I was the only granddaughter in a family of four grandsons. So when we vacationed with my grandparents and cousins on a lake in New Hampshire, I was aware that I was different. Why did I have to wear a bathing suit with ruffles on my chest while my brother and cousins could go topless?

Because you’re a girl, was my mother’s unsatisfactory answer.

But we all look the same on top, I said.

When you grow up you’ll have bosoms like me and Granny and Aunt Betty, said Mom.

But I don’t have them now, I protested. And I don’t want them, ever!

You’ll change your mind, predicted Mom.

I scowled. But she was right, I did change my mind. Scantily clad in an itsy bitsy, teeny weeny, pink-and-white checked bikini, I pranced around the beach at my other grandparents’ vacation house the summer I turned 14. The pink checks added a note of girlish innocence but did not deter an obnoxious college student from asking me out on a date. He leered and persisted; I blushed and fled. And so I learned attracting male attention had a downside.

The bikini’s charm was further diminished when I got slammed with a big wave, tossed around like a bit of laundry on the spin cycle and ground into the sand. When I stood up, gasping and panting, I realized to my horror that I was topless. I crossed my arms over my chest as my itsy bitsy bikini top floated out to sea.

My next purchase was a more modest one-piece, better suited for my job as a counselor’s aide teaching little kids how to swim.

The following summers, ages 18-19, were the golden age of bathing suits. I hardly needed to try them on — they all looked good on me.

But then came marriage at age 20 and pregnancy. Time for a maternity suit to hide the bump and support ballooning breasts. I continued to wear it after my daughter was born, discretely lowering the top to nurse my newborn in the locker room.

Pregnant a second time, I was back on the beach in Quogue. Once again, the sea spun me around and spat me out onto the sand. (You’d think I’d have learned how to dive into a breaking wave, but no.) As I struggled to get up, my daughter ran up to me crying “Is the baby OK?” We watched my abdomen for signs of life and the baby obliged with a visible kick. 

After separating from my husband nine years later, I watched with dismay as my body morphed into middle age. I became self-conscious about thighs and stomach and susceptible to ads for “slimming” suits that would magically conceal bulges while emphasizing the still viable cleavage. No matter your perceived defect, if you are an American woman, there is a style for you! I felt like Scarlet O’Hara laced into her corset, but preserving the illusion of youth seemed worth it.

Fast forward to late middle age, remarried to a man who also had a middle-aged body. Still hoping to hide my gut but unwilling to endure pain in a mostly lost cause, I bought a couple of loose blouson top bathing suits (now more appropriately called “swimsuits.”) These were fine for lounging around the Scarsdale pool and not looking fat, but when I got into the water to swim laps, the blouson tops filled with air, making me look like a Portuguese man o’ war.

Several years ago, I joined a gym with an indoor pool so I could swim all year-round. Swimming is now about cardiovascular health, and my concern about swimsuit style is limited to choosing a pretty print — I call it the “hell with it” phase of swimsuit selection. I slice through the water in an inexpensive tank suit, alternating breast, side and backstrokes with the crawl, unencumbered by industrial strength spandex, ruches, ruffles or ribs.

Free at last!

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