Monday, March 8, 2010

The Average Girl's Guide to Buying a Swimsuit

I'm an average girl. Average height, average size, average assets, average flaws. Even the Wii Fit (a harsh critic, to be sure) tells me "That's normal!" with a victorious arm pump to the air when I put myself through its grueling body test.

So why is it so hard to find a swimsuit?

I knew I needed a new one by mid-March (more on that later). Being no newbie, I began the process weeks ago, and as of today, I'm pleased to announce I've come out on the other side triumphant. And I never stood in front of a single store mirror with its evil lighting. Because I'm generous and have the best interests of womankind at heart, I'm going to give you my formula for swimsuit buying step by step.

Step 1: Shop online.

This step is crucial if you want to avoid crying, alone and unloved, in some anonymous fitting room stall somewhere. No my friends, have some pride: cry only in the comfort of your own home. Back in early February, when all my favorite retailers announced their spring arrivals, I logged on and went directly to their sale pages, because that's where all their 2009 swimsuits go to die (at discounted prices). And since I'm not fashion forward (and live in rural Oregon), I can get away with wearing suits that are so last year without a backward glance.*

*Shopping the sale page is not recommended for the amateur swimsuit buyer, because sizes and colors are limited, as are returns. And returns are a crucial component of my swimsuit buying guide. So double-check that your size is in stock and that returns are allowed.

Step 2: Eliminate what you know won't work.

This is the most important (and most time consuming) step. You know what I'm talking about: for me, it's halter tops. I have muscular shoulders (some would say manly) and a smallish chest and let's just say the combination does not make for a flattering halter top fit. Maybe internal shelf bras are your personal nemesis, or two-piece suits, or one-pieces with short torsos. If you cannot think of a single style that you know does not work for you, skip to Step You Don't Need to Read This: Buy whatever you want, because obviously you have a perfect body. And by the way, all other women hate you, so congratulations on that.

Step 3: The 'add to cart' button is your friend.

Don't be shy! Even if you fear your credit card company will call you alerting you to unusual activity, click away. Don't worry, you'll be returning 90% of it. This is where shopping with companies with free return policies becomes crucial. My picks: Athleta, Title Nine, Eddie Bauer (sometimes), Lands' End, and Boden. During this step, it's not unheard of to have six to seven browser windows open at a time. This practice enables you to cross reference the tankini tops at Lands' End with the ones at Boden, or check the prices of J Crew's one piece against that of L.L. Bean's. Tip: start a flow chart in Google docs! (No, I'm not kidding.)

This process takes time, concentration, and sometimes a stiff drink. I like complete silence, but others might need a steady beat of inspirational music, such as Rocky's Eye of the Tiger or Lady Gaga's Paparazzi. These are just two suggestions off the top of my head. Substitute as necessary.

Try everything you think might work, in more than one size, if necessary. Because remember, you'll be ordering these suits by mail, and even with speedy UPS Ground, you hardly want to stand around in various states of undress waiting for that medium to come after the small was just a bit too snug. Not that that's happened to me.

Step 4: Buy only the tops, not the bottoms.

Yes, you read that right. Bottoms are bottoms. I don't care if they're the little skirty things or the briefs or the boy shorts: they all fit basically the same.* No matter what the style, your legs aren't going to get any thinner/tanner/longer/insert-desired-outcome-here-er. The same cellulite will or will not show. It's the tops that are tricky. It's the tops that make or break the suit. Trust me on this. Get the worst of it out of the way: you want to find the style top that works for you first. Once you've settled on a top, you have to return all the others anyway. While doing so, you exchange for the bottoms that go with it.

*This is not true of board shorts. By all means, buy the board shorts and try them on. Ditto for Athleta's 'swimsuit short' numbers. Those are tricky little buggers.

Step 5: Try them all on.

For this step, I wait until I feel my thinnest (this is an inprecise science), lock the bedroom door, and dig in with determination and a thick skin. This is the hardest part of the process, but take heart: because you've ordered so many things, surely something will fit. And if not, obviously it's them, not you.

Step 6: Return everything except the winner...

and exchange for the bottoms you need to complete the suit. If nothing worked in your entire first batch, know you're not alone: swimsuit buying is depressing, dirty work. Simply repeat the process, adding in more variables, such as a new retailer or different size. (This is why it's good to start in February.)

Last week, I completed Step 1-Step 4. Yesterday, the big box from Athleta* arrived on my doorstep, and I spent the next hour (yes, hour) in the 'locked in my bedroom' phase, trying and re-trying on eight different swim suit combinations: tankini tops, bikini tops, one-pieces, tie-backs, and rash guards. Nope, no bottoms (I just wear an old pair of board shorts). You have to trust the system, people! I even tried to explain how it works to the Athleta customer service rep in the interest of educating society at large on the art of swimsuit ordering, but she laughed so hard I thought she'd choke on her hand-free headset.

"How'd your husband like that?" she asked, regarding the no bottoms policy. And right then I knew she must be either a swimsuit novice or else a swimsuit model without a flaw in sight, because obviously my husband had never seen even one of these suits, bottomless or otherwise. Because who wants an audience while checking and rechecking in the mirror for thigh cellulite visibility and evaluating for odd boob placement or worse, lack of boob support within B-cups? There was a lot of pinching, smooshing, hopping, and bending over involved. And not in the sexy context of these verbs.

But you'll all be glad to hear that I found not one, not two, but three swimsuit winners. And they were all on sale, so it's like buying one. Anyhow, that's how I justify it. Wanna see? Top 1. Top 2. Top 3. Ha! Did you actually think I'd link to a photo of myself in these babies? Ugh! As if! I already told you: husband. hasn't. even. seen.

But that gets us around to why I need new swimsuits in March. In two weeks, we're driving to Death Valley National Park. No, not nearby Las Vegas: strip o' neon, smoky casinos, and cheap thrills that are anything but. I'm just not a fan. Death Valley, a couple hours to the east: land o' gorgeous sunrises, geological beauty, and hotspring-fed swimming pools. When people look at me funny for our vacation destination choice, I tell them Death Valley is the poor man's Mexican Riviera. Of course, when I think about it, the Mexican Riviera is already the poor man's original Riviera, so I guess we're poor even to the poor man.

But that's depressing, so I just focus on the fact that I've found a swimsuit. And the fact that we'll be getting out of the foggy, rainy, cold northwest and into the sunshine. Now I just have to hope the bottoms arrive in time. Otherwise, those afternoons around the pool could get awkward.

*As much as my fawning over their apparel might point to the contrary, I am in no way associated with Athleta, nor have I been compensated to endorse its products. Don't I wish.
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