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Is the perfect bathing suit possible?

The unforgiving light of a change room gives Leslie Hill a new insight into finding something – anything! – that works for her

Wenting Li

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

I like to swim. It’s my go to exercise for weight control and fitness. Nothing hurts in the water. Four to five times a week, I swim one kilometre at 6 a.m. in the local pool.

But chlorine does a number on your bathing suit. And when my brother and his wife invited me to visit them in Hawaii, suddenly, my plain, practical, polyester bathing suit looks baggy and sad. Unworthy of a place such as Hawaii. I needed a new one.

Nothing sours my day like the prospect of shopping for a bathing suit. I’m 67, educated, independent and a feminist, but when I stand in front of the large mirror in the unforgiving light of a change room, every wrinkle, every sag of unconstrained flesh, every skin tag is magnified. Common sense and logic fall away with my clothes. When I wriggle into a bathing suit, I’m desperate to look like a 19-year-old swimsuit model.

In the local bathing suit shop, I discuss fit but not price with the twentysomething, Size 6 salesgirl. With bathing suits, your best hope is to like the thing. Price is secondary. At least that’s what I tell myself until I see a tag on what she calls a miracle suit. $200! When did bathing suits get that expensive? She explains that it makes you look 10 pounds slimmer because it’s a new material that’s – well – miraculous. I turn firmly back to the cheaper lines and find five to take into the dressing rooms.

I try on one-piece suits: colourful prints, solid black, high in front, plunging and a 1940s retro look. Despite the variations, each one reveals a senior citizen, not a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. The more I look, the more disillusioned I feel.

In many ways I embraced becoming a senior. I don’t lie about my age. I don’t dye my hair or seek out Botox injections. I’m not looking for a husband. I accept seats offered to me on the bus.

I like the senior discounts. I appreciate my hard-earned wisdom. Then I turn a corner and lose all sense of reality. Why? What drains common sense out of me? Surely I don’t buy into some delusion that 67 is the new 35.

I have a photo of my grandmother holding me at six months old on the day of my baptism. She died before my second birthday, so I have no memories of her. In that photo she is 65, two years younger than I am now. Her body is soft, matronly, comfortable-looking. She beams with happiness and pride as I clutch the neck of her dress with one hand and wave at the camera with the other.

Of course, she might be moving heaven and earth to avoid obesity, but the photo conveys – acceptance. Sometimes when I feel that acceptance is as challenging as weight control and fitness, I wonder how far women have really come in the past two generations. We may have a lot more opportunity and equality, but straining after youth and beauty at 67 doesn’t seem like progress. After trying on my fourth suit, I groan behind the locked changing room door. “I feel your pain,” the diminutive salesgirl says. I don’t believe her, but I want the sympathy.

The fifth suit is actually worth considering: A diagonal ruffle separates a blue, green and teal print top from a black bottom and distracts the eye from my mid-body bump. But I associate ruffles with six year olds or coy, ultra-girly women.

I groan some more. When the salesgirl asks tactfully if she can bring me anything else, I cave. “Find me a miracle suit!”

She hands one under the door. It’s is a vibrant royal purple that curves in swaths up from each hip toward the opposite breast. I think of curvaceous Hollywood actresses from the 1950s and the price tag dims in significance. My reflection now shows only a gentle curve mid-body, nothing to offend the eye. I marvel at the suit’s structure.

If I’d put this amount of thought and effort into my writing career, I might have become a second Shakespeare. But the price tag … I squirm out of the miracle suit and return to the one with the diagonal ruffle. I shouldn’t dismiss ruffles as girlish. But when I turn sideways, I see the ruffle accentuates the bulge.

Damn all mirrors. Couldn’t they lie just a little?

Ten minutes later, I walk out with the miracle suit. So much for thought, maturity and wisdom.

At home, I look at the suit and sigh. $200. What was I thinking? The woman I see in my mind is 30 years younger and slimmer. The woman in the mirror is me in 2017. I am 67 years old and everyone around me knows it.

In Hawaii, sunshine lights up the flutter of birds in the palm trees next to the pool. I float peacefully in the warm water, pleasantly aware of the rich glow of my purple suit amid the different blues of the swimming pool tiles. If anyone notices the resemblance between me and various voluptuous screen sirens from the 50s, they don’t mention it. In fact, no one seems to notice me at all. I can accept that.

Leslie Hill lives in Vancouver.