By Marni Jackson
Reprinted with permission from the author and Saturday Night Magazine,where this article was originally published in March 2003.
It’s interesting what you throw out and what you keep. In the process of moving house last year, I had to perform an archaeological dig on long-forgotten corners of the basement. Among the items that came to the surface was an excellent historical collection of bathing suits. One of them was my first sexually explicit bathing suit. It is a black Sea Queen – technically a one-piece with a plunging V-neck, although it could also be described as a bikini welded together by a torso of black elastic fishnet.
For some reason, my mother allowed me to buy this hookerish item, when I was 15. When my father was finally exposed to the spectacle, he lowered his newspaper, took in his adolescent daughter, now dressed like someone auditioning for a James Bond sequel, and said, “You’re asking for trouble.” Indeed I was; I just didn’t know it yet.
Ah, black fishnet. Strippers and Las Vegas chorus girls knew what they were doing – there is nothing as flattering, sexy and mood-altering as black fishnet. Wide-gauge or sieve-fine, it just keeps coming back into fashion. I saw a recent picture of Cosmo perma-girl Helen Gurley Brown at the age of 80: although she wore a demure knee-length suit, her skinny legs were clad in black fishnet.
I wore the Sea Queen throughout the ‘60s, and then it disappeared into my ongoing clothing compost. I never discard. I still have the same red-raffia, wedge-heeled summer espadrilles I wore in 1971. I only recently parted with a pinkish-blond rabbit-fur coat I acquired on Portobello Road in London in 1969. And a few years back, when fishnet came around again, I discovered I still had, and could still get into, the old Sea Queen. Fishnet is forgiving. All right, I did have to rip open the legs a little with scissors. Then I punkified the suit by securing the leg rips with safety pins. (This was the year of Elizabeth Hurley’s famous safety-pin dress, and other gestures of bad taste.) The Sea Queen and I were no longer appropriate for pool parties, but I still wore it (ironically) among trusted friends. Like a kitschy Christmas centrepiece, the bathing suit became impossible to toss. It was my old, black fishnet self.
Alas, I no longer have the first bathing suit I can remember – a sun-bleached, shirred yellow halter number, jauntily worn just below the nipples (I was four). That was when bathing suits were made of thick, pre-Lycra elastic material with a velvety lustre. They took forever to dry and gave off a distinctive wet-bathing-suit odour. For some reason, these scraps of clothing have become my madeleines. All I have to do to remember my summers swimming (!) in Lake Ontario is to conjure up that yellow suit.
My collection included another ‘60s classic: a bikini in pink cotton gingham. I was self-conscious about being under-breasted at the time, so I sewed padded plastic quarter moons into the bar. Big mistake. I went water-skiing one summer day with a boatful of boys, took a spectacular fall and surfaced to see the quarter moons drifting off along with the skis. The gingham bikini became the Humiliation Suit and was eventually abandoned.
Recently my mother handed on to me her “last good bathing suit,” a non-nonsense black one-piece Cole, probably bought in the ‘40s. She is 92. Her generation wore what amounted to coloured corsets, with that little modesty panel in the front that spared us the spectacle of the clad female crotch. But these suits were considered an improvement over the earlier, droopier, light-wool bathing costumes that were often worn wit their own metal-clasped belts – real “suits.” Actually, those bra-less, body-clinging numbers were sexier.
So I tried on my mother’s bathing suit. It is so sturdy it can almost stand on its own, like a tiny suit of armour. The suit is matte black, with lots of coverage and less give than a chorizo casing. As I gazed in the mirror, I realized I was at an interesting point in my life: I could now (at gunpoint) wear both the first adult suit I can remember and the last one my mother will buy. I guess that’s why it’s called middle age.
What a revolution swimwear has gone through since my mother’s day. Now, bathing suits shimmer like spacecraft, weight less than hummingbirds and can go from wet to dry in minutes. But for women, at least something about bathing suits never seems to change: Dressing Room Despair.
Despite modern suits that address “problem areas” with clever control panels in high-tech fabrics with the tensile property of a garbage compactor, the moment still arrives when one must enter the dressing room and face the music. There is a very small window in a woman’s life when trying on bathing suits ins actually fun. After that, the mirror moment is about as mood-lifting as having a CT scan. Men are luckier. Their suits are rather ageless, and, in the case of those knee-skimming skater-surfer boxers, the younger the male body, the more voluminous the bathing suit.
But the template of the female bathing suits is always young – lithe, high-breasted, high-cut in the leg, muskrat-sleek. Trying on suits eventually becomes a futile attempt to squeeze back into the past. When a woman over 35 steps into the heartless buzz and glare of a retail dressing room and shoehorns herself into this year’s bathing suit, it’s a no-win situation. No matter how many hours she spends at the gym, she won’t be the 18-year-old that the bathing suit really has in mind. And better to swim naked than submit to the depressing draperies, swags and trompe l’oeil reserved for the Mature Bathing Suit.
In fact, anybody who has strolled along a nude beach will see that the imperfect body, naked, looks more appealing than the badly stuffed bikini. Older female bodies are less like Barbie’s and more like landscape. The young body is ever the same, a Britney-Shania-Salma conglomerate that is inevitably fit, symmetrical, and unmarked by time. It’s a generic beauty in which one perfect body resembles another. But the older body can’t escape its own particular history. It is not beautiful in the irrefutable way the young are, but it is beautifully particular. With each year, the female body cultivates its own dialect, distinct from the more wide-band meet-me/mate-me signals broadcast by the young and flawless body. I rather like to see the bodies of my female friends age, because the changes become less a departure form the ideal than an expression of their own peculiar selves.
The odd thing is, when I was younger and thinner I had far more quarrels with my body. I was never satisfied with how I looked. Now that I’m in my 50s and won’t be water-skiing in a gingham bikini (often), I am in the way of a tolerant old friend, much more accepting of how I look, despite new flaws. When you’re young, you can’t help measuring yourself against unattainable physical ideals and forever falling short. When you leave those comparisons behind, you have to make peace with your body. Girls should be reminded that there are certain perks to getting older.
You may even come to avoid Dressing Room Despair. Last year I accomplished this by buying my bathing suit online. I logged on to Land’s End. I constructed my own mini-Marni torso complete with “problem areas” and ordered a customized one-piece suit without so much as taking off my socks. A delivery man brought my suit to the door and (after he left, of course) I tried it on. It fit perfectly. It is tank suit in varying shades of blue, employing clever angles that trick the eye and paralyse the brain. It has a bra that works without looking like an aspic mould. I can swim in it and last summer it caused my husband to take my picture while I lay on the dock in it. It’s not Halle Berry in Die Another Day, but then, it occurs to me, I’m not Halle Berry. And when it comes to women and how they see themselves in the mirror, not even Halle Berry is Halle Berry.
Marni Jackson is Toronto freelance writer.