Fashion critic

The last in a series of stories calling into question the supposed joys of summer


(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Pool parties are summer’s great lie. They are not fun; the swimming is beside the point. Pool parties reek of sunscreen, alcohol and the flop sweat of anxiety.

A pool party is near-strangers standing around half-naked while noshing on a menu of hot dogs, burgers and salmonella salad. You are stuck in a wet swimsuit with wet hair and wondering if you are now a giant petri dish of bacteria because, yeah, somebody definitely peed in that pool. Speedos belong on Olympians; cannonballs aren’t funny; and the lukewarm booze just turns it all into a throbbing headache of sun-baked misery.

Why, for the love of all that is kind and just in this world, would people go out of their way to host such a dispiriting few hours on what would otherwise be a lovely summer day? Why?

Because people, whether they realize it or not, are monsters.

“The last thing I would want to do is hang out with a bunch of other adults, half-dressed, drinking a watered-down Aperol spritz,” says Cenk Papila, a Toronto-based writer and fashion stylist. “I also generally just hate pools. I find them to be dirty. And please don’t get me started when everyone wants to get into the hot tub together. It’s like a cesspool.”

As it has with so much in this world, social media has made pool parties even worse than they’ve always been. Instagram has escalated them into thirst traps of preening bodies and unicorn rafts as massive as a cruise liner.

The pool parties of summer nightmares are not intimate gatherings of a few close friends who have seen you at your worst and love you just the same. It’s not the informal family get-together. These are formally planned social affairs that aspire to glamour — Brigitte Bardot in St. Tropez, Herb Ritts on Fire Island, Beyoncé on that yacht off the coast of Capri. God bless aspirations.

“Every fiber within my being absolutely abhors pool parties. I have never been to a single pool party that I did not leave crispy or miserable,” emails Jenna Scoggins, a writer who recently relocated to New York from Atlanta. “I think the original idea of a pool party is made from an honest desire of a good time but the idea and the execution are never the same.”

“The food? Soggy at best. The people? Covered in sunscreen oil and a little too close. The music? Always too loud and usually someone’s attempt at turning their DJ side hustle into a full career,” Scoggins continues. “I’m getting anxious just thinking about being in a bathing suit in front of people who literally spend hundreds of dollars to win the unspoken bikini competition that goes on near the shallow end.”

Ah, the competitive superficiality of a pool party: the designer swimsuits not meant for the water, the freshly waxed beefcake, the perma-lashes, the side-angled posing to elongate the legs. The pool is a mere backdrop for what is a de facto beauty pageant and bodybuilding competition.

In popular culture, a pool party is never simply a neutral event. In “Wolf of Wall Street,” it is a skeezy, over-the-top indulgence that underscores the lead character’s ­toxic masculinity. “Eighth Grade” uses one to convey awkward adolescence. And the “fat babe pool party” in Hulu’s “Shrill” is a political statement — a celebration of self-confidence in the face of ­cultural prejudices that attach shame to large bodies.

No garment stirs more complicated emotions about body image, self-esteem, cultural expectations and gender than a swimsuit. If you are a body positivity guru who is all empowered and self-actualized, good for you. Let us all strive to be so evolved. Until then, let the rest of us bow our heads and pray for a moratorium on these needlessly stressful poolside soirees in which we are deprived of cover.

If a friend said, “Hey, why don’t you come over for a swim?” that would be a lovely suggestion because the day would revolve around an activity for which you were appropriately dressed. A pool party is an invitation to come over and walk around in a swimsuit in front of people whom you may or may not know for the sole purpose of . . . walking around in a swimsuit.

Why don’t you just give me a sash and a tiara and ask me about world peace? At least there’d be prize money in the wretchedness of it all.

Pool parties strip away the protective armor that clothing provides in social settings. What’s left isn’t honesty; it’s vulnerability. And most people really only want to expose their soft underbelly to people they’ve grown to trust. Typically, that does not mean a mob of co-workers and their spouses. Or the bossypants parents in their kids’ play group. Or their friend’s friends. What is the classic anxiety dream? Walking in front of a crowd of people and realizing that you’re naked. What is a pool party? As close as you can come to being naked in polite company.

A 35-year-old radio producer in Toronto, who only recently came out as gay, describes pool parties as a “millstone” around his neck. One hosted by two close friends during Pride Month was especially daunting:

“I knew from the start that I couldn’t go — given that their friends are largely muscled, ­masculine-presenting gay men, something that I am, speaking broadly, not,” he emails. He asked that his name not be used because he realized, as he went on, that his self-analysis was sounding a little like a therapy session.

“These are largely my own hang-ups,” he writes, “but I have developed the feeling that if, in some quarters, you don’t, at first glance, fit a pretty tight (figuratively and literally) physical template, then the scorn can be swift and the judgment immediate.”

“I consider myself to be a perfectly happy, assured person with lots of friends whom I love spending time with,” he continues. “But the prospect of a pool party managed to demolish those contentments in one fell swoop.”

Damn you, pool parties! Look at the existential crises you cause.

We are not born hating pool parties. We grow to loathe them. When we were children, they could be delightful.

Scoggins remembers that joy. “I could be given a hot dog and some diving rings and I’d be preoccupied for hours,” she says. But then, as an adult, she went to an evening pool party. With the giant bowls of sketchy booze, women in bikinis and carousing men, it was like going to a nightclub next to a puddle of chlorine. She was done.

Robin Aufses, who heads the English department at the Lycée Français de New York, still believes in pool parties. She believes the secret to a successful, non-stressful one is to invite children. She hosted a pool party on Thursday for her colleagues and they were encouraged to bring their kids, who range in age from 2 to early teens. “Having children there seems to liberate everyone from worrying about how they look in swimsuits and forces them to focus on both keeping an eye on the kids and having fun themselves,” Aufses says. That is, of course, if one likes partying with children. Other people’s children. But we digress.

Let’s stipulate that having kids splashing around with abandon can put a little of the innocent fun back into a pool party. But those little digital natives, those generation whatevers, are the ones who are turning every aspect of life into a performance in the first place. And pool parties, as University of Mississippi student Baylor Pillow argues, are a tale of masochism in multiple acts.

Act I: Do I look fat in this swimsuit?

Act II: It’s so hot and smoke keeps coming at me from the grill, should I just get in the darn pool?

Act III: People have peed in this pool, haven’t they?

The end.

Read more from our series:

Amusement parks are an expensive way to stand in line while roasting in the sun

Stop pretending you’re having fun at this outdoor concert

Crab-picking is a treat, if you don’t mind slicing open your fingers while eviscerating a stinking carcass