I’ve never worn a bikini.

Like many women, I worry about my weight–

No, wait.

Forget that. I’m not going there.

You guys already know the drill–there’ve been approximately ten billion articles written in the last year alone about how our society puts pressure on women to be effortlessly thin and how that messes us all up and how media shoves unattainable body types in our faces all the time and so on and so on and so on.

We’ve all heard so much about American women and their adversarial relationships with their own bodies that there’s nothing new to say on the subject. Most of us would like to be thinner. Alert the media.

Anyway, weight issues aren’t the full explanation for why I’ve never worn a bikini. Plenty of other women with bodies similar to mine, who have been exposed to the exact same societal influences, still happily and comfortably wear bikinis to the beach, and I could have done the same at any point in my life. No one was stopping me.

I could have worn a bikini when my body was young and healthy and decent. I could have worn a bikini when I was hugely pregnant with any one of my four kids (pregnant women look awesome in bikinis). I could have shrugged and worn a bikini after giving birth to those four kids and even after undergoing an umbilical surgery operation that left my stomach lumpy.

I could have worn a bikini yesterday or the day before. I could have worn one this morning (although the grocery store cashier might have looked at me oddly).

The swimsuit police would not have arrested me. The earth wouldn’t have stopped revolving. Society would not have condemned me with one unified voice. To the contrary: I suspect that if I wore a bikini to the beach, no one would give a shit.

One of the earliest known visual documentations of a bikini, from the Ancient Roman Villa Romana del Casale– ℅ wikipedia

“It’s entirely possible some bikinis would have flattered my figure more than the one-piece suits I did try on, but I’ll never know, because I never even gave them a shot.”

A pin-up of Esther Williams from a 1945 issue of Yank, the Army Weekly ℅ wikipedia

The choice not to do so has been mine and mine alone. And it’s been an automatic one. I mean, I’ve never even tried on a bikini. Never plucked one from a rack to take into the dressing room. Never considered the different styles available. Never debated the merits of a bra top versus a halter, a boy-cut bottom versus a hipster.

It’s entirely possible some bikinis would have flattered my figure more than the one-piece suits I did try on, but I’ll never know, because I never even gave them a shot.

The truth is, this isn’t really about bikinis or even about my body. This is about self-image and confidence and internal criticism. This is about the voice inside my head—a voice we all have, though it murmurs different things to each of us—saying over and over again, “You are not good enough for this; you don’t deserve that; you should not, you must not, you cannot. Your flesh is wrong, your talent is suspect, your morals are questionable—and if you’re not careful, if you don’t conceal the ugliest parts of yourself, people will find out all those things.”

It’s strange that two little scraps of fabric can send me tumbling down into the pit. How nice life would be if a bikini were just a bikini, a slice of cake just a slice of cake, a breast just a breast . . . but all these things are so fraught for most women, who’ve been taught to be their own severest critics, believing, perhaps, that if they rush to edit themselves, they can stave off the humiliation of having other people notice their flaws.

And so we deny ourselves things that might give us pleasure and hide parts of our bodies that do not need to be hidden. We curtail our own freedom and joy out of some sort of terror that if we don’t, others will. Which is ironic, since we’re choosing the more painful path: self-love will allow you to weather external criticism, but nothing allows you to weather self-loathing.

My daughter wears bikinis. She and her friends think one-piece bathing suits are old-fashioned and unflattering.

“Do you think there are girls who shouldn’t wear bikinis?” I asked her when I was working on this article.

“Why would I think that?”

“Like if they didn’t look good in them?” I was ashamed of myself for even saying it, but I was curious.

She rolled her eyes and said with heavy sarcasm, “Yeah, Mom, that’s what my friends and I all want to do when we go to the beach—stare at other girls in bikinis and criticize them. Because that’s so much fun.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Bikinis are just normal. They’re what everyone wears.”

So this thing that’s always loomed so large to me, has always carried so much meaning, this item of clothing that I never dared to wear, wouldn’t even consider wearing . . . it truly is just a couple of scraps of fabric to my daughter and her friends. It’s ultimately no different to them than, say, a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, which don’t look the same on every person who wears them (lord knows, we’re all different shapes, sizes, and colors)–but that doesn’t mean some of us should get to wear jeans and a t-shirt and others shouldn’t. It’s just clothing.

Still . . . I don’t think I’ll ever wear a bikini. Some habits are too hard to break. And I’ve found a bathing outfit that suits me: little bathing shorts and a tank top. I feel comfortable in it: it’s summery without being too exposed, and not too much like what my mother wore.

It’s a good solution but I still feel a little sad that not once in my life have I been able to say, “I want to wear a bikini,” and then just do it.

Not because I think bathing suits matter. Because I think self-acceptance, self-love, and self-confidence do.

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