The Next Shriek You Hear . . .



EVEN AFTER IT HAS BEEN carefully explained to my editors that I prefer being alone when trying on bathing suits, they follow me into the dressing room at Macy's.

I try to prop a chair against the door but it's too late: Not only are my editors flocking into the dressing room but a newspaper photographer arrives and begins setting up lights. He turns to one editor and asks him: "What do you think, boss? Should I use the wide angle lens?"

I wake up screaming.

Yes, dear reader, Swimsuit Anxiety has struck again.

And although I had this same nightmare last summer and will have it next summer and the summer after that and all the summers of my life for as long as I shall live, the arrival of that time of year when we must walk almost nude among total strangers -- or worse yet, among close friends and loved ones -- always catches me off guard.

Which brings to mind an observation made by the late, great German philosopher Hegel, who opined: "What we learn from history is we don't learn from history."

He's right, of course. Because if we did learn from history, we'd know by now that no amount of Cellulite Relief Gel by Lancome ("Expect relief in two weeks!") and no amount of molded cup bra-tops or built-in Lycra girdles will transform those of us who have average -- or worse -- bodies into Christie Brinkley.

And we'd know by now that trying to create an optical illusion -- one which suggests we're taller or thinner or curvier or less curvy -- through the clever use of vertical stripes, horizontal lines or solid colors is about as realistic a scenario as one which involves, say, Kevin Costner's divorce from his wife next week and subsequent marriage to yours truly.

We'd also have learned the lesson by now that the saleswoman in the swimsuit department is lying to you when she says: "It's the lights. They make everyone look 10 pounds heavier in that suit."

Saleswomen, of course, will say almost anything to sell you a swimsuit. Once, years ago, a saleswoman in a New York "swimwear boutique" told me: "Listen, honey, once you've got your high-heeled pumps on, everything will fall into place." Where, I wonder, did she think I wore my bathing suit? Poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel? On the runway in Atlantic City? And what exactly was it that was going to "fall into place?"

Of course, back in the real world we all know that life is not fair. If it were, there would be no reason for swimsuits with little skirts -- which, incidentally, are a dead giveaway that all is not right in the thigh department.

Do men, I wonder, have this problem with swimsuits? A recent article I read suggests the answer is no. When it comes to swimwear, the article claims, the per- ceptions of men and women are fundamen- tally different: Women blame their figure flaws for the way a bathing suit looks; men, on the other hand, blame the suit.

I have my own theory. I believe the degree of criticism with which you view yourself in a swimsuit is in direct proportion to the degree of impact felt the first time you understood what the word "sexy" means.

For me that day came when I first saw Marlene Dorsey at the Twelve Oaks Swimming Pool. I was 11 years old and wearing a preppie-type, flowered cotton bathing suit that drooped when it got wet. She was 17 and wearing a white knit tank suit which seemed never to lose its shape. Her hair was sun-streaked and her tanned, perfect body glowed with baby oil.

I remember watching Marlene all afternoon from behind the book I pretended to read. Everything about her seemed perfect to me: the way the bone structure in her knees came together in the shape of perfect, little shields; the way she ran and dived into the pool without even stopping at the edge; even the way she sat on a towel in the sand painting her toenails with Revlon's Pink Pearl Glow.

I was dazzled. And for the next two years I wore only white knit tank suits to the pool. By that time, Marlene was off to college and I fantasized that somehow I had taken her place at the pool, become the girl everyone admired.

But, alas. The next year it was discovered I was nearsighted. Glasses followed and I saw the world -- including myself in a white knit swimsuit -- with 20/20 vision. Since then, things at the pool have never been the same.

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