Bikinis — such a frothy, exotic word — always made me feel like a vampire facing a clove of garlic.
It’s not just me. When Deborah Copaken, a friend and author of the memoir “Ladyparts,” was in her 20s, she wore a bikini, albeit reluctantly. She always felt self-conscious running into the water, she told me, her thighs jiggling behind her, her butt cheeks exposed. Why couldn’t she dress for the beach like a man? They never worried about such things.
In her 40s, rather than don the thongs modeled on the beach by the likes of Gisele Bündchen, Copaken switched to women’s surfer shorts. In her 50s, after the end of a 23-year marriage, a burst appendix, three childbirths, one near death from vaginal cuff dehiscence, and painful infidelity, she fled to Greece with three girlfriends to regroup and heal. There, she noticed women (and men) of all ages and sizes wearing tiny triangular patches of swimsuit fabric, no matter the droop of their thighs.
“I decided f--- it,” Copaken says now. “If my soft arms, jiggly ass and stomach scars bother you, that’s your problem, not mine.” She switched back to bikinis. “I don’t want to spend a single minute of the life I have left worrying about my body.”
Our culture seems to insist that women abhor our own skin. Research shows that a whopping 45 percent of teens have pondered cosmetic surgery; 40 to 60 percent of elementary school girls worry they are becoming “too fat”; and more than 80 percent of women are “sometimes” or “very often”on a diet to skinny up.
We’re pressured to hide our bodies from the masses: The horror of a woman breastfeeding! Strolling on the beach with cellulite bared! Parading her aging thighs under a miniskirt! And forget it if we exhibit the scars of a mastectomy, nursing or childbearing, not to mention wrinkles and sagging neck flesh. Even the feminist icon Nora Ephron famously said, “If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re 34.”
Thirty-four? Ouch. I can’t remember 34.
Both Mom and Nora have been dead for a decade. Like Copaken, I’ve made progress over my 56 years, facing down the cellulite demons and an entire planet adamant that women’s bodies must be invisible or covered up. Surprisingly, some of my acceptance comes from listening to men and looking at my body the way they do, rather than comparing myself to Instagram beach pix.
At 50, I got divorced and dated younger men, who were enthusiastic about my body. This is what these wise, appreciative men showed me: There is nothing more beautiful (or sexier) than a woman who is comfortable in her own skin. Every woman, of any age, has nice body parts. Collarbones? Wrists? Knees? Earlobes? We’ve all got our lovelies. Even the parts we’ve been trained to hate most have something going for them: Cellulite is soft as silk against the skin. If only Anna Wintour had told us!
I urge you to tackle this quest: Whatever your age, choose a swim costume that works for you. Game for the bikini? Rock it. But perhaps it’s not a conventional bathing suit. Maybe consider a swim dress or a gauzy wrap. Push yourself to find fabric or a mind-set that helps you make your way to the pool, beach or lake.
As for moi, I have a new crocheted bikini with a special stomach panel that covers the evidence of my three 8-pound babies and accentuates my Kim Kardashian booty. In my dreams (if I squint), it makes my legs look a little like Iman’s.
Or there’s another option. My most beautiful friend, a grandmother in her late 70s, hates bathing suits so passionately that she only swims naked. Mostly late at night in private pools. Occasionally in a deserted lake. She says she’s too old to endure the torture devices designed to deprive older women of the simple joys of swimming, frolicking and enjoying our birthrights — the bodies that nature gave us.
So if you’re brave enough (and won’t get arrested), why not take her lead? This summer, get in the water and show everyone everything.