For this season’s After Party we’re talking about swimsuits. By now we’ve all seen a million memes and t-shirts telling us that “Every Body is a Swimsuit Body,” and of course it’s true. But actually living in those bodies can be very complicated. Read on to learn what some of our past contributors think about the pleasures, the pains, and the ambivalence of getting dressed (and undressed) to swim.
Fun in the Sun (or Moon)
It’s 95 degrees.
Slathered in baby oil,
assuring the severe burn
yet to come,
I stay on my towel,
a poor swimmer,
wearing the old-lady bathing suit
that fits my 13-year-old body.
Why is this fun?
I can count on one hand how many swimsuits I’ve had in my life. As a teen, I hated shopping for swimsuits because I felt like I could never find the right one. When, in college, I finally bought a two-piece whose colors and cut suited me, I doled out more cash than I was comfortable with. But I wore that bikini for over a decade, until the elastic in the bottom got so loose that it wouldn’t stay on me. When it came time to buy a replacement, I no longer cared how swimsuits looked on me. I had already been living with lupus for over five years and the illness made it dangerous to spend time in the sun. UV exposure in all forms can worsen the disease and staying out of the sun is always required by doctors. When I’m outside, I wear long sleeves, full-length pants and wide-brimmed hats. Laying out is a definite no-no. I haven’t done it in years. I go swimming or hot-tubbing after sundown or in places that are well-shaded by trees. Thankfully, in Northern California, there are some lovely spots that can accommodate me. And I’m usually surrounded by friends or family members who couldn’t care less about what I look like in a swimsuit. For the past few years, I’ve worn a basic, black, inexpensive two-piece I purchased at the nearest department store. It’s liberating to not have to worry about being seen in my swimsuit. I don’t miss the shopping and the self-judgement that comes with it. What I miss is what my old swimsuit represented — being out in the sun without constant worry.
Clothing Optional After 9PM
If you’ve never had the pleasure of a hot spring, like I hadn’t, I’ll explain it the way many people conveyed to me — as essentially a mineral water version of a hot tub, without the jets and temperature controls. Unlike a hot tub, the spring smells a little different, sometimes sulphurous. It also coats your skin with minerals that make every square inch of you silky smooth to the touch. Rinsing off afterwards is a weird sensation, but it’s totally worth it.
At Summer Lake, one has the option of a slightly cooler, indoor bath house that’s up to five feet deep and easy to wade around in. Outside, there are three smaller rock pools, of varying temperatures and depths, around the size of a typical hot tub, fitting 4-5 rather snugly.
During the day, people drop in for a quick soak — dipping into the warm, rich waters for a relaxing escape. People are also invited to spend a few days there, experiencing the pools as they please, and my friend Kaylee and I spent three days doing just that.
If it weren’t for the soothing effect of the pools, I would have opted for any other getaway as long as it called for as much clothing as possible. Like many others, wearing a bathing suit in public is about as difficult for me as public speaking. I’m uncomfortable, I can see every imperfection, I’m convinced everyone else can too, and quite frankly, every movement is so carefully considered that by the end of it, I’m exhausted.
Now, when we first arrived, the attendant made sure to brief us on the policies of both pools: no alcohol, no smoking, no glass, no rough housing, shower beforehand, and clothing is optional after 9pm. It’s barely sundown at 9 o’clock! It took a lot of self-convincing to even set foot in the springs before dark, with my suit on — there’s no way I could muster up the courage to let it all hang out.
And, well, I didn’t. Instead, every day before dinner we’d climb into the bath-house until slithering up the concrete steps for a bit of a breeze, and then eventually make our way outside. We could only stand to be in at max 10 minutes, until our skin would turn red and our insides churned as our cores were heated. But we always kept our suits on and our towels close.
WTF are Beach Bodies?
Dispatches from the Beach House
When I got the call for this season’s Dismantle “After Party” I wondered, “Swimsuits? What do I have to say about swimsuits?” I never liked swimming very much, even as a kid, and eventually discovered that I am more of a mountain person than a beach person. The vagaries of academia, however, mean that I now live in Florida, where communal beach trips are a recurring social ritual amongst friends. This is how I recently found myself on a ten person getaway to St. George Island, crowdsourcing ideas about this much maligned summer clothing article. Over communal breakfast on Day 2, I learned (predictably) that there was only one person (out of ten!) who didn’t have some complaint or trauma to share about swimsuits (also predictably, this person was a cishet man).
