Five years ago, I was deep into the vortex of Marshall’s Discount store, filling a cart with items I didn’t need and had no intention of ever using, when my cart abutted the bathing suit section. As it was summer, and as I was unable to break from the premises without at least browsing for every category of my life, I began sitting through the racks, when a vague anxiety set in.
As I carried a red two-piece to a distorted mirror and held it to my body, I became aware that this anxiety was more than just the usual trigger of imagining, in winter, how it would feel to wear the tiny swaths of fabric.
I’d never felt great about my stomach, so the bikini had never truly been “mine,” but overnight, it seemed, the years to wear one had vanished along with my younger past. In their impossibly bright colors and skimpy cuneiform bottoms, they harkened for a person I could no longer recognize within my current reflection: the 20-something reckless me who splayed out on beaches while sipping corn-syrup-based piña coladas, smoking unfiltered Marlboro reds , and sizzling in marinades of baby oil and iodine.
The turmeric-tea drinking, 5-miler per day walker, who now took sunscreen-wearing to new levels with her wide brimmed hat and long-sleeve workout clothes, cringed thinking about that and moved to the one-piece section.
But there, I was hurtled back in through time to the first inklings of middle age surrender, or at least wardrobe adulting, something I never got behind then, and still wasn’t sure I was ready for. Sure, the white Calvin Klein suit and navy Ann Taylor numbers were tasteful and modest, but also boring as hell.
I circled to the next aisle, where I found tankinis: garments that suddenly seemed an homage to young motherhood ― that time when I vacillated between two distinct and confused selves ― the sexy, younger woman who was comfortable donning a red-rhinestone thong on Valentine’s Day, and her matronly counterpart who, three years after giving birth, had clung to her beige maternity underwear as a sexual repellant. And yet, even on those unsexiest of days, she just couldn’t do the skort and skirt swimsuits — neither could I.
What then was left for my perimenopausal middle-aged self ― who with the right under-eye concealer, root dye, pushup bra, Spanx jeans and lighting could pass for younger — and often tried like hell to?
An athletic tank top and running shorts? A long-sleeve sun shirt and bikini bottom? A Laura Engles school dress?
I had all but given up ever going anywhere near water and was about to embark upon the cosmetics section when, lo and behold, an alternative suit caught my eye.
I plucked it from the rack and held it beneath the flickering fluorescent lights. Neither bikini, one-piece, nor tankini, the suit was its own animal. Black and strappy, it contained a bikini top and bottom fused together by a multitude of thick crisscrossing straps that hinted at coverage in all the right places. But there was something even more compelling.
The suit spoke of a confidence I’d always wanted to own. Of moxie. Even of fantasy.
I mean forget who I was or had been. Who could I now be?
A high-end fashion model?
I plucked the monokini from the rack, unaware of the suit’s origin in 1964 when Austrian American fashion designer, Rudi Gernreich, created a topless version by attaching two shoestring ties to a bikini bottom, setting off controversy, and what some would later say was the beginning to the sexual revolution. Even without this knowledge, I sensed the vibe and stepped into the aisle, looking left to right so as not to be seen, and once more, held up fabric to my body.
Hell to the nomatronly me said.
But the allure of transformation was strong, much in the way it is with a fedora or a trench coat.
I looked at the tag. The designer was Kenneth Cole. Whoever the woman who wore this suit was, I decided while making the way to the dressing room, for the store’s discount price of $29.99, it was worth a shot trying to embody her.
I suited up and opened my eyes. What I saw did little to coddle my ego. But I remembered a good friend, 20 years my senior, telling me to “wear the miniskirt,” for one day you will look back and realize how relative your imperfections were.
It was true: This body wasn’t going to get any “better.” I’d always been a sporadic worker-outer, lacking the sustained motivation needed. Why ruin my reputation now? Besides, I was grateful for this body in all its imperfections and for all the good times it had given me.
And so, with a bit of an Evil Knievel spirit, I threw it into my cart and headed to the checkout aisle.
At home, I pulled the costume out of its thin crinkly plastic bag and like with many good fashion purchases that required transformation and belief in one’s ability to pull off that transformation, I put the garment in my drawer.
A pandemic came and (almost) went. For better or worse, I edged closer to becoming the person who might consider a skort suit. Luckily, however, I still didn’t own one when the pool party invite came through from an acquaintance.
There would be a celebration for Independence Day at a newly opened clubhouse, but I think we all knew that in many ways it was also a ‘Welcome Back to Civilization’ party. Not only had isolation stripped me of conversational skills, but I wouldn’t know anyone, save for the acquaintance, who I barely knew at all.
In other words, I had one chance to present myself and make the right impression — and 15 minutes to do it, as I had apparently misread the start time.
“You coming?” my husband called from the other room.
“In a sec!” I called back, frantically digging through my bathing suit drawer, when my hands came across the familiar straps.
Pressed for time, I wiggled in and stepped into the living room where my teenage daughter and husband had each amped up their game.
“Well?” I called, stifling a laugh.
My husband glanced up from the mirror, where he was adjusting his contact lens. “It’s a bathing suit,” he shrugged.
“Wear it,” my teen daughter said, lathering on lipgloss and not even bothering to look up.
“Mom, I don’t want to be late…” She actually looked away from her iPhone reflection this time. “It’s fine,” she said.
If so, I would need a good cover up. I ran to the other room, grabbed one.
Twenty minutes later, I arrived poolside and dropped my towel down next to the acquaintance, then removed my coverup.
“Wowza!” she exclaimed, “So I guess we won’t be blending in?”
“I guess not,” I said, already embodying a new air of mystique.
I surveyed the scene as a host of strangers chatted and lounged and dipped in the pool, each in their own worlds, and I found myself feeling freer among strangers. I pushed back my shoulders and stood taller as I summoned the former Parisian model persona I suddenly imagined, when a quince of women approached and began introductions.
Of mixed age, they were one-pieced, tankinied, bikinied, and one skorted — rooted in the realities of their existence — while I, gloatingly, floated in the luxury of make believe, when one complimented my suit.
“I wish I could pull that off,” she said, and I knew it was my moment to shine. Bonjour de Paris. I opened my mouth to fire off a self-deprecating witticism about pulling off the suit — I mean, just because I was once famous, didn’t mean I needed to be cocky about it ― when the skorted one stepped forward.
“Oh, hey…we worked the PTA book sale together once, didn’t we?”
At the same time, posturing was exhausting. Transformation even harder. Acceptance, however, in all its beauty and perfect imperfection, was mine for the taking — now, and in my future filled with skorts and even skimpy bikinis, should I choose.
“I believe we did,” I said, happily relaxing my shoulders to let it all hang out.
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