I am standing naked in a minuscule, excruciatingly bright room, barely three feet by five. But for the looming three-way mirror and the lack of a metal toilet, I could be in Paris Hilton's former jail cell. But instead of the shrieks of other inmates, there is a steady wail of, "Miss, can you bring me this in an 8?" and "Waaah, look at my cellulite!"
The fitting room in Bloomingdale's' bathing-suit department may not be Rikers, but in its own way it is almost as horrifying. I haven't been in a place like this for years; despite a lifetime of feminist principles, many of which concern loving our bodies no matter what size we are, and the fact that I spend practically every weekend wandering around stores looking at clothes, I have steered clear of bathing suits for decades. When I go to the beach (once a year, Fire Island), I wear a vintage dress over an old, stretched-out leotard, and that's that.
Ironically, I was raised in a bathing-suit family; my mother's father and his brother manufactured these things (chiefly because, as my grandfather used to say, to get started in the garment business, all you needed was "a girl and a machine.") Their enterprise gave rise to a number of serio-comic episodes over the years: the time someone sold Grandpa fabulous fabric that turned out not to be colorfast; the season he got a tip that grass skirts would be the rage. (What do you do with thousands of unsold grass skirts?)
But in the same way that we are attracted to horror movies, to the things that terrify us, I recently found myself thinking: How bad would I actually look in a new swimsuit? I'm a normal-sized woman—won't I at least look normal? Friends warned me about what lay in store. Angela reminds me to avoid those hell houses without mirrors inside the dressing rooms, forcing you to parade out for all to see. (This is bad enough when you're sampling a dress or a pair of pants, absolutely unspeakable when you're sporting a thong.) Laura says she wears a tank top and men's trunks, because a man's bathing suit supplies a place for keys and money. Kym actually promulgates the theory that the tinier your suit, the tinier you'll look, an idea that strikes me as ridiculous—but then again, lots of people believe in the seemingly absurd theory of homeopathy, which argues that the smallest dose of a medicine is the most effective, so what do I know?
I pick Bloomingdale's precisely for its bland anonymity and middlebrow vibe, which I usually find so off-putting—I know no one will bother me as I embark on this project. So I go to the second floor and gather up an array of embarrassingly brief bikinis and ruffled bottoms and old-lady one-pieces, including a suit whose tag shouts the frankly unlikely promise: "Look 10 lbs thinner!" I am pleased to see that tops and bottoms are now often sold separately, an innovation since the last time I shopped for a suit and a good idea, though it tends to double the price. (And really, it doesn't mean much to me, since I just grab everything in a large.)
The worst first: a rubbery, baby blue bikini-bottom from Juicy Couture that reads "Juicy" across the rump, which is a prospect too disgusting to contemplate and reminds me of those "Happy Butt" TV commercials that turn out to be ads for bidets. Whether or not it is juicy, my butt is certainly not happy—in fact, it is exploding over the top of this miniature bottom, so I hastily yank on an item that resembles a ruffled diaper cover . . . and now I look like Baby Huey, who, you may recall, is a gigantic cartoon duck that wears a diaper and a bonnet.
Shaken, I quickly proceed to a Marilyn Monroeish polka dot two-piece (top better, bottom a nightmare) and then something called a tankini, which is like a one-piece except that the top and bottom are separate, revealing a small but undeniable roll of untanned, untoned flesh around my middle. I rip this off and jump into a maillot strewn with red poppies and a few sequins in a vain attempt at jauntiness. This suit is a slight improvementï¿½or perhaps it is merely the least unattractive one I've tried on. (George Bernard Shaw's famous line, about how the least ugly daughter is the family beauty, could equally apply to swimsuits.)
If ever there was someone ready to look 10 or 50 or 100 pounds thinner, it is me, so I grab the suit that made this rash guarantee and toss it on. It's a black one-piece that wraps in front and is decorated with a cheap-looking metal buckle, and the weird thing is that I think I do look thinner—but then again, thinner than what? Thinner than I looked in the Juicy? Suddenly I remember the time long ago that my sister—just a little too chubby for the junior-prom dresses she was trying on—drowned her sorrows in an ice-cream soda. In her honor, I repair to Starbucks for a Frappucino.
I want so much to feel like Desiree and Bubbles, the hugely confident women of enormous size (actually played by men) on BBC's Little Britain, but I am in truth more than a little disturbed by the whole experience. Then I remember Lands' End, which has the reputation of solving difficult cases. Their website is so dauntingï¿½literally hundreds of suits—that I'm about to give up when I see something called a Live Chat. Yes, a chat—that's what I want! But alas, Linda, the person I end up chatting with, isn't much help. She recommends something called a swimmini, which turns out to be more like a dress, and therefore not all that different from the vintage number I'm already wearing. Thanks anyway, Linda.
In a last-ditch attempt to garner some genuine advice, I ring up Malia Mills, who owns six bathing-suit stores, to see if she can impart any professional wisdom, or at least a little comfort.
So, Malia, has anyone ever had a complete meltdown in one of your fitting rooms? "We've had many meltdowns," she sighs sympathetically. "The people who work at our stores are practically therapists! We're way too hard on ourselves when we go swimsuit shoppingï¿½cut yourself a break! There's a giggle to be had!"
And what about my friend Kym's lunatic notion that a skimpier suit makes you look better? To my shock, Mills agrees.
"It's the idea of 'the higher the leg line, the longer the leg looks.' Most gals want to cover too much. There's incredible beauty in the shape of a woman. So yes, less is more!"
This is all just dandy, but I don't see how it's going to erase the mental image I have when I close my eyes, which is the sight of me in that blue diaper cover. But then Mills says something that really hits home: How many suits did I actually try on? It turns out, she explains, that bathing suits are just like actual clothes, which means that you have to try on hundreds—or at least dozens—to find something even minimally acceptable.
Well, that's the good news. The bad news is that I have to trudge back to a fitting room and try on 100 more suits.
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