Crossing the Tan Line

Or why I wish I could go to 1910 for vacation.

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It’s that time of year when you see the racks of oddly configured swaths of cloth hanging in the front of stores. Bathing suits: absurd, wrong-headed garments. I continue to be mystified by how people continue to buy and wear them.

It’s a given that women of a certain age don’t like the way they look in bathing suits. The comic strip Cathy has made this a seasonal riff. But the cartoon misses the point in linking problems with bathing suits to female vanity. It’s not about vanity; it’s about modesty. Not about looking fat but about being naked.

Even as a child, I understood this. As I ran under the sprinkler in my electric orange two-piece, I knew that it was one thing for me, with my hairless legs and flat chest, to wear such a scanty, silly thing, and quite another for my neighbor with her gargantuan boobs, my piano teacher with her varicose veins, and my dentist with his protuberant beer belly to do the same. Even my own parents — relatively attractive, fit people — were an embarrassment. I could see that while some grownups looked really bad in bathing suits, all grownups looked unseemly. Here, I vaguely intuited, was another example of adult hypocrisy. Breasts and penises, subject to so much discretion under normal circumstances, were somehow allowed to be baldly delineated in the vicinity of sand and sun.

These were my thoughts then, and I continue to hold to them, especially as they now pertain to myself.

When did the immodest bathing suit come into fashion? The idea of bathing in public places began in the 18th century as seaside vacations came into vogue. In the beginning, the favored mode of dress for the beach was even more modest than that of daily life: People wore bathing “costumes” — one dressed rather than undressed in approaching the water in the vicinity of strangers. Women sometimes put weights in the hems of their garments to make sure they wouldn’t ride up — if one drowned, one did so modestly. I especially like the 19th-century practice of having horse-drawn cabanas come to the edge of the ocean so that women could emerge unseen. No wet T-shirt contests for them.

If I were to choose my swimming apparel from another era, it would be the one I’ve seen featured from 1910: a two-piece jersey ensemble complete with stockings (wonderful for camouflaging cellulite). But even in the 1950s and early ’60s, there remained a minimal sort of propriety, helped by Mouseketeer Annette Funicello’s championship of the one-piece.

What happened? When did we throw pudeur to the winds?

We laugh at the old bathing costumes, but we should be laughing at ourselves. It’s a lot more ridiculous to see her thunder thighs and his man breasts. I acknowledge that as Americans we’re ahead of Europeans, who have reduced the bathing suit to a jock strap, for men and women alike. But just because Europeans act like damn fools doesn’t excuse us from being a few inches of spandex less foolish. Haven’t we learned anything about the Euro-capacity for knuckleheaded behavior after two world wars?

Last summer, friends invited me to their beach house and I decided to break with custom and purchase a bathing suit. Surely, I thought, a modest suit could be found somewhere. I searched through rack upon rack of handkerchief-like specimens, more ropes and hooks than actual material. In many cases, it was hard to make out how the bathing suit was supposed to be put on — “applied,” might be the better term. Even the most conventional suit was freakish — the leg holes cut up to the navel so as to reveal a vast expanse of thigh and buttock.

I continued to search, looking for one of those skirted numbers that I remembered from my youth. But when I finally found one, it was a size 20. Unless you’re a baby hippo the bathing suit industry isn’t going to cut you any slack — though it will cut you leg holes up to the navel. I gave up the search and told my friends I had the flu.

I should note that swimming is not the only activity whose outfits I find unseemly. I feel the same way about football and ballet. Different as these two activities are, they share an X-rated taste in costume. When I go to the ballet do I really want to see the bulging codpieces of all those Nureyev wannabes? When I watch the Super Bowl, do I want to stare at so many well-muscled butts? It’s not that I’m a prude (well, maybe I am), it’s just that when I watch ballet and football, I don’t want to be schooled in the fine points of male anatomy. It’s distracting.

The whole thing seems a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Convention dictates that we’re not supposed to notice, so we pretend we don’t. But I’m breaking the silence: “You’re naked, goddammit. You wouldn’t wear bra and panties outside the bedroom, so why will you wear even less in front of a bunch of strangers for the sole purpose of putting your toe in the water?” Surely, there is a better way. Someone from Project Runway needs to make the bathing costume chic again. • 14 July 2009

 

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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