Most of our complaints were about basic functionality: containment and coverage. Almost everyone had a story of swimsuits falling off in embarrassingly public ways during youthful diving board adventures. Women with large breasts sung the praises of Target’s relatively recent introduction of bikini tops with underwire and cup sizing, because this design actually (gasp!) holds the mamas in place and keeps nipples fully covered. Focusing on the other side of the offending article, smaller women questioned why so much of our posteriors have to be on display and why designs don’t take into account the existence of women’s pubic hair. I know that out of all the swimsuits I have ever owned, only my vintage one-piece from the 1960s refuses to reveal unruly pubes to the world — leaving me to wonder: does late capitalist patriarchy mandate bikini shaves for summer fun? Even one of the men complained about exposure, explaining that every time he leaves the water the wet, thin fabric of his swim shorts seems to be obnoxiously screaming to passersby: “Here’s my d**k! Look, it’s my d**k! Here it is! Look. At. My. Penis.” If this feels so uncomfortable for a cis dude, swimsuits must feel perilous for a lot of trans folks. After we pondered the difference between swim trunks and board shorts, another of the guys asked, “Should the women’s pocket revolution be expanded to swimsuits?” And in response the femmes in the group let out a collective cry of exasperation at how difficult this is to imagine.
So much is difficult to imagine from this vantage point — our current vantage point of failed climate policy and ever-encroaching anti-woman and anti-LGBTQ political landscapes. At St. George Island, we were clothed in gender politics and surrounded by the devastation of climate change. On our ride down to the island we took turns pointing to the remaining storm damage from last fall’s Hurricane Michael — the recurring patches of gravel on the coastal roads, the intermittent houses falling into the ocean, the decreased number of people in the tourist towns. Walking to our mostly deserted beach someone noted that we were surrounded by stunted trees that had been trained by the winds to grow into contorted, twisted shapes, close to the ground. This collective of well-educated, queer-inclusive, progressive millennials (and me, the lone Gen Xer), we find ourselves constantly reading the landscapes around us, mining them for metaphors and then wondering what those metaphors might say about us, about the prospects for growth and change in our own lifetimes. Swimsuits, what we wear and where we wear them – thinking about these things reminds us, again, that even our vacations are saturated in politics.
One pieces are back in style, and as happy as I want to be about this trend, I can’t help but feel so bitter. In elementary school, one pieces signified the excitement of going to the pool and summers spent with my family at the lake. In middle school, one pieces emphasized the shame of my undesirable body in a sea of slender frames. Now, one pieces are marketed as purely a fashion choice, not a statement about one’s own insecurity.
While searching for a new bathing suit for this summer season, I couldn’t help but notice the addition of one pieces to the market. These swimsuits were no longer at the bottom of the list or significantly less well fitted and varied in style and color than bikinis. Instead, thin models line my browser and pose confidently in the types of bathing suits I grew to hate.
It’s not that I don’t like one pieces as a style, but the memory attached to them makes it hard to see this development. I get a twinge of anger when I see these swimsuits modeled and purchased by people that share the bodies of my middle school friends, who told me I should start wearing bikinis to be “cool,” but then suggested I try on one pieces at the mall to “fit my body type.”
My process of learning whose bodies were desirable was in part facilitated by the one piece. I am still learning to reclaim this style and wear one pieces again without feeling like I’m hiding myself or labeling my own body as shameful when I go to the beach or the pool with my friends this summer. In the end, I know wearing a one piece doesn’t signal a regression, but I would love to see wearing a one piece as a victory, not a defeat.
I’ve worn a bikini exactly once in my life. I was 27 and had compulsively dieted and exercised my body into a size 6. My vague feeling of being a bad feminist for wanting to be thin didn’t stop me. Neither did all the studies that said I’d most likely regain more weight than I’d lost. I knew my world had narrowed down to a set of graphs and charts and mathematical equations all related to my body. I could see that I was becoming a self-obsessed asshole, because it’s hard to be empathetic when you’re half starved and doing story problem math in your head all day (if running on a treadmill for X minutes burns Y calories and I’ve eaten 1 cup of yogurt and 1 salad, how many chips can I have right now, sitting at this table with 1 friend I haven’t seen in 2 years?). But I kept doing the thing American women are supposed to do — pursue thinness.
Somewhere along the line I’d internalized an idea that “6” was the largest acceptable size that could wear a bikini. Also, at some point I’d be “too old” to wear one and at 27 my expiration date was imminent. Maybe I’d regret never stepping out in a bikini while I was young? Then one day I was in J Crew shopping for work clothes and the size 8’s were loose?! It was late summer, so there was a sale on some pretty cute bikinis. I stood in the dressing room staring at myself in a black two-piece, scrutinizing the big blue vein that had appeared behind my left knee. Assessing how much more visible my scoliosis was now that I had no fat to soften it. Damning the patch of eczema on my ankle. But I bought it anyway. Why not? I was a size 6!
The day I finally wore it was…fine. I went to a lake with my partner and a good friend and we swam and laughed and told stories. And I spent the whole time wishing I had more clothes on. The bikini lived the rest of its life in the back of a drawer. I stayed its size for about fifteen minutes because that’s not how I’m made, and the “normal” dieting that got me there was unsustainable and should be classified as an eating disorder. But I’m glad for that one day, because it was the start of a very long journey to figuring out that my body was never the problem. The expectations of how that body is supposed to be in the world — that’s what made me uncomfortable.
Changing Bodies, Swimming Bodies, Happy Bodies
My Pregnancy Told Through Bathing Suits
Before I got pregnant, I wore simple one piece bathing suits made by my favorite company – Speedo. [Top Left] These swimsuits were simple, withstood rinsing several times a week, and fit me perfectly.
