The swimsuit issue

Bras. Jeans. Bathing suits. Three shopping excursions that threaten to detonate the fragile relationship I have with body image. Heading out in search of any of these clothing items requires steely resolve and a stern word with myself in preparation for the emotional blitzkrieg that predictably ensues. I’ve shared my bra-shopping experiences before – and denim disclosure may occur in due course – but this time, allow me to dive into the swimsuit edition. Sports Illustrated – I have issues.

Oprah – bless her platitude-preaching heart – publishes the “O” magazine swimsuit edition this time of year, evangelizing this math: Body + Swimsuit = Swimsuit Body. I guess. Seemingly, there’s both math and science involved in determining which style “suits” you best. To start, stand naked in front of a mirror and assess your shape. The options are thus: pear, apple, inverted trapezoid, rectangle or hourglass. Assured that each body shape is beautiful in its own way, O’s crack fashion team steers fruits, hypotenuses and booties towards the right suit for their shape. If I’m reading my mirror, mirror on the wall correctly, I’m a hybrid of pear and the uncategorized but very real wheat belly shape – the muffin. Algorithm that, O! Shopper's Arm and Fitting Room

I know it’s just early spring, but I spied the Vancouver Parks crew scrubbing several months’ worth of seagull goo from Kits Pool – a sure sign that a swimsuit will soon be needed. So the day of reckoning nears: time to shop for a wee bit of Lycra that will cover the naughty bits, deal with “middle management” and make this pear The Bosc!

Ya know, I really think that bathing suit manufacturers are complicit in the body image struggle. Various camouflage techniques –from ruching to spandex to colour blocking – basically say, “Too bad you’re not slimmer, but dammit – we’ll do our best to nip in your flabby bits and lift up your droopy bits.” We may be confident in all other aspects of our lives, but the swimsuit can lay us bare.

So, the 10th circle of shopping hell unfolds as follows:

I dip a tentative toe in the doorway of The Swimsuit Hangout. From that vantage point, I hastily scan the racks, looking for evidence of – you know – coverage. Immediately regretting the decision to scarf back a 12-grain muffin and guzzle a venti soy latte before shopping (both duking it out noisily for space and digestive juices in my bloated abdomen), I contemplate a hasty exit. But not quite fast enough: an 18 year-old size two Flawless Creature approaches and inquires sweetly if she can help.

Inside voice: “Yes. Do you carry burkas?” Outside voice: “Just looking around for, you know, a swimsuit that will make me look like you, haha.” Flawless Creature titters politely and suggests I try on a few different suits to see which ones feel most comfortable.

I’m cool, I can do this. I channel my inner woman-hear-me-roar beast and head for the change room. I tell Flawless Creature “I’m only going in once; load me up.” She hands me nine bathing suits. Seven are Miracle Suits. The promised “miracle” is that bumpy bits disappear. I’m on to this big fat lie – those lumps of flesh have to go somewhere. They squeeze like Play-Doh out the back.

stacey and clintonI strip down to my skivvies and bracing for it, glance at my exposed self in this tiny room of a thousand unforgiving mirrors. As a fan of “What Not To Wear,” I feel Stacey’s and Clinton’s critical eyes peering over my shoulder as they point out flaws:

Stacey: “Have you never heard of self-tanner?”
Clinton: “Holy hosiery – take off your socks!”
Stacey: “You gotta lock and load, girl!”
Clinton: “I’ll think I’ll go hunt down some cover-ups.”

My imaginary critics leave me as I wriggle into one florescent rubber band after another. Each one requires the flexibility of Mary Lou Retton performing an Olympic floor routine: I step warily into the leg holes and then pull, tug, bend and bounce from foot to foot as I wrestle the bit of fabric up to my mid-section. And that’s the easy part; flummoxed, I stare dumbly at the bewildering tangle of bra cups, ties and decorative clasps. The straps confuse me most. Where does this go exactly? Flawless Creature, who’s been hovering outside the change room, no doubt listening to my heaving and grunts, asks, “How’s everything going? Do you need some help or can I get you another size?” Ok, I know I could invite her to effortlessly disentangle me and snap the suit snugly into place, but instead I reply, “No, everything’s fine. Just narrowing down the choices.” More twisting, writhing, swearing and heavy breathing and victory! I’m in. I repeat this eight more times. I’m sweating like a drug mule going through airport security.

I promised myself that I wouldn’t fixate solely on the harsh reality of my thighs. I will not obsess about their, how can I capture it – ampleness. So I assess for the three C’s: cut, comfort, coverage. One of the Miracle Suits does indeed seem to check all three boxes, so it’s a wrap. I pass it over the top of the change room door to Flawless Creature and she tells me she’ll have it ready for me at the cash desk when I’m dressed. When I go to pay for the Elastoplast fabric sample, she rings in my purchase: $169 – plus tax. As I recover from sticker shock, she tucks a sample packet of special swimsuit detergent into the bag: “We recommend a gentle rinse after every wear and a delicate hand-wash to keep your swimsuit looking great for years.” As much as I loathe hand-washing anything, if it means I can defer this shopping experience longer, I can do Amish-Woman-with-Washboard.

I leave The Swimsuit Hangout poorer, but I swear I hear Stacey shouting her signature fashion compliment, “Shut UP!” Time to embrace who I am – inside and out!

[Columnist and screenwriter Nora Ephron once said, “Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was 26. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re 34.”] Go on… do it!

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One Comment on “The swimsuit issue

  1. I think bathing suit change rooms in department stores should have the lights on the floor, shining up, like the stage lights from the beauty pageants of the 30’s and 40’s. Lit from above, the craters that are my cellulite cast huge shadows downward, highlighting every pocket on my butt and thighs.

    And yes, wear a bikini a whole year when you are 26, unless, like me, there was room enough in the bra cups of the suit to hide two rabbits….