The late Mrs Winterson had a bathing costume made from black-out material. This home-made suit was a descendent of those Victorian beach effects worn by women to conceal their modesty. Known in the trade as Suicide Suits, these costumes were so heavy that anything other than paddling in the shallows meant death by sinkage. This didn’t worry my mother; Jesus was her lifebelt.
If Anna Ford had been wearing a wartime one-piece, she could have avoided that long lens in Majorca, and the pictures in the Mail. Like the rest of us, she wanted to get her kit off. Does that mean she should be photographed messing around with a lover and a bottle of suntan oil?
Probably not. I feel sorry for her. We poor sun-starved Brits are not used to going about nearly naked. Like kids at school we are both shy of, and desperately curious about each other’s bodies. Celebrity bodies give us a chance to indulge this mild pornography. What we really want to do, by the pool and on the beach, is have a good ogle. Most of us restrain ourselves and settle for Hello magazine instead.
I love looking at bodies – male or female – anything without a beer gut, or the forty-something Ibitha-effect; fake tan, wobbly bum, cellulite like woodworm.
Unfortunately, the British unclothed have none of the preened swagger of their Mediterranean friends. Brits on the beach look like an advert for pork pies. The pale lardy fleshiness of the national constitution needs more than Carol Vordemann’s cabbage diet to right it. We need NHS liposuction and full body implants.
Most Brits freak out at the sight of themselves in the mirror just before holiday time.
This is not so much due to the clothes they have taken off, as the clothes they have put on – namely the new swimsuit.
Swimsuits are the scariest pieces of clothing in the world. They blow-up an ordinary body into a seaside inflatable. Nothing can be hidden, or controlled. The ones with wired cups and concealed girdles just make you look like something that has fallen off the barbecue with the griddle attached.
Every year, otherwise sane and normal women submit to new tortures in Lycra. The pages of the fashion magazines are packed with impossible items designed to flatter implausible shapes. The new fad is body-contouring swimwear that claims to flatten out years of TV dinners and gin and tonic abuse.
I examined one of these items recently; it carried enough underwire and padding in the cups to turn Kate Moss into Barbara Windsor. The stomach section had something like a steel oven rack sewn inside it. The creative genius was reserved for the shoulder straps. These extended down the back of the suit, making a kind of car seat webbing under the bum. I think the idea was to use your shoulders to hold in your wobble. A parachute harness would have been more comfortable.
This is the true horror. Swimwear that lets it all hang out is comfortable but gross. Swimwear that tries to tuck it all back in is an agony of metal and sweat. Only women suffer like this. The rules of the beach are strictly gendered.
I have spent time on beaches in Greece and Italy, where women of whatever size are completely happy in their bodies. Their happiness makes them beautiful. They sit in groups, chatting together, looking like oil paintings, unworried by the firm thighs and pecs of youth, preening around them.
This is the opposite of the Ibitha- effect. No-one wants to be other than they are. Happiness in their bodies brings more than painterly beauty; it allows dignity – something a fake tan and a crash diet can never do. Of course Mediterranean women spend a good part of the year in their swimwear, they are used to walking around without clothes, and everybody else is used to seeing women like this. Familiarity here is not the cliché of contempt. Familiarity with the body can bring respect and affection.
Both are lacking for the Brits on the beach. We don’t respect our bodies. Our statistics on obesity are catching up with those in America, where around two-thirds of the population is overweight. Respecting your body means caring for it with food, sleep and exercise. Affection is the gentle understanding of its limits.
We cannot be young and perfect all the time. We can be beautiful always. Not the catwalk beauty of the fashion pages nor the celebrity beauty of the lifestyle magazines, but an inner command of who we are, and a pleasure in it.
Take off your clothes now. If you don’t like what you see, change it. Forget the tyranny of swimwear and start a love affair with yourself.
Love is better than Lycra.
Guardian Newspapers Tuesday August 7, 2001