Of all the ways in which motherhood humbles a woman, shopping for bathing suits reigns as one of the most compelling.
Bathing suit shopping is the task all women dread if they have borne more than two children (the body preserving its elasticity until baby No. 3) and celebrated more than 30 birthdays.
I fit into both of these categories (no, really, I'm older than 30, but thanks), so when the time came recently to face the fitting-room mirror I was philosophical. I knew what to expect, and a miracle involving my hips was not it.
Normally, I shop for a bathing suit at the end of the summer. I do this because: (a) bathing suits are on sale at the end of the summer, and (b) the shape between my knees and my waist looks thinner when it is tan. This is an optical illusion, I concede, but a good one. We take what we can get.
This year, with spring break beckoning and my old bathing suits showing their age (and mine), I had no choice but to schedule a trip to the mall.
Any woman will tell you that bathing suit shopping is something you can't do alone. This is because you simply have to share the fun with someone you love.
Women around the globe experience tear-streaking, bellyaching, shoulder-shaking laughter in the fitting room when trying on bathing suits, especially after the first 20 or 25 styles. If you go by yourself, people think you're crazy when you mutter “Yea, baby” to yourself. A friend would understand.
This year I didn't take a friend, though. I had to accomplish this task on a Monday in March, and none of my girlfriends were available. Instead, I took my two teenage daughters because they had a day off from school. They also needed swimsuits for our vacation, so it seemed like an efficient plan.
My daughters are runners. Their combined body-fat content is less than that in the soft, cheesy-looking area above my kneecaps. They can eat doughnuts and nachos and cream soups without guilt or remorse. With their high metabolisms, they burn more calories in an afternoon of track practice than I could burn if I put my backside on my barbecue grill.
It's not fair, but it's the way it is.
I knew going in that this shopping experience would require extra reserves of dignity and self-esteem. Just in case I ran low, I took a diuretic the night before so I would feel especially light. I decided it would be better to lose a quick five pounds overnight than to try on swimsuits while feeling bloated.
Plus, I devised a strategy. We would focus on the girls' bathing suit purchases first, allowing me ample time to search the racks for something flattering and age-appropriate. I reasoned that by the time the girls had tried on several dozen suits, I would have made repeated trips through the swimsuit department to identify my options.
Those of us with teenage daughters face a particular struggle when choosing apparel of any kind. On the one hand, we want to appear stylish, even au courant. After all, midlife doesn't mean you have to throw in the towel and settle for “mom jeans” and holiday-themed sweaters. You can wear flares. You can be cool.
The bigger concern is attempting to wear something your teenage daughter might choose. No self-respecting woman wants to imitate the styles her high schoolers are wearing. And let's face it: They don't make those styles for people who ever have owned a nursing bra.
In bathing suits, assuring the decorum of middle age means avoiding anything that relies on strings to secure it to your body, any suit that uses metallic jewelry to create the illusion of cleavage, or a suit that originated on a crochet hook. (Be warned; they're back).
Thus, when my girls and I were shopping, we were looking for different things. (For the record, I set standards for modesty in the suits they could choose, which precluded many styles and even the entire swimwear collection in several stores.)
You can guess how our shopping expedition went. The only dilemma the girls had was choosing which of several fantastic-looking bikinis they each would get. It's a payoff they deserve, what with all that relentless running.
I, conversely, tried on multiple swimsuits until I found the only two in captivity that eliminated my flaws and accentuated my assets without making me look as though I imagined myself a younger gal. When I found them, I didn't even check the prices.
In the end, I didn't buy the style of swimsuit I thought I would get. My girls thought my picks were too “old ladyish” and unnecessarily conservative. I also didn't buy the one they loved that had sparkles on top, drawing too much attention to itself and the woman who would wear it.
Instead, we found I could look the part of a young-at-heart mother of four without succumbing to a style that “tries too hard.”
I didn't giggle quite as much as I normally do on a swimsuit expedition. My girls simply can't appreciate the absurdity of trying to fit a fortysomething body into a garment designed by someone who forgot to factor in the long-term effects of gravity.
Then again, maybe my girls got a glimpse into what it means to grow old gracefully. After all, you're not a teenager forever.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 18 years and mother of four children from third grade to junior year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)