Bikinis have been very much on my mind all of last week. Not because it’s a furnace out there and the swimming pool has never looked more tempting. No, I’ve been thinking of bikinis because of something that my late, great heroine, Nora Ephron, wrote in her book, I Feel Bad About My Neck. Talking about the pains of ageing, she wrote: “Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was 26. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re 34.”
Now, I must confess that I’ve never ever worn a bikini. Not at 16, not at 26, leave alone at 34. Partly, this is down to the fact that no matter how hard I tried – and I promise you, I did – I never did get the hang of that swimming thing. And partly, it is because I lacked the chutzpah to carry off wearing what is essentially underwear – except in nicer colours and styles – in front of a bunch of strangers as I lounged around the pool.
But now, as all the Ephron obituaries and tributes dutifully trot out her thoughts on bikinis (among other things, my favourite Ephron line is: “Be the heroine of your life; not the victim”; and her bitchily pointing out that her second husband, Carl Bernstein, would even ‘make love to a Venetian blind’) I have begun to wonder if I did, in fact, leave it till too late. You know what they say about youth being wasted on the young? Well, my youthful skinniness was wasted on me...
Or wait, was it? Much as I would like to swear by all things Ephron, I have to concede that the zeitgeist on bikinis seems to have shifted since her book came out in 2006. When she wrote it, Ephron was 64, and the book had a gently elegiac quality about it, almost as if – in retrospect – it was foreshadowing her own death at 71.
But even as Ephron was writing sadly, if wittily, “If you’re fortunate enough to be in a sexual relationship, you’re not going to have the sex you once had. Plus, you can’t wear a bikini,” there were other women – her near contemporaries in age – who were all set to prove her wrong.
A mere two years later, across the Atlantic, the fabulous Helen Mirren was pictured in a bright red bikini, frolicking in the sea with her husband, and looking like a million bucks. This was in 2008, when both Mirren and her husband were 63 years old. And yet, there they were, behaving like giddy, madly-in-love teenagers as they cavorted on the beach in Puglia with Mirren’s bikini body looking good enough to put any teenage girl to shame.
Since then, we have had our share of 40, 50 and 60-somethings lining up to show us that there are still some bikini years left in them. Whether it is the 44-year-old Carla Bruni, the 48-year-old Courtney Cox, the 56-year-old Jerry Hall or the 59-year-old Marie Helvin, they have all done their bit to prove that bikinis can look just as good on women of a certain age as they do on nubile young girls.
But then, these are women who look good for their age – hell, they look great for any age! What about the rest of us, who struggle to keep our muffin tops under control, who have borne children and have the scars to prove it, who have wobbly bits that no amount of lycra can keep under control?
What about the average woman like you and me? Should we dutifully set aside our bikinis at the magic age of 34 and slip into one-pieces (and oblivion)? Or should we throw off our inhibitions along with those much-despised one-pieces and put our mid riffs boldly on display?
Well, I got my answer on a recent holiday in Italy when I ventured out into the hotel swimming pool. Every single woman in the pool area was wearing a bikini. Some of them were thin and toned. Others were overweight and out of shape. And then there were those who were, quite frankly, obese. And yet all of them sported their bikinis with such insouciance that I could only admire their self-confidence and their ease with their bodies.
Their breasts spilled out, their bellies flopped over, their bikini bottoms could barely contain their bums. But did they care? No, not a jot. They happily swam in the pool, went kayaking, sun-bathed, and even fetched up at the bar for a drink. I am ashamed to admit that I watched with a certain horrified fascination to begin with. And then, soon enough the novelty of all those lady bits on display wore off and I began to wonder what the fuss was about.
After all, if you are confident enough – and comfortable enough – to wear a bikini to the swimming pool, then why should you let any kind of body fascism stop you? As far as I am concerned when it comes to getting dressed – for the beach; the pool; the office; or a party – there is only one rule that matters. And that is: There are no rules.
That said, much as I admire these women, I have to admit that I won’t be wearing a bikini any time soon – not unless there is a tropical villa with a private pool involved. And even then – call me craven if you will – I’m going to keep that sarong well within reach.
Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami
From HT Brunch, July 8
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