Summer has the potential for relaxation and freedom, and swimming is one of the purest distillations of those things. But if your bathing suit isn’t what you want it to be, you’ll be focusing instead on your body, and what’s showing — and to whom. Rather than lizarding out on lakeside rocks or splashing in the surf, you’re more likely to be preoccupied with your appearance.
If you’re like many people I know, stupefied by the bounty of bathing suit options and paralyzed by complex emotions and low-key dread, you may not yet have managed to find a solution. I wish I could say this was unusual, but I find myself in this position every summer around the Fourth of July: still in need of a thing to wear in various waters, irrationally unhappy with all available options. Plus, they’ve become so expensive!
Several of my colleagues at The Times share this lament.
“The perfect bathing suit is much like the perfect relationship: Trust is essential,” said Dodai Stewart, Metro writer at large. You need to know it will work. “There are deal-breakers and non-negotiables: It must have a flattering cut, provide enough tension to uphold the bust and not result in weird tan lines.”
But how can we establish trust when there are more bathing suit brands than at any time in history, each targeting us several times a week on social media with every conceivable design — from the tiniest triangles to full-coverage rash guards and UV-blocking turtlenecks from Australia? Committing to one is knowing that no matter how great a suit looks on the model, it may not live up to the fantasy when filled with your specific corporeality.
Pui-Wing Tam, deputy business editor, bemoaned the online-shopping minefield. “So many places sell mostly bikinis or tankinis with ridiculously revealing cuts and too little support that it seems like manufacturers think that the swimsuit-wearing population is only prepubescent girls.”
Once you find a suit you like, it’s hard to let go.
“I’m almost 60,” said Tina Jordan, deputy editor of the Book Review. “I’ve had two kids. I’ve broken bones and I have the beat-up, slightly lumpy body to prove it. Wearing a bathing suit isn’t a fraught issue for me. I’m comfortable in my own skin.” Yet she hasn’t found anything she likes enough to replace the shapeless one-piece she’s been wearing for the last five years.
Emily Weinstein, editor of Food & Cooking, told me that her favorite bathing suit was one she wore while pregnant. Though she wanted to be “one of those women at the beach in a two-piece, bump grandly and a little subversively protruding out in the sun,” early on in her pregnancy, she was put on medication that prevents blood-clotting, a daily injection that left her stomach so bruised that the two-piece wouldn’t work.
After spending hours online, she found a Breton-striped tank suit with thin straps that had “none of the saccharine ruffles or matronly cuts that were then the curse of maternity swimwear,” she said. In it, she felt invincible. “I don’t expect to have more children, and I gave away every other piece of maternity clothing I owned a long time ago. But not that bathing suit.”
We want our bathing suits to satisfy us functionally, and maybe more important, emotionally. Kate Guadagnino, deputy digital editor at T magazine, said, “The ideal, I think, is for my regard for my suit — and for myself in it — to outweigh whatever self-consciousness might linger from my teenage years.”
Like Proust with his madeleine, swimsuits are often portals to our past. “When I was a girl gymnast, I would cartwheel down the beach instead of walking. I still do this from time to time,” said Lori Leibovich, editor of Well. “I want a bathing suit that doesn’t budge if I do a cartwheel.”
“There is a picture of me at age 12-ish wearing a bright, raspberry-colored one-piece with a scoop neck and spaghetti straps,” said Sasha Weiss, culture editor of The New York Times Magazine. “I see that bathing suit as marking the moment of peak girlhood. Whenever I buy a bathing suit, I’m now realizing, I’m unconsciously trying to replicate that original one, but I’ve never quite succeeded.”
And yet, for some, the search for a bathing suit is about playing against those adolescent memories.
For Jeannie Choi, managing editor of The Times Magazine, the question of what she wants from a bathing suit taps into something deeper. Raised in a conservative Christian household where the only “good” kind of bathing suit was “a Speedo with a skirt attached,” Ms. Choi just wants a flame red, high-cut, push-up eye-catcher. “Even though all of my social and familial conditioning has trained me to believe that the kind of attention a bathing suit garners is evil, and to want that kind of attention is probably the worst kind of desire a woman can ever have, the truth is I’m looking for a suit that will liberate me from my own self-doubt, and the hundreds of voices in my head telling me, ‘No, not that one, not for you, not ever.’”
With all of these impossible standards, emotional baggage and pure, nostalgic desires in mind, we’ve chosen dozens of sensible but not dowdy one-piece suits available right now. (If you’re looking for a bikini, godspeed.) Some of them push the limits of the “no weird tan lines” requirement, some lean toward athleticism and others offer maximum coverage. Consider this a primer on your search for this summer’s platonic ideal of easy swim fashion. And if you find one you really like, and can afford it, consider buying an extra: You never know how long it will take to find that perfect suit again.
As Ms. Stewart said, “You should be able to spend hours at the beach or in the pool enjoying being submerged in water, the delicious sensations of weightlessness and buoyancy — and not thinking about your swimsuit at all.”
Prices reflect listings from brands’ websites at time of publication.