Bikini Blues

Lily Iona MacKenzie

At fifty I took the vow. Not of celibacy. Not for the nunnery. I vowed I would never wear a bikini again. An ardent bikini wearer for thirty-five years, I didn’t find the habit easy to break. I had worshipped the sun and its intimacy with my belly. I loved naval-gazing, my stomach the same shade of light copper as my arms. Now it’s as pale as the moon. Of course, the sun is something else I’ve given up, except in small doses. Melanoma and the fear of resembling a lizard have tempered my exposure to it.

Fourteen years later, I’m rethinking my earlier pledge, triggered by a trip to Turkey with my husband, Michael. How can I let my younger self speak for me now? Why did I assume I should hide my body once I hit that magic age of fifty? How do I differ from Muslim women who cover up, though they do it, supposedly, for religious reasons? Isn’t there something faintly devotional about my choice? Doesn't it imply there must be something inherently immoral about wearing a bikini after a certain age?

In Turkey, I expected my modest, black one-piece suit—proper for a matron—would be totally appropriate. I even worried it might expose too much. But as we cruised down the Aegean, and later the Mediterranean coasts, I reconsidered. At every beach and swimming pool, bikini-clad gals older than I—and carrying a lot more weight on their frames—strutted past, broadcasting their aged bodies, some even topless. Of course, most weren’t Turkish. Europeans flock to the Turkish coast (French, Spanish, Italian, German, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian), as do the British. And they don’t have the hang-ups many Americans have about their bodies. They weren’t concerned about having the perfect mannequin shape. Nor did it bother them to be overweight or physically unattractive in other ways.

I couldn’t say the same for myself. Occasionally, we lounged on beach chairs, under big umbrellas, either poolside or seaside, when we weren’t haunting archeological digs. But I was distracted by the parade of flesh, male and female, most wearing—yes, you guessed it. And the skimpiest ones at that. The men’s big (and I mean BIG) stomach’s bulged over itty-bitty scraps of cloth: virulent red; potent green; glowing yellow. Then there were the buxom types, big-hipped mamas, and generally overweight women all flaunting the fact.

I watched this human parade reveal its sagging flesh, gravity not a particularly uplifting friend. Yet the bathers seemed so easy with their appearance, apparently unconcerned about what others might think of them, while I—in my one-piece—cowered inwardly. I hated for anyone to see the ugly six-inch scar on my right thigh that makes a dent, the result of a compound fracture to my femur when I was a girl. Or to witness my floundering tissues. Yet all around me were the scourges of aging in full view: sagging breasts, slack stomach muscles, drooping haunches. And not an ounce of shame or timidity over displaying themselves in this way.

From behind my wrap-around sunglasses, I watched, smug in my black you-know-what. Michael would frequently nudge me: “You’ve got a better body than she does!” Instead of reassuring me or making me feel better, his comments highlighted my cowardice and made me feel out of place. I wanted to bury myself in the sand, or at least under a huge beach towel. But Michael urged me to renounce my pledge and live a little. He thought I was nuts not to go for it.

Rationalization works well when we’re faced with the awful truth. It sure worked for me. I said, Lily, you’re not interested in sunbathing or showing off your body any more. After all, that’s the main reason to wear a bikini. Face it: you gave up those telltale white patterns on your skin long ago—the bathing suit marks. You’re too mature now to let it all hang out.

So what is this thing called maturity? Does it mean relinquishing the things of youth? Or is it more connected to dignity? Just how dignified did I want to be? And why is a covered body more dignified than a naked one? “Naked came I into this world and naked I shall leave.” I don’t know who said this originally—maybe Job—but it was a favorite line of Rodin’s. In his sculptures, he explored the naked flesh in all its variations from taut and young, to old and frail. I wouldn’t call his creations undignified. Isn’t dignity our attitude towards something, rather than a particular way of dressing or being in the world?

This shame some of us feel about our bodies—American women especially—must have a source. And while I’m sure there are many causes, I blame ironing for some of our ideas about wrinkles. The thought that a garment is more attractive if it has no folds or creases has more weight than we might realize. I was aware of that notion on our trip when I frantically sought out irons at various stops, hoping to eliminate the evidence of our travels from the clothes we were wearing. It’s an old hang up. I remember learning how to iron on the farm in Langdon, Alberta, when we had to heat irons on the wood-burning stove. The habit burns deep, and I’m sure it carries over to the flesh.

But I also blame our isolation from Europe and the prudishness that still informs America. Our neighbors influence us, and Europeans have been rubbing shoulders with each other for a long time. Their more accepting and mature approaches to the body and aging is infectious. They don’t worship youth as we do in America. So whose mores do we embrace? Not those of Scandinavia. Not Italy’s. Not Russia’s.

Or maybe this fear of others seeing me in the raw—especially as I enter my golden years—is just my problem. I don’t think so. Though I no longer spend much time on California beaches or at swimming pools, when I do take the plunge, I don’t see many older women in bikinis. I tell myself that one-piece suits are less distracting and easier to swim in, but, again, for me that’s a rationalization. And while I may not have many opportunities here to flaunt myself in a two-piece suit—I really only swim or sun when I’m vacationing—it’s the psychological element that bothers me. I’m no longer concerned about being a sun goddess. But I am troubled by the outdated perceptions women have of themselves and how they should look at whatever age.

I’d like to say I discarded my one-piece suit for good in Turkey, but, okay, I admit it: I refused to buy a new swimsuit while I was there. Determined not to give in to whatever pressures I was feeling from Michael and the beach culture, I continued with my one-woman crusade and my one-piecer; it was okay to be different. I didn’t have to show all.

Lest you think that Michael is a bully, he’s not. He likes my body and hates to see me disparage it. He wants me to feel free to wear whatever I want, but not out of fear or from my own inner pressures to follow some “rule.”

But I have to admit, I did have some rules for aging:

* Don’t stand out

* Cover any wrinkles with clothing (unwrinkled) or makeup

* Go out gracefully

* Be modest

* Seek the dimmest lights possible

* Eliminate eliminate eliminate (especially bikinis)

* Remember the adage that old people should be heard, not seen

My revised rules of aging:

* Make a lot of noise

* Call attention to yourself

* Unveil

* Advertise the beauty (and ugliness) of old age

* “Do not go gently into that good night” (not original, Dylan Thomas said it better)

* Wear whatever makes you feel good

* Break all the rules, including these!

So instead of singing the bikini blues, I'll buy a bikini and, if nothing else, hang it on a wall in our bedroom, under my dreamcatcher, so I can see it each day. Not black, that’s for sure. Perhaps something more fluorescent. Or floral. Whatever I choose, it will stand as a reminder of the many ways I oftentimes oppress myself and disparage my own aging body. I hope that the suit will make a different statement: be bold, and don’t worry about regressing. And if you do regress, enjoy the voyage along the way.