This week, InStyle is diving into the changing look, complicated impact, and undeniable power of summer’s uniform: the swimsuit.
“Well, that’s certainly brave of you,” a perfect stranger commented on my order of a pain au chocolate at the Starbucks in JFK airport. She pointed at my boarding pass. “Miami. A chocolate filled croissant. Bikini weather!”
I gave her a close-mouthed smile.
I have been officially done with treatment for anorexia since May of last year. After half a life spent thinking more about food and calories than just about anything else, I checked into an eating disorder rehabilitation center. I was on the brink of 30. It was now or never.
And I can say with certainty that I’m “better.” I’m not cured (are you ever?), but I’m better. And then someone tells me how brave I am for eating a fucking pain au chocolate during bikini season.
Shopping for swimsuits is fun for maybe .1% of the population, and all of them receive paychecks from Victoria’s Secret. But if there’s anything I learned from rehab, it’s that even the girls you think “have it all” struggle. Sometimes harder than the ones that “look” sick. Yes, I’m sure Victoria’s Secret Angels have bathing suit shopping woes, too, as difficult as that is to imagine.
The first time I truly realized I had a body was at a pool party in eighth grade. I had purchased a bikini for the first time for the occasion, not thinking of the ramifications of what it would mean for my less-than-gregarious social life. It was a halter neck denim-looking two-piece that definitely didn’t fit properly. It was before brands really sold tops and bottoms separately, so my top was too big and my bottom too small. This was also before the days of Net-a-Porter and Amazon, so you had to—get this—actually go into a store.
I stood in a tiny, square dressing room with bad lighting (at a store ironically named Great Shapes), my mother sitting in the corner on a stool. “Is it comfortable?” “Do you want to go outside into better lighting?” “Do you want to try a brighter color?”
My mother had seen me practically naked every day of my life, but all of a sudden I felt like she was stranger. I felt like I was a stranger. I hated what I saw. I didn’t want anyone seeing it.
“You have a body,” one girl said to me when I took off my sundress. She had the body of a prepubescent boy. The kind I wanted. “I’m so jealous. You have an ass,” she said.
I didn’t want those things, though. Even though she was telling me, in front of 20 other 13-year-olds, mind you, that she was jealous of me, at the moment, I felt fat.
Bathing suit shopping for me has always felt like a magic show of sorts: find something that hides this thing you don’t like (my ass, the birthmark on my left thigh, my thighs in general), emphasizes that part you do like (my back, my collarbone); it’s at its core, not about celebrating yourself.
But who wants to celebrate themselves anyway? Where’s the fun in that? From January-March, half of what we talk about is getting “bikini ready.” What would we talk about, write about, think about, if it weren't related to getting our abs toned and asses lifted in time for Memorial Day? What a boring three months we would have.
Want to know some of my old tricks?
I have childhood memories as early as 6 years old of insisting on wearing oversized T-shirts over my bathing suits. The rule: The shirt had to pass my knees or else I wouldn’t go into the pool.
As a teenager, I'd wear bikini tops with sweatpants, or wide leg linen pants, just to avoid dealing with thinking about or looking at my thighs. I used to lay out in 90-degree heat in a bikini top and pants. That was more comfortable than showing my legs.
As an adult, it got more dangerous. I simply wouldn’t put a suit on unless I was at a certain weight. And if I was at that weight, being outside in such heat is barely tolerable.
I had to throw out all my bathing suits when I gained my weight back (an estimated 20 pounds, but I’m not positive). And we’re not talking $20 bikinis from your local surf shop. Eres, Solid & Striped, Missoni … these were investment pieces all too small for my now “healthy” body.
Thanks to the beauty of the Internet, I didn’t have to enter one of those depressing, poorly lit dressing rooms of my teenage nightmares. I did the whole harrowing task online, ordering the simplest suit in three different sizes: an Eres black one-piece.
The suits came and sat in the delivery bag for three days before I was able to try them on. I would try the largest size on first, although I knew no matter the order I did this project in, I’d feel like shit. I strategically waited to be alone in my apartment. Just me and my (ironically) overweight cat.
The first suit I grabbed was the smallest size. It took everything in my power not to try to put it on. If it fit, I’d feel happy, which would be a failure? But if the biggest size fit wasn’t that a failure, too? I threw the smallest size on the bed and found the biggest.
“It fits,” I texted a friend I’d met in treatment through tears. “It fucking fits.”
She could have said a million things, like, “You know that sizing isn’t a real thing,” or “”That’s progress!” Either of those statements would have made me want to punch her in the teeth. Instead, she simply sent me the following message: “Guess it’s time to :SWIMMING GIRL EMOJI:. That’s what bathing suits are for, right?”
Of course, it’s not that simple. I didn’t all the sudden have this amazing revelation that countered all the feelings I had about having gone up two sizes in a swimsuit. My friend pointing out that bathing suits are utilitarian pieces of clothing that serve the purpose of enabling us to be clothed in water didn’t erase the grief of sending back the smaller sizes. But it certainly helped me get out of my fashion-brain bubble that I often find myself lost in.
I wish I could write here about how, after all this, I feel "great" and "empowered" in a bathing suit. I wish I could write that I even like shopping for bathing suits. But the honest-to-God truth is that it’s still really complicated. I feel grateful to have found one suit I love that I don’t feel awful in, that I don’t mind taking pictures in. (I feel a bit peeved that it’s just shy of $500, but that’s for another story.)
But I'll tell you this: Now, two years into my recovery, I go to Starbucks en route to Miami. I order a pain au chocolate—and ask the barista to heat it up. And I think to myself: Boy, am I brave.