Having successfully avoided it for the past three years, this year, I am going to have to bite the bullet and go out in public wearing a bathing suit.  Now, let’s get things straight, the bathing suit is a wonderful invention, I know skinny dipping sounds like fun, but in the sea, I like a layer of cloth- however flimsy- between me and whatever else lurks under the ocean.  I have never really been a bikini girl, I have always been too self-conscious ever since that awful summer when I was 11 (and almost fully developed) and my mum made me swim with only the bottoms of my bikini on because she felt I was too young to wear the top.  The result?  Permanently rounded shoulders that summer and a lot of ribbing from my (all male) cousins.  Since then I have preferred the all in one bathing suit option.

Around May time, all the fashion magazines are full of pictures of extremely slender models frolicking on beaches with giant beach balls and scantily clad male eye candy with smiles plastered on their faces to trick you into thinking that it is summer when in reality they are in Lyme Regis in February and the 3rd and 4th assistants have had to cart around ‘natural sunlight’ filters for the industrial lighting.  Still, we all dutifully look at the bathing costumes and wonder how much skimpier they can become before we all just give up and accept that we are naturists.  The articles that accompany the pictures are all tips on how to get your ‘perfect beach body’ and how to ‘Get ready for the summer’.  Much is made of which fake tans work without making you look as if you’ve been tangoed and what colours are acceptable/trending for your mani-pedi.  If there was a beach body I could buy and screw my head on to I would do it, just to avoid the hassle of thinking about it

These days, there are also articles about your body type, and what bathing suits are the right cut for your body.  They are trying to be politically correct these people, they really are, but women cannot really be split into 4 types:  pear-shaped, boyish, full-breasted and skinny. 

What about tall with short legs?  Short with long legs?  One breast bigger than the other? Long in the torso?  Petite?  Amazonian? Chubby? Voluptuous? Kim Kardashian?

I can only really talk about my body type.  I am a generously proportioned woman.  So, as such, what I need from a bathing suit is for it to contain all of me.  I don’t want it to fall down when I’m swimming, I don’t want my breasts to pop out when I reach for the frisbee.  In short, it needs to be practical and look as nice as possible.  I therefore own 3 black bathing suits that I have had for at least 5 years and I alternate between the three so that my tan lines aren’t too obvious.  This year, I thought I should get new ones.  And since it has been over 5 years since I bought anything new, I had no idea how much the world of bathing suits had changed.  I had seen those photos of Nigella in a Burkini a while back and thought I would find that we are now all wearing head to toe wetsuits, but this apparently is not the norm.  The big shock – apart from how the cutaway bathing suit has made a comeback – was this:

Almost all bathing suits above a size 14 now come with sculpting or bodyshaping.  For those of you who don’t know what that is, it is the ‘technology’ that allows the suit to sculpt your body into what is deemed an acceptable shape. So, it lifts your breasts and shoves them together like you are trying to sell beer to a teetotaller, cinches in your waist like you are trying to be a Victorian woman and – my personal favourite – it has tummy control.  Tummy control is not a noise cancelling device as the name suggests, it is fabric that stretches over your tummy to ‘hold it in’.  So you don’t have to, obviously.

There are two things that the plus size models (and I use the term plus size extremely loosely here) always photographed wearing these suits don’t tell you.  Firstly: wearing the costume is so restrictive that breathing is a challenge, never mind swimming.  Secondly: how they got it on is between them and God, and none of your business thank you very much.  I recently bought a swimsuit which I hadn’t realised was sculpting.  I cottoned on fairly early on when it became lodged just under my knees, locking them and my thighs together.  I persevered.  I pulled. I heaved. I shifted my weight from foot to foot.  I shimmied. I tugged.  Finally, I got the suit over my hips.  I am now wearing what feel like iron pants.  I had to take a break after that and wondered into my kitchen topless to get a cool glass of water.  Steeled, I started to struggle to get the top up over my chest and eventually shoulders.  I was nearly there when I realised that my neck and shoulders were cramping up and I may need to call paramedics.  Instead I shouted for D (much less embarrassing, and she was nearer).  She came running when she heard my strangled

“Help!”

Together, we managed to hoist the shoulder straps over my shoulders and she then had to grab the back of the bathing suit and hoik it up til it was where it was supposed to be. Never have I felt more dignified. I collapsed onto the bed, exhausted. 

“I need a nap, a shower and a massage – in any order” I panted.