Once pregnant, I was lost because I had never, ever read, seen, or heard anything anywhere about pregnant woman bathing suit-wearing protocol. I had so many questions: Where do I find maternity bathing suits? Was I supposed to keep buying bathing suits as I got bigger? Why the hell would anyone buy a bathing suit to wear less than 9 months? I thought the entire thing was ridiculous. After poking around the internet, I discovered that Target had a small selection of maternity bathing suits. I found some options at my local store and bought my first maternity bathing suit when I was four months pregnant [Top Right].
I grew even bigger during the second trimester, and about six months later I had to scrounge to find my next bathing suit [Bottom Left]. This swim suit was a bit too big in the middle but I thought I could grow into it. (Who the heck thinks of that when they’re buying a bathing suit?) The side drawstrings were helpful in keeping my top snug around my growing belly while I was standing up but in the water, they often got loose and rolled up, making my tummy bulge out of the tankini set and me look like I was wearing a bikini.
At about 34 weeks, I was ridiculously big and needed a new bathing suit. I was on the fence about giving up swimming but I decided to stick with it because it made me feel good, and it was all the total body physical exercise I could manage. This time, the search was even more difficult because bathing suits were out of season at Target and everywhere else. I looked everywhere – Gap, Old Navy, Sears, JC Penney, and Kohl’s but all the retailers were beginning to transition into cold weather clothing.
One afternoon, and two days before a trip to Hawaii, I was out somewhere and walked into a J. Crew because I had some time to waste. Much to my shock, I found a very random maternity bathing suit for $12 in the clearance section. [Bottom Right] I was at my largest and this bathing suit barely covered my protruding belly.
I did my usual morning swim on election day — November 4, 2008 — and that evening, as former President Obama was being elected, I went into labor. My son came about 2 weeks late when he decided to arrive the next morning.
A year ago, I moved to Mexico–specifically, to Yucatan state. People from the U.S. are usually more familiar with its neighbor, Quintanaroo (home to places like Cancun and Tulum). While Yucatan is not quite the resort destination that the Caribbean coastal areas are, it’s an incredible place to be if you love to swim, which I do.
The beaches, roughly a 45-minute (75 cent) bus ride from my house, are white-sanded and lead up to clean, cool turquoise water. A 30-minute drive in any direction offers dozens of cenotes: freshwater swimming holes formed from sinkholes. Go another 30 minutes and there are literally hundreds of options for all-day good times; not just cenotes, but huge, beautiful pools at restaurants, haciendas and water parks. These are all accessible to the vast majority of local families.
My favorite part about this water-centered culture is that largely, women here wears shorts and t-shirts to swim. While certainly I’ve noticed some fancier folks sporting high-priced string bikinis (often tourists hailing from Mexico City, Argentina, or the U.S.), the locals rarely deem it necessary to have a specific swimming costume. Very often, the ones who do purchase a swimsuit still wear shorts or a cover-up in the water.
This custom is likely in part a result of the Yucatan being a pretty modest place, even compared to the rest of Mexico. And certainly, the relatively large working class population can affect people’s clothing choices and purchasing power (to be clear, Mexico is not immune from class-driven boundaries like pool rules at hotels that mandate actual bathing suits).
But I would say that the local beach “look” also reflects a culture that values comfort, both physical and psychological. I love going to the beach or a pool and not having to about worry my bathing suit falling off or whether or not I missed a spot shaving my bikini line. I think I’ve had maybe three suits in my entire life that offer what a simple sports tank and running shorts offer me now: bodily comfort and generally, ease of movement in and out of the water. Whenever those things become standard in official swimwear, maybe we’ll see Yucatecans strolling around the beach in bikinis. But really, I think they have it all figured out.
I love swimming. In my childhood it was a joyous experience — the freedom of the water, passing back and forth under the surface, pretending to be a mermaid or a dolphin and playing games with friends. Many years later, now that my imagination is more dulled with age, worries and the distractions of grown up life, I take slow laps back and forth, thinking. Swimming has become an excellent opportunity for rumination or problem solving. Tricky design problem? Solved after an hour of laps! Worrying too much about things I can’t control? Swim until my busy head quiets down. It’s not as euphoric, nor is it as spontaneous as swimming was in my youth, but I still love getting in the water.
As I’ve gotten older (and heavier!), my relationship with the swimsuit has changed as much as my relationship with water. An oh so adorable 1990s high-legged one piece with the jewel-toned aluminum studs remains my favorite. I loved it and remember the fun I had shopping for swimsuits that day. The mall had a plethora of delightful options, and it was exciting to look for exactly the right one. Now that I’m deep into a cozy and well-upholstered middle age, the options are fewer and when I look for swimsuits these days, I search for maximum coverage, bust support and retro swimdress cuteness. I worry more about the appearance of my chubby legs, comfortable tummy, and softer curves. It hasn’t stopped me, although I’m far more aware of my body now that I’m older and less conventionally shaped.
I still get in the water, though. I hope I see you there, too.
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