I didn’t mean to do it. I wasn’t looking. For that matter, shopping for any bathing suit was not on my radar. It was a spring day in Chicago, and I was walking with my sister and a friend along a city street. The sun was gentle. People were out and about and cheerful. We were on our way to a matinee when I spotted a store full of bikinis—provocative and beckoning with their bright colors and intimation of lingerie—and I was seized with the idea that I had to have one, right then, that minute. I am a California girl, but not for years had I indulged in this kind of skimpy attire. Summer after summer, such a purchase had not crossed my mind. I had, like most of my friends, long since succumbed to the one-piece. Not the matronly versions with camouflaging flounces or skirts—just your basic utilitarian and reasonably flattering suits that I normally bought off the Internet. The jazziest I donned involved an animal print, but the usual fare was monochromatic.
Something in that window, though, not only caught my eye but snagged a thousand memories: of girlhood and sandy kisses and the smell of Coppertone, to me the most evocative aroma in the world. Maybe it was being away from my home turf. I often looked into the windows of Santa Monica’s Canyon Beachwear, which I passed whenever I drove to Pacific Coast Highway from my house, but it had been a long time since I was tempted to stop. Not for you, not for you, a little voice always said. I dislike when women dress too young for their age, in clothes too scant or too revealing or too needfully attention getting. That is a mistake I try to avoid while still looking chic and fun, or whatever the right words are. In a big showplace like Los Angeles, it is easy to tumble into teenwear well past the point when it is seemly.
Yet in that springtime moment in that sturdy Midwestern city, I was somehow released from my self-imposed sartorial dictates. In I went, a giddy, enterprising blur of acquisitiveness. My companions were highly entertained. My sister was smiling and pawing diligently through the racks because she didn’t want to be late to the theater and she knew I was intent on buying. She is also practical and didn’t want me to grab an item in my manic longing that I would never dream of wearing in public.
“Go in there,” she said, gesturing at the changing cubicle, “and I’ll bring them in.” I already had a couple in hand. I drew the curtain and took a breath, a small one. I figured I could get around the hard-eyed appraiser we women always have with us, or rather within us, if I moved fast. As I caught sight of my body, I had a flash of tenderness, for what it had been through, for where it had carried me and how it had served me and pleasured me, and for all the damn mammograms and procedures that had been done to it. Yes, it was decidedly softer now in places; there was cellulite on the thighs and freckly spots in the cleavage. But we had been good together. I thought with fondness of the other women looking at themselves in dressing room mirrors, hoping for them that sense of approbation. How tough we can be on ourselves, even the nubile teenagers who can be traumatized by this seasonal search. So much self-scrutiny and self-loathing, so many ab crunches and Hail Mary diets.
I climbed into my first selection and looked up. This was no decorous black number. It was flagrantly patterned and colorful, in a geometric Pucci-like design. There was nothing subtle about it. This was hardly a quiet toe in the water. I opened the curtain. My sister said, “That looks great. Let’s go.” She was in a legitimate hurry but also didn’t want to give me time to reconsider. I know her as well as she knows me. She got it, that this desire was positive. Life had been rough of late. We missed our mother, she who had loved the beach and the ocean. This bikini was a loud shout-out to her. It spoke of happy days, of recovery, of silly joy.
We were on the street before I knew it. The whole event had taken maybe seven minutes. You could call what transpired an impulse buy, but it didn’t feel that way. I tried my suit on the minute I got back to my house in L.A. to see if I had capitulated to a fantasy and now looked ridiculous. No, I could do this. I wore it outside and lay unprotected for a few minutes in the unfiltered sunshine, to feel again the heat on my belly.
I remembered my suits of yore, a turquoise, yellow, and white Hawaiian print I wore as a sexually awakening 16-year-old on a trip to the south of France, drawing a lingering look from Christopher Plummer, a friend of my father’s. Then there was the gauzy one with pink and white squares that I had the summer of my first romance and that carried me into my second and final love affair—which is to say, my long and enduring marriage. I had the bikini for years until it literally fell apart. The last one I could recall was a sort of gray denim with a serious underwire in the top, memorable because on a hot day one of my breasts escaped from the cup for a brief moment, occasioning a horrified look from my ten-year-old niece, who was walking beside me as we exited the ocean. “Oh, Aunt Anne,” she gasped, all prepubescent modesty. We have laughed about it for years.
Here’s what’s amusing: I only vaguely remember the endless one-pieces that followed that accident—and perhaps were propelled by it. They are a sensible blur. It is the bikinis that evoke the memories—even more, for a true Southern California native, than a wedding dress. I recollect my bridal gown, of course, in detail, but it doesn’t hold the sensual sting of those small pieces of fabric I paraded in across many a beach and around many a pool. I never saw a contradiction between that garb and my hearty feminist sympathies. There was a bravado in sailing forth half clad.
The moxie now is different, a pleasure in feeling free enough to risk going out fairly uncovered, flesh in the air, such a simple, long-set-aside pleasure. One doesn’t experience the same sexual heat anymore. It is more a self-celebration. I think of the French women I saw along the Mediterranean coast. They were usually topless, gold chains hanging around their necks, short hair slicked back, big sunglasses. They were often quite unabashedly zaftig but looked pleased in their own skins.
That’s the feeling I was after. I realize I am less afraid of embarrassing myself than of being unwilling to risk embarrassment. I was telling this to a friend, who confessed that she, too, had recently given in to the urge—buying three bikinis. “Wow,” I said, laughing. “You really went for it.” She hadn’t worn one since she was 15. She said that an early episode of abuse had driven her “under cover.” But she had grown strong and content in the intervening years—weathered a divorce, started a successful business—and was now off to a working vacation in Mexico. In usual fashion she had ordered nice, tame one-piece suits from a catalog but hated their drabness when she tried them on. She said they made her feel timid. “I’m in better shape than I probably have ever been,” she told me, something that is true, I think, of a lot of women who have looked after themselves. So my pal hit the department stores in quick, hard pursuit of a bikini, decades after she had sported her last. Not for her the more conservative two-pieces, which we agreed are decidedly less flattering to most shapes, as they cut you up in funny ways. Best to let those hips show.
In all honesty, I have not been anywhere in my new suit beyond the backyard pool. I am practicing to go more public. I don’t think a mere piece of apparel is going to change my life. Nor do I think anybody else of a certain age should feel compelled to adopt a more revealing two-piece as beachwear, though I do love to see young women in them, the healthy ones, not the skeletal stars in the tabloids. The deal is that there should be no tyrannies—and no limitations. That’s what I believe and what, as a mantra, I repeat to myself as I walk outside in my festive bikini.