Do I need to point out the obvious problems here?  Traditionally, a bathing suit is put on before undertaking a day of activity. So, needing a nap afterwards? Not great. Also, needing an assistant to get dressed and undressed is probably not a good thing.  And then there’s the obvious dilemma about what you do when you need to go to the loo, because there is no way that baby is coming on or off when it’s wet.

“Get up and let’s see how it looks.” Said D.  I stood.  “Turn around, give us a twirl!”

I rotated slowly looking at myself in the mirror as well.  It looked… I reserved judgement, until D, the fashion guru and police had stated her opinion.

“I like the fact that it isn’t black.” She started.  I knew this meant that she didn’t like it.  She never talks about the colour first unless she’s about to tell me that I look hideous

 “It does make you look…. restricted though.  Your contours are smooth but you look uncomfortable.” (Seriously, this girl could and should be a stylist – how diplomatic is that?)

My turn.

“It’s funny you should say that,” I said, my voice sounding breathless because of the lack of free airflow. “I feel like I have been poured into a steel vice and that it has me in its grips.  I feel like I may never be able to get out of this costume.  Apart from the fact that it is uncomfortable, I also don’t feel able to bend at all at the waist (essential for diving, sitting, swimming, picking up Frisbees etc).  I don’t think this is going to work.  I need to get out of it NOW!” 

I was starting to feel claustrophobic.  D helped and finally five or ten minutes later, the offending item was crumpled on the floor and I was taking huge gulps of life-giving air.

The one thing that we didn’t address was the fact that all the flesh that is being compressed into a svelte silhouette doesn’t just get pressed inwards making all your organs immediately protest at the lack of space.  I mean, I think that I am right in saying that it’s basic physics… it has to go somewhere and where it goes is over and under and out.  So while the bits that are in the bathing suit are ‘smooth, streamlined and contoured’ the rest of you is lumpy, bumpy and frumpy. Nice.  Just what you were looking for in a bathing suit.  There are different strengths of control:

1)      Light control which is bearable for a few hours, but don’t think you can get out of that bathing suit in a hurry.

2)      Medium control which feels like you are being tortured slowly and requires an assistant for the putting on and removal of the bathing suit.  Some restricted breathing and movement.

3)      Firm control which is essentially made of non-malleable materials and restricts movement, breathing and as a result beauty.  (It’s hard to be beautiful when you are blue in the face and slowly losing the sensation in your upper and lower extremities).  This bathing suit requires upwards of three people to put on and take off if you count the St John’s Ambulance guys on standby for when your heart stops.

I am not here to judge you for whatever bathing suit you choose to wear.  I know many people that brave the discomfort to get the look they want or to feel more confident when they are at the beach and I salute them, really I do.  I can’t put up with it for more than 5 minutes, but that is just me.  I prefer to be comfortable and well let’s be honest, disguising your size in a bathing suit is practically impossible, so I have learned to embrace it.

I also have another theory (and I apply this one to dancing as well), that whilst on the beach/dance floor wherever really, people are too busy trying not to look fat/short/uncoordinated/clumsy themselves to worry about what you are doing.  My aunt, God rest her soul, was a wonderful feisty woman who lived for the summer and the beach.  She was a perfect size 8 her entire life, was an amazing dancer, and a total beach bunny.  She once told me, years ago, that she never went anywhere without holding her tummy in.  Like all the time.  I said, come on, really?  You don’t look like you need to worry about it.  Even though we were just the two of us, and it was only me, she couldn’t relax enough to show me why she felt it necessary. “I just can’t show you, I’m embarrassed.” she said.  I was gobsmacked.  I mean, I have always felt uncomfortable on the beach, especially when I was younger, but at the time, I was amazed that someone who positively exuded confidence would have the same issues.  It was a real eye-opener for me.  It helped me to put things into perspective for sure.  There isn’t a woman on the beach who isn’t wondering if she should have shaved her legs that morning, or chosen a different bathing suit, or if her hair is going to look sunkissed or just dry.  Does this bikini make my tummy look big?  Does my bum look big in these shorts? Shit my pedicure is chipped… etc.etc.  And it’s not just the women.  Men are also much more body-conscious than we have ever been led to believe.

So, after years of feeling stared at and self-conscious, I have decided to just be comfortable.  I have found the 3 bathing suits available in my size that don’t feel like they were designed in Guantanamo and I am going to enjoy being at the beach, swimming, reading, hanging out with friends and playing with my nieces and nephews in non-restrictive clothing.  If I feel stared at, I will remind myself that we are all allowed to enjoy the beach, regardless of size and whether your toes are painted in this season’s colour or not.  

I am ready.  Let’s beach.

 

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