things like bacon patties can top your burger and a serving of dessert is half a cake, it's hard to enjoy a meal without feeling like you blew up by 15 pounds (minimum) when it's over.

I used the challenge to find balance. I stopped when I was full and I didn't deprive myself of at least a taste of anything that made my mouth water. Again, that felt empowering-an emotion I'd denied myself for so long. Whenever I go out to a huge meal, I have a bad habit of announcing how little I ate all day to justify gorging, or I make comments like, "I never eat bread/sweets/fat but this just looks too amazing to resist" as a tactic to stop people from judging me. Which guess what? They probably weren't until I said anything. I quickly realized that just like no one cared that I was wearing a bathing suit, no one cared what I was eating either. So, I shut my mouth, ate what looked good to me, and did what I needed to feel better afterward, like taking a walk, meditating for a few minutes, or committing to a spin workout the next morning. No guilt, no regrets-just a clean slate that I permitted myself to have after each meal.

Lauren West-Rosenthal Spinning on Carnival Vista

Now that I'm back home, I'm proud to say that "Cruise Ship Me" has stuck around. Those six days away didn't kill my demons for good, but they gave me a healthy perspective that's helped turn off some of the noise and force me to live more presently. On the ship, if I was having a bad moment, I could hide in the iMax movie theater or find a covered lounge chair away from the fray. My version of that at home is meditating or sitting on my patio before bedtime to regroup. We just bought an inflatable pool for our backyard and I'm excited to hang out in my new bathing suit while having friends over to beat the heat. And maybe I didn't live out my rock star fantasy on Lip Sync Battle but I did just agree to film a TV segment for work (my first in over three years). There's still progress to be made-I barely took any photos on the trip unless I was covered up. But when I think about that liberating feeling of going topless on the beach, I'm reminded that the only opinion about my body that matters is my own. And every day, those opinions are making me feel better and better about how far I have come.

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