I didn’t try on the last swimsuit I bought until I got home. Then, doors locked, lights dimmed, I slipped on the brown halter-top bikini—on sale, at J.Crew—and made a rude discovery: I looked like a desiccated pine cone. Bathing suits are unreturnable. So I was stuck with my summer foliage. I didn’t really mind. If I had to try on suits in the store, it’s likely that I wouldn’t own one at all. Gisele may feel differently, but for the average self-flagellating female, swimsuit shopping is as pleasurable as paying taxes and getting a root canal. Most styles are designed for porn stars or nymphets, and the three-way mirrors favored by department-store changing rooms, with their six-way views of your least favorite drooping body part, have a way of making you feel even more exposed than when you’re actually naked.
This is because swimsuits—unlike birthday suits—are meant to be worn in public. And so, we gaze at our reflections as we imagine others will gaze at us. The view is usually less than we’d hoped for. A creeping sensation sets in: We’ve been fooling ourselves about the people we imagined ourselves to be—not moderately attractive “players” in the world economy, but lepers unfit to occupy three grains of the Earth’s sand.
There are, however, coping strategies. Only shop on “thin days.” Never bring a friend. (Any woman who accepts an invitation to go bathing-suit shopping probably has a better body than you.) Avoid department stores in favor of boutiques. The selection may be smaller, but the changing rooms have softer lighting and single, elongated mirrors. Speaking of elongation, there’s a reason that the swimsuit portion of Miss Universe is conducted in heels—so wear shoes with a little lift to boost your ego. You can leave your sunglasses on as well. They’ll repel obsequious shop clerks who feel compelled to comment on your butt coverage. And don’t forget to wear underwear that fits.
In stylistic terms, basic bikinis with triangle tops and adjustable sides are the most flattering look on those of medium build with less-than-perfect proportions. That’s easier said than done, however, as a tour of Saks’ eighth floor confirms. Seemingly inspired by Suzanne Somers circa Three’s Company, Juicy Couture’s entire 2005 collection is made of terry cloth. Alternatively, in the spirit of Guantánamo Bay, ViX by Paula Hermanny offers orange bikini bottoms decorated with clanking gold chains. Elizabeth Hurley Beach—when did she get a clothing line?—takes the dangling-appendage theme one step further, adding semiprecious stones to her side ties. And, for those who believe that money is a silly thing best dispensed with, La Perla offers two lovely strips of gauze at a cost of $445.
Where to go instead? The generous two-pieces at Malia Mills in Soho minimize problem areas, and the sales staff is very helpful. The selection is not particularly wide at Bergdorf Goodman, but the lighting is soft, the walls have muted pink-and-taupe stripes, and the staff tends to be slightly older and more sympathetic than at, say, Eres.
More affordably, J.Crew has large changing rooms, flattering lighting, and a vast array of styles that—if you’re a bikini girl—you can mix and match. It makes tankinis, too, if you’re shy about your stomach.
For a quick fix, try Old Navy, where one can purchase a string bikini alongside the imperfect masses in black, grape, orange, turquoise, and—if you want to look like a piece of tropical fruit—guava pink. Best of all, you can buy the suit online.