Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Bogus, Unwritten Rules of Swimwear

Liberated from long skirts, young women of the '20s wore a figure-hugging wool jersey sleeveless tank suit. Functional AND modest, but how liberating could stockings and wool be in 95-degree heat?


Hemingway found his inspiration for Old Man and the Sea while fishing. He came across an old man adrift on a little boat with a big fish. A classic was born.
Thoreau found his muse along the shores of Walden Pond. At the end of almost two years of solitude, he emerged from the woods with volumes of brilliant works and his newly proven theory of “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.”
I am enjoying a respite along the coast of northwest Florida, where—just one block behind me—the waters of the Santa Rosa Sound carry sailboats and Jet Skiers around in massive circles and invite fishermen to sit along the bridge and cast for cobia, redfish, mackerel and Florida pompano. And directly in front of me, the waves of the Gulf of Mexico lap along the white sand.
A full night’s sleep, every night. The no-schedule schedule. The absence of a ringing phone. THE MENTAL CLARITY. The mental clarity alone was worth the $3.87/gallon to get here.
Just as Hemingway and Thoreau arrived at their creative and philosophical peak, so have I.

Why do some women wear bikinis and others don't?

I have sat here and cannot for the life of me determine who sets these unwritten rules. Body size and shape have nothing to do with it. Women of ALL sizes and shapes sport bikinis without a care in the world. And still, other women of ALL sizes and shapes sit recoiled on the beach, by the pool, in t-shirts and unattractive cover-ups, with brand new swimsuits under them.
In one of her books, Anne Lamott recalls a day at the beach when she witnesses a pudgier, unfit woman—one who is likely past her bikini-wearing days—nonetheless wearing a bikini, splashing in the ocean, playing in the sand, as if she had the beach to herself. And instead of thinking, “Cover yourself, why don't you?” Lamott admits we all could stand to be a little more like this woman. A sing as if nobody’s listening, dance as if nobody’s watching approach to life.
So maybe my inspiration is nothing new. But it bears repeating, don’t you think? That maybe we’re all a little too self-conscious when it comes to the pool and beach? That we have too many nebulous rules?
On a multi-family trip to the beach last August, a group of moms was sitting around the pool, ignoring our children, when along walks the most self-assured and courageous woman any of us had ever seen. She boasted a large (massive, actually) chest and what some referred to as a "beer belly” that would best be suited on a man. An older man who drank a LOT of beer and ate more than his fair share of barbecue. But still, she wore a bikini. A tiny bikini. She was Malibu Mom. Large, yes; confident, absolutely.
She walked the perimeter of the pool with such fearlessness, talking to her kids, chatting it up with her husband, drinking her Coke, it was almost unnerving. Some of my friends threatened to gouge their eyes with pencils. I wanted to stand and applaud. Except for the weight and the girth, I wanted to BE her.
But I am lily white, wildly self-conscious and therefore not eligible for bikini-ness. Like I’m Irish and am allowed to go outside only at night. Bikinis are not designed for people like me. They are designed for women (of any size) who have Ban de Soleil skin. At least that’s what we’re groomed to believe.
I hate that we’re groomed to believe anything. I wish we could all be raised to wear whatever the heck we want and feel good about it. To wear a freewheelin', non-constrictive bathing suit that covers only the essentials. One that you're not constantly pulling and tugging and making sure it lives up to its lofty promises printed on the tag.

Thoreau would have urged women to wear bikinis. "Simplicity," he would have said.

Case in point: A friend called my cell phone last week and said only this when I answered: “Please tell me not to buy what I’m about to buy.”
“Go on,” I said.
“It’s a one-piece bathing suit, and the skirt is built in. I think my mother had the same suit in the ’60s.” She sniffed, like she had been crying.
“Put it back. Walk away.”
“But it’s the only thing that fits.”
“That’s not true. I’m three stores away from you. Meet me for lunch, then we’ll go shopping.” Because never is there a better time to try on Lycra than when you have a full stomach and have already spent half your day crying in dressing rooms.
She climbed off the ledge and back through the window and met me for lunch. And then the fun began. I would love to tell you that all our efforts resulted in the purchase of the loveliest swimsuit money can buy, one that hides every flaw and came with built-in self-confidence, but that would be a lie. She tried on every Amy-approved suit in her size and found something defective about each and every one. “This one makes this poke out.” “This one doesn’t cover up that body part.” “This one enhances my white fat.”
And that’s when I asked, through the dressing room door, “Why white fat? Why is white fat worse than tanned fat?”
“I don’t know. It just is.”
“Well, I think that’s terribly unfair. Even if it’s true.” We left half of the store's swimsuit inventory (and an apology) with the dressing room attendant.
So, Amy, what's your point? My POINT is ... why the rules? Why does any of it MATTER? Why do we have such high expectations of swimsuits? Hide this, minimize that, maximize this. These are not Swiss Army knives. These are SWIMSUITS made of FABRIC. They can only do so much.
If Henry David Thoreau were here today, he would probably agree. "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. Wear the bikini."

One day, Thoreau. One day ...