This week, InStyle is diving into the changing look, complicated impact, and undeniable power of summer’s uniform: the swimsuit.
I remember the first time I went and picked out my own bathing suit. I was 12 or 13 years old and my grandmother took me to Old Navy. This was before they had an official plus-size section, but I think I was a size 12 in women’s, which they went up to. The swimsuit I chose was blue and it was a bikini. Actually, it was shorts and a bikini top. I loved it so much. I had found a bathing suit that fit me! I felt good!
I was pretty confident as a kid up until puberty; until my body started changing and I realized I didn’t look exactly the same as everyone around me. The act of shopping itself wasn’t traumatic. The trauma, for me, came after I actually bought the thing. I felt good in the dressing room, but unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last long. I talk about this in my book, but that was the last time I wore a bikini until I was 24 or 25.
That excitement I initially felt while wearing my first two-piece faded and got worse as I grew older. As a teenager, I would always wear something big over my bathing suit, even though I grew up in the South where it was exceptionally hot. I would go to water parks with my family and I would wear board shorts and a T-shirt. I felt a lot of shame about my body at that time. And honestly, I wasn’t fat. I’m fat now, but growing up, I had big boobs and a big butt. I had a body. And I was ashamed because everyone around me didn’t look like that. I wanted to cover up until I could “fix my body.” And then, maybe, I would show it off.
After years of feeling ashamed, I discovered modeling and body positivity, which led me to find swimsuits that fit and ultimately changed my entire outlook. I started modeling eight years ago. Back then, there weren’t a lot of swimsuit options for plus-size bodies. Now, I literally have over 100 bikinis. Well, I had. I recently got rid of a bunch.
But even though I may own (and proudly wear) all those bikinis now, I still remember how nervous I was when I did my first swim campaign. It was with Alpine Butterfly Swim, a swimwear line based in Venice Beach, California created to empower women of all sizes.
There’s an assumption when you’re hiring “Tess Holliday” for a shoot that I’m just going to walk on set and feel amazing. The reality was the day that we shot, I had just discovered that I had severe postpartum and I didn’t feel good in my body. But I put the swimwear on (which fit!) with all the hair and makeup (which I know is a luxury), and I saw myself and thought, this is not as bad as I thought it would be.
That experience helped me refocus my energy, and I can say that I’m in a much better place now. I got cute photos out of it, a new swimwear company that I like, and a great friend in the founder of the brand. It was good in the end. But it’s definitely hard when my job is to show up and feel good in what I’m wearing. I would be lying if I said that every time I put on a bathing suit I feel confident. I don’t.
I’m obsessed with swimsuits now. But it’s because I have a unique accessibility to them that I didn’t have before and that most women still don’t really have. Through modeling and discovering body positivity I saw other influencers and models embracing the way that they looked in bathing suits and I thought if they can do it, I can do it.
And yes, there are a lot of designers and brands that have started catering to plus-size women. But I also realize how fortunate I am through my work and following people on social media to have this accessibility to discovering those brands. Let’s be honest: There are quite a few swimwear lines out there in the world and most of them do not cater to the variety of plus-size bodies.
This doesn't stop me. Sometimes I’ll take a chance and order something. I’ll see stuff and, as a model, I’ll know it won’t look the same on me as the women on the website, but the suit will arrive and it won’t remotely look or feel the same on my body. A high-waisted suit won’t have a “high waist.” It will be too low. One-pieces for plus women tend to have awkwardly short torsos. A lot of brands aren’t taking into account our stomachs, our hips, our butts. And the tops that have that tiny strap in the back with, like, one hook? My back fat goes all over it and it just looks like my bikini top is floating on me.
As a personal preference, I don’t go shopping for bathing suits in person. All of my bathing suits since I started wearing them again have been purchased online. I’ve found the brands that I know I like and I’ll order them. Some companies are nice enough to send me a couple of swimsuits and I see which ones work for my body. But there are maybe two physical stores that I can think of that I can try stuff on.
I know that my body is not the standard. But there needs to be a bit more thought and accountability put into making swimsuits that actually work for our bodies. I think there’s fear. I think brands don’t see clearly that there’s a market for us. And if they do, they only use a specific type of plus-model and often times the same exact woman: a toned woman. It’s not indicative of what the majority of women in the US or the world look like.
I did a shoot on the beach recently and I was in a one-piece. I was walking across the sand to the lifeguard tower and I felt like people were staring at me. And they weren’t. This fan came up to me and I swore she was going to say something about what I had on and she didn’t. I realized it’s almost always all in my head. And it’s the same thing I tell my other friends, which is, when you go out to the beach, enjoy the fact that you’re there enjoying time. Because the reality is, someone can see you in a bathing suit and think how amazing you look, and your perception could be that you look disgusting. That’s usually not people’s perception. Yes, I’ve had people laugh at me on the beach. I’ve had people point at me from piers. I just choose to ignore it because I’m past all of that. But it doesn’t mean that some days aren’t easier than others.
A friend of mine who is in her mid-40s contacted me and told me she hadn’t worn a swimsuit practically her entire adult life. She was going on a trip to Mexico and asked me to help her shop for a suit. I gave her some options. She picked one that she really loved. She went to Mexico. Two young girls at the resort laughed and said they couldn’t believe she was wearing a suit like that. My friend texted me:
“I went to my cabana, took my wrap off, as I walked by I heard, “Oh My God. I can’t even believe it.” And [made] snorty pig noises and they were all giggles. I was wearing a cover-up on the bottom. I immediately turned around and headed back to my cabana, took off the cover-up and walked right back by them. I stopped in front of them. Bent over as if I dropped something and stayed [bent over] that way longer than necessary. I stood up, turned around, smiled at them, and kept walking.”
You have to just go out there and find a bathing suit that you feel good in. If you like a lot of support, get a bathing suit with a lot of support. If you want something slinky, they make that, too. There are so many options now. You don’t have to hide if you don’t want to. Realize that if people are staring, maybe it’s because they think you look great. And if they’re being negative, well, give them something to stare at.