The Swimsuit Issue

Bathing suits. Bah! Humbug!

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I’m counting the weekends between now and Labor Day, crossing them off as they pass.  Even though I love the summer’s long days, the glimmer of fireflies rising from the grass as evening settles in, I’ll be glad when I no longer have to find new excuses for why I don’t want to go to the beach.

Every year in May I realize that I ought to look for my bathing suits, if only to remind myself of what size I used to wear. More than any other single clothing item, a woman’s bathing suit tells her where she is in her life cycle. And the consequences of what have been euphemistically dubbed “lifestyle choices.” I am everywoman.

When I was 20 years younger, I had physical therapy for a bad back. The young male physical therapist demonstrated what he wanted me to do. “Do this,” he said just before he knelt on one knee in the classic, even clichéd, position for a marriage proposal.

I was sitting on one of those tissue-covered tables, watching.

He looked up at me at me from the floor, hopeful that I’d be clear about what he expected me to do. He rose in one graceful motion, and said,  “and then stand.”

“Like you just did?”

He nodded.

“Who do you think I am?” I asked, astounded, indignant, and amused all at the same time. “Jane Fonda?”  Ms. Fonda at that time was known more for her recently released exercise videotape than for her career as an actor or political activist.  “I couldn’t do that before I had a bad back.”

To his credit, the young man refrained from telling me that if I could have done it, then maybe I wouldn’t be in the particular pickle that had brought me to see him. We scaled back the expectations.

But I digress, sidetracked by consideration of lifestyle choices.

I have one of my mother’s bathing suits from when she was a girl in the early 20th century:  a black cotton number, with short sleeves and white trim. It was old-fashioned when she wore it. Today the loose-fitting top, worn without the accompanying pants, would be considered suitable as a dress. A modest dress.

During my family’s summers in Atlantic City in the 1950s, my mom wore bathing suits with a little skirt as part of the garment. (I’ve seen young women at a library in outfits more revealing.) In a 1953 black and white photo of my mother, my dad’s cousin Abe, and me, I’m standing, wholly unselfconscious, in my yellow one-piece bathing suit.  We would have called my rounded figure “baby fat” if we’d called it anything at all.

At the time, a one-piece suit was the way to go. One day I noticed lots of people walking to one section of the beach. When they walked away, they were all talking and grinning. I asked why, and my mother said that two women were wearing bikinis. The explanation of bikinis must have made a big impression on me because I still remember all this and that the women were sitting on the rock jetty-side of the beach and up toward the boardwalk. It wasn’t until years later that the song “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” was a hit. And, no, we didn’t go look.

While honeymooning in Bermuda I wore a coral two-piece suit. It would have counted as a bikini two decades earlier. I can’t believe I wore something that…small. Or that I ever wore a shiny leopard pattern suit. But I did.

My current dislike of bathing suits can’t be blamed on a complex visited upon me by my Barbie doll because I was a teenager when Barbie appeared.

I pass over the advertisements and fashion spreads with photos of swimsuit-wearing beauties. These appear in magazines to anticipate both sunning seasons — the winter cruise and the summer beach. In one sense these have as little to say to me now as advertisements for onesies. But they do remind me of what’s in store for me should I decide to update the swimwear section of my wardrobe. Why does the phrase “supersize me” come to mind?

My least comfortable shopping experiences preceded a summer with — I’ll call him “Chucky” (as in Bride of), which will serve the same function as the pixilation that obscures faces in TV interviews with prospective enrollees in the federal witness protection program. Chucky loved the beach, and because at that point I had nothing to hide and nothing to lose, I agreed that I’d go to the shore with him. But, I said, before we went, I had to buy a swimsuit.

I wasn’t expecting him to say he wanted to go shopping with me or, worse, for him to suggest we go that very afternoon. But he did, and I couldn’t beg off; we already had plans to be together. He said he thought it would be “fun.” We had a difference of opinion. To my mind, a better predicate nominative than “fun” would be “pluperfect hell.” But Chucky knew that if he didn’t push, the summer would slip away without our seeing Jersey’s white sands.

Even with all my trepidations, I had not anticipated just how awful it would be to try on swimsuits with a guy who actually wanted to see how I looked in each one I pulled off the carousel. Of course Chucky wasn’t allowed into the dressing room area. That meant I had to go back out to him. Stepping out of the curtained dressing room into the public area was even more humiliating than I had imagined.

The problem with bathing suit designs is that if they aren’t cut high over the hips and thighs, they plunge to reveal what, in a recent interview with Sarah Palin, Greta Van Susteren called “boobs.” (I see that the newest suits have cutouts just about everywhere.)

It didn’t help that Chucky would shake his head and laugh at the more inappropriate swimsuits. When finally I put on a navy blue number with an attached skirt, Chucky said I looked cute.  My mother’s suit!

I think he was ready to quit shopping, and that was the best of them. When I wore it into the water, the skirt floated up around me, ballooning to increase my apparent volume by 200 percent.

For the rest of the summer I wore my old polka dot suit. Black, not yellow. Not teeny weeny. For years it was my default beachwear.

Those old suits are somewhere, and as far as I’m concerned they can remain where they are for another year. I admit that this isn’t Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. It’s mine. • 3 August 2010

 

Miriam N. Kotzin, associate professor of English at Drexel University, co-directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing and teaches creative writing and literature. She is a contributing editor of Boulevard and a founding editor of Per Contra. She is the author of A History of Drexel University (Drexel University, 1983), a collection of flash fiction, Just Desserts (Star Cloud Press, 2010), and two collections of poetry, Reclaiming the Dead (New American Press, 2008), Weights & Measures (Star Cloud Press, 2009), and Taking Stock. Her novel, Cutter’s Vision, is represented by Don Gastwirth.
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