Beach wail


Beach wail

Last week at a sports store, I saw a lady send a salesgirl into a tizzy over a swimming costume. “I hate grey, I don’t want to look like a fire brigade in red and don’t expect me to do bikini wax every day to wear this deeply slashed style. Show me a one-piece costume with a U-shaped back, no racer back, holes or cross straps, otherwise the tanning will be uneven!”

The stunned salesgirl pulled out a clownish, high-necked, one-piece purple costume with elbow-length sleeves and legs the length of bicycle shorts like half a bodysuit. “No tan with this ma’am, you don’t even have to do bikini wax,” she said, tentative but intent on doing her job well.

The lady turned to me, rolling her eyes, garnering support for her failed bid to find a costume that was sexy yet functional. I emphathized fully: Some of us have the voice of a shopping shark guiding our dressing instincts but the body of a beach whale.

“I don’t want a girlie frock or a snorkelling uniform,” she added. Turns out, it isn’t easy to find the “perfect” swimming costume. Unless: You have walked out of the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated; groom yourself frequently for a silkily waxed body and scrubbed butt cheeks, have no cellulite on your thighs, no stretch marks around your underarms. Else, the exposed body can cause traumatic style anxiety. Gosh. Men don’t have to go to such great lengths to swim.

Having worked earlier for women’s magazines that hawked articles on “how to acquire a bikini body”, in those days I would brush it all off as some women’s need for excessive self-indulgence, with magazines smartly catering to that tantrum. But when you actually go swimming, whether in a Spandex frock, an enticing two-piece bikini, a halter-necked lycra top with hot pants, a one-piece swimming costume, a bodysuit or even a Burkini—the complexity of the checklist hits you. Not to forget inbuilt boob support for the big-busted. Patchy tanning is a real issue with most swimming suits (check out the dozens available online or at luxury stores) offering crazy back patterns—huge cut-out holes, or thin, X-shaped straps. There is no dearth of styles, but what influences the final choice in our size, could drown us.

The crunch, as most women say, is in liking one’s body in a swimsuit. It is a completely different deal than figure-emphasizing bandage dresses, slinky saris or snug jeans. Plus, most women aren’t athletes—they do swimming as mild exercise or to accompany their children splashing around as a vacation fad or on beach holidays where it is considered supposedly cool to hang around in a costume whether you can swim or not. They need a showpiece more than a sports garment.

A friend of mine, who swims seriously at a 50m-long Olympics-size public pool for 135 an hour in New Delhi, says she has to be conscious of the crowd—mostly male—around her while choosing her costume. Where I swim, I notice women dragging large pool towels around their waists. Most want to slip away unnoticed, never mind bikini body prescriptions in magazines or ambition-stoking swimsuit calendars that have turned many a model into an actress.

We could blame prude mindsets or men ogling at women everywhere. But there is something else. It may be the problematic view that the cosmetic perfection of the female body is the most important accessory even before you start swimming to acquire it. Mixed with our social imperative of lajja (modesty), it affects poolside body language in a peculiarly Indian way.

That’s why I applaud for swimwear on Indian ramps and not only because the pairing of swimming costumes with high heels translates into terrific style. Not all Indian models agree to walk in swimwear for local shows. But those who do, could give us a swimsuit survival lesson.

Designer duo Shivan and Narresh’s lovely swimwear for Spring/Summer 2014—inspired by Italian artist Lucio Fontana’s concept of negative space, the body language of the “Indian” models, minus any aggressive provocativeness —exhibited the nonchalance that swimwear deserves. Like the LBD, which demands ladylike hauteur. For the same reason, I would vote out the bikini sari, which mixes modesty and tactility in a strange hybrid.