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Utterly Unsuitable

by Julia Sneden

 The week ahead
Holds lots of dread:
I have to buy a bathing suit.
Id be a dope
To have much hope
Of finding fit (dont mention cute).
In fact if my long search is fruitless
I may well have to dive in suitless.

Its an annual chore for most people, this business of buying a bathing suit. For me, it comes around every six months or so. Actually, the one Im wearing these days has lasted longer than most, but what was once a trim, simple, black suit is now a saggy, baggy brownish body drape covered with odd spots where the color has disappeared altogether, so that dapples of flesh (mine) show through. In a mud-and-sand camouflage contest, Id be a winner. When other people at poolside start staring and snickering, its time for a change.

I dont mind spending money on a suit if I can find one that I like. In fact, I usually buy two suits at a time, because I have a dread of needing a suit at the wrong time of year when there simply arent any in the stores. Besides, a good fit is rare. Alas, when I bought my current suit, it was the only one on the rack that fit me.

With older women and men all across the country doing water aerobics and swimming laps, wouldnt you think the bathing suit manufacturers would twig to the idea that theres a huge market out here? Not only do we seniors buy suits; we buy suits more often than even the teenagers do, because were harder on them. No clean surf n sand for us, no lying still on a beach blanket for hours, or languidly standing around the lifeguards chair. No, we are up to our clavicles in health club pools full of chemicals, stretching our suits (and our bodies) to all sorts of outrageous extremes, sweating inside them even though the water is cool. 

Its a marketing mans dream: virtually endless demand, a quick turnover, and not much need for endless re-styling.

Which brings us to the problem. Finding a bathing suit in a style suited (!) to someone over 40 isnt easy. For instance, all those suits cut high on the thigh are supposed to make your legs look longer, but who wants to see more cellulite, or brown age spots, or even (horrors!) a side glimpse of sagging tummy?  I cant imagine why the suit designers think that the term boy cut legs is appealing to women over 40, but I have learned to grit my teeth and look for the phrase. I dont feel like anyones idea of a boy, but I do like the plain, old-fashioned suit that comes down to the top of my leg.

Then theres the plunging back. If you are proud of your love handles, youre in business, because theres no way to disguise them when the suit dips to the small of the back. On the other hand (or rather the other side), theres the low-cut bra, exposing quite nicely what nature has already lowered without any help. You can always yank up on the straps, if you are willing to emerge from your swim with Grand Canyon-sized grooves in the flesh of your shoulders. 

And what about straps? Would it be possible to design straps that actually function to hold up the top of your suit and remain in place? Is it an impossible dream to have a strap that doesnt slide off your shoulder as you do those aerobic arm-lifting moves?

Dont get me wrong. I think that modern bathing suits are a huge improvement over the suits we wore in the 50s. My father sent me a ghastly picture of myself taken in 1956 as I was emerging from the swimming pool, encased in an aqua, shiny, suit made of some miracle fabric I can no longer name. The bra resembled twin mortar shells, and the unforgiving, girdle-like fit of that tough fabric made my flesh bulge along every edge. You may be sure that my children will never see that picture. 

I was still young enough to appreciate the sleek fit of the Speedo suit when I first discovered it. Alas, after my children were born, I could no longer wear those styles. I find myself looking with envy at the young women at our local Y, who wear suits designed for efficient swimming.

Todays bathing suits are often quite comfortable, and the fabrics and colors and multiplicity of styles are great, at least for the young. They just dont work for older women.

       What is it that we need?

  • For one thing, we need simplicity. Those of us who do water aerobics or who swim seriously dont need or want little skirts or panels that provide drag as we stroke along. Neither are we interested in huge patterns or little ruffles.
  • We need durability. Surely there are dyes and fabrics that will hold up well despite hard use. We need coverage: no high-cut thighs, no plunging necklines, and definitely no low backs. We need support: soft bras, and good straps that either crisscross or are T back, or regular straps that can be switched to a halter style. We need lots of give, especially in the abdomen. Maybe there could be a small, tie-on panel or skirt for those of us who actually wear the things out of the water.
  •  We need suits made for women under 54 (the national average) and for women over 54, in other words for women with short waists and for women with long waists. It seems to me that the suit length could be designated as ST or LT, standing for Short Torso or Long Torso.

If I were a swimsuit manufacturer, I would make my fortune by reaching out to the older market. Id make simple, durable suits designed for exercise, styled with the older womans body in mind. I would market them in Ys and health clubs, as well as in department stores. I would not worry much about varying the styles, because a swimmer who finds one suit that fits wants only to replace it with its clone (which, of course, she can never find). I would keep detailing to a minimum, possibly offering instead a wide range of colors and small patterns. I would offer suits in all the usual sizes, but in two torso lengths. And I would advertise them with great fanfare and pride in a product whose time has come.

But I dont make em
I just wear em:
Stretch em, shrink em, 
Fade em, tear em.
Though we have laws
I dare not flout,
Id really rather
Swim without.


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