Age 7: As soon as the weather gets warm, my grandmother takes my sisters and me swimsuit shopping, usually to K-Mart. I always buy a one piece, and choose the pattern I like the best. Summer vacation means that in the morning, I can take off my PJs and put on my bathing suit. Then, after 14 hours of sunlight, sprinklers, and popsicles, I switch back.
Age 10: I buy my first weight-control bathing suit from Walmart, black on the sides, flanking a central panel of wild pink orchids. I choose it because I like the flowers, but when my mom sees the tag, and the capital word, “SLIMMING!” she asks me, “Do you…worry about your weight?” The widest part of my body might still be my knee-caps, but I’m not sure what to answer. Yes, I think, I might be worried about my weight.
Age 12: An aunt bequeaths my sister and me her cast-off bikinis, in string. The triangles of fabric are laughably small, but like all string bikinis, they are fully adjustable. My sister and I tie them onto each other in the bathroom of a rented beach house. When we run across the sand, I feel absolutely, humiliatingly naked. “Ooooh, Eeeee,” my father mocks, as we streak for the water. The waves of the Atlantic tear at the flimsy suit; I readjust the triangles every time I dive into the water.
Age 14: My one-piece is purple, with small pink flowers. I loved it at the store, but at the pool, I realize how infantile it looks. I am transfixed by classmates in two-piece suits, successfully filling out the top. My own chest couldn’t even be considered an A-cup, and I’m familiar with the insults this incites. Are those…mosquito bites on my chest? Am I a member of the itty bitty titty committee?
Age 16: “You have the type of body that supermodels have,” my mom says, which even she knows is a load of crap. I have no chest, but my grandmother has already told me that I have good “child-bearing hips.” In my mind, I’m an isosceles triangle with sturdy legs. “I want to take a picture of you, and save it until you’re grown,” my mother says, trying to wipe away my tears. “So I can show you, and together, we can laugh about how silly this is.” It doesn’t feel silly. It feels like the world will end unless I can figure out a way to pull the heft from my thighs and deposit it into my bra.
Age 23: I have a formula: Demi-top, padded, French-cut bottoms to slim my hips. I hate wearing them. At least 75% of my mental effort, in swimwear, is dedicated to picking on my body, to poses that minimize one body part or accent another. Eventually, alcohol helps, but not as much as throwing on a T-Shirt.
Age 29: Hugely pregnant with my son, I learn that water, momentarily, can free me from the crushing weight of pregnancy. I wear a Speedo two-piece, and it becomes increasingly threadbare and increasingly translucent, but I care increasingly less. In the pool, I am briefly comfortable. I pull myself through the water with the grace of an orca, just one more lap, to feel my strength and lightness. All I can hear, when my head is underwater, are bubbles. I swim every chance I can get.
Age 30: I purchase a matronly tankini, because I’m a mom. That’s what we wear. I feel covered, and for once, I only think fleetingly about how I look in the dang thing. But that’s only because, every time I wear it, I’m worried about keeping a toddler alive in the water, which is distracting.
Age 32: Pregnant with twins, I throw every actual bikini I own in the trash, because I am convinced that I’ll never feel good in one again. I gloss over the obvious: I never felt particularly good in bikinis.
Age 34: I am a Mom of Three, and I trained for a marathon. I buy myself a bikini, and it feels like the most amazing bathing suit I have ever owned. I feel sexy, and that, in itself, feels like the seeds of revolution. I have three kids and I’m wearing a danged two-piece. I have twin skin. I have mom boobs, and they are on display. It feels good. BAM.
Age 37: My five year-old wants to wear a bikini, and suddenly, I care, only, about showing her that I love my body (even when I don’t, always). I care, only, about feeling comfortable, about playing hard, about running into the waves holding her hand. Because I love her, so much, the idea that she’ll one day tug at the elastic edge of a small piece of spandex and think degrading thoughts about her adorable baby bum seems shocking. I must not allow this cycle to continue.
I still have my bikini; it still makes me feel sexy, middle-age notwithstanding. But I want more. I want something that allows me to focus on playing in the water. For me, not for anyone watching. And for you, darling girl – for yourself.
I buy a one piece, and choose the pattern I like the best. I keep my shoulders back.