7 In Series/ Women Now

Bathing Suit Season–Where’s the Valium?

Alison Houtte, co-author of Alligators, Old Mink & New Money is comfortable at a pool

Alison Houtte, co-author of Alligators, Old Mink & New Money is comfortable at a pool


I’ve met a few people who are comfortable wearing bathing suits. Alison Houtte (above), co-author of Alligators, Old Mink & New Money would be one of them. But she’s from Florida! And she was a model for ten years in Paris and Manhattan. That makes a difference, right?

I met Alison and her sister Melissa when I had the privilege of interviewing them at a book event at Book Passage in Corte Madera. Alligators, Old Mink & New Money chronicles their growing up years, Alison’s modeling career and her wonderful store in Brooklyn called Hooti Couture, a vintage store favorite. She’s had it for 20 years but is closing the doors next month and moving back to Miami.

I think anyone who grew up on a beach or near swimming pools might find bathing suits something they could comfortably, intentionally wear, like on purpose, by choice. Me? Not so much. I got to California way past my formative years. I’m not sure I can adjust.


Shopping for Bathing Suits

Curiously, I love helping other people feel comfortable in bathing suits. I’ve helped clients buy bathing suits for sport, as a basic summertime necessity or for destination vacation use. It’s delightful!

Although in thirty years I don’t believe I’ve ever had a client sound eager to shop for bathing suits. In fact, they come to me with furrowed brows and trembling voices, like they’re terrified.   I usually say “No problem!” and tell them I’ll bring the Valium; not to worry.

It’s always insanely successful. It’s not because of the Valium; that’s of course, a joke. But they come to the dressing room with such low expectations that heading up from there wouldn’t take much. Every woman ends up buying two or three bathing suits, even more, because we just can’t choose between all the great choices.

How do I feel about bathing suits personally? I’d put myself in the mortified category. Give me a little slack, though, would you? I grew up on a farm in North Dakota and the nearest ‘pool’ of water was the water in the horses’ trough near the barn. I’m more comfortable in a wool sweater than a Spandex bathing suit. But that’s just me!

Jenny flip flops walk away

For your amusement, I’m sharing something I wrote called Bathing Suit Hell which was first published twenty-two years ago. Yup, in 1993. It marked my very first published piece of writing.

My experience around bathing suits hasn’t changed much since 1993 although I have purchased a few since the J.Crew ones I speak about in this piece. I wore one when my daughters and I had a spa day. Both of them were born in California and are not afraid of bathing suits. You can tell, just by being around them. I know where one is in case of an emergency, but otherwise, it stays at the bottom of the basket it’s stored in.

My kids may have had the Pacific Ocean and sandy beaches but I had snow angels. So there.



Bathing Suit Hell, circa 1993, by yours truly


Last Saturday morning while I sat on the straight, hard bleachers at my daughter’s softball game, Brianna’s mom got up, headed for the Coke shack, and flipped these words over her right shoulder: “It’s so hot I feel like I should be in a bathing suit.”

It was hot, that’s true. So hot that maybe I’d like to be in my air conditioned car, or sitting in my backyard thankful for the overgrown trees, or maybe hot enough to put on my linen, full skirt and blousey silk shirt. But to take all my clothes off and strip down to a stretchy wad of fabric in splashy colors that could fit in my fist? No, I can say for sure that I have never, ever, not in my whole life felt hot enough to walk around in a bathing suit. I leaned in close to Erika’s mom and said, “Now that’s one feeling I’ve never had before.” Her laughter let me know she was with me and we bonded there in the fourth inning, with the score 11-7.

I wish bathing suits had never been invented. I’ve been invited to go to Hawaii and I’m not thinking about how I’ve always wanted to go, how the trip’s being paid for, how I’ll get to see a dear friend again. No, I’m focused on the one glitch in the whole thing: I’ll have to get a bathing suit. I’ll be in bathing suit heaven feeling like hell.

I realize in the big scheme of things, my bathing suit phobia is pretty insignificant. But some of us take these things seriously. I called my friend Molly. I expected to commiserate, but she brushed the whole thing off like it was no big deal. She claimed to have found “a bathing suit that looks great on every body.”

Yeah, right.

“It’s true,” she insisted. “I’ll bring one over. You can try it on.”

I’m in the fashion business. I’ve yet to come across anything that looks good on everybody—okay, maybe cream colored socks or a teal blue sweatshirt, but a bathing suit? No way.

Molly dropped the suit by: dandelion yellow, simple tank, low back, cotton/lycra, from the J. Crew Catalogue. She told me it comes in other colors. I filed it on my bedroom floor, next to my dirty clothes hamper.

I picked it up that evening when I got undressed. An easy on and off, I thought. I pulled the dandelion suit up my body and tucked everything in its right place. I stood before my mirror and didn’t hate it right away. I checked myself out from every angle—sideways and stretching my head over my shoulder, I checked my rear end. Not bad. Now I know there isn’t a bathing suit that can make me look like Raquel Welch or Cindy Crawford. I’m happy just to look as good as I can.

I dialed the eight hundred number and ordered two suits; one in leaf and one in espresso. If I go snorkeling on the reef at Hanauma Bay, I’ll be well suited. But if I just want to get wet, I’ll do that in the privacy of my own bathtub, sans suit.


And what dear readers are your thoughts about bathing suits?



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  • Reply
    Amy Roseveare
    May 18, 2015 at 5:33 pm

    I love this article! And although I was born and raised here in California, I’ve never enjoyed wearing a bathing suit. But…there is one big perk of wearing a swimsuit, and that’s the delicious caftans that you can wear over them! I have no problem breezing across a hotel pool area swishing around in one of my favorites! xo

    • Reply
      May 18, 2015 at 6:37 pm

      Amy, your image of the caftan makes me INSTANTLY want to wear a bathing suit underneath it just to feel the breeze grabbing the fabric. I can feel it dancing at my knees and ankles. I glide toward the deep end of the pool where I park my body on a chaise lounge chair and pull out the latest must-read novel. I’m in heaven! Thanks for this transformative image! You’re a doll!

  • Reply
    May 19, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    I have two small children who both love the water so a bathing suit is a necessity for me! I have one I like but feel I could use one more as backup. It is hard though – having to force myself to get into the dressing room to find ‘the one.’

    • Reply
      May 19, 2015 at 4:38 pm

      Rebecca, pretend I’m there with you cheering you on…because I am!!! If you have my book 40 over 40, check out chapter 31 called How to Buy a Bathing Suit. The tips still hold true! And if you don’t have it, let me know, maybe I’ll post the Cliff Notes version of that chapter in my blog. Good luck and channel the fun those kids of yours are having!

      • Reply
        May 20, 2015 at 7:23 am

        I don’t have that book but I do own one of your others (In the Dressing Room with Brenda)! It would be great if you could post some tips about selecting a bathing suit.

  • Reply
    Laurie Hengel
    May 19, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    We have tix to see Ron White next month, and are staying at the fancy casino, big bucks for us, and I am mortified because I know I cant find a swimsuit that I look half-decent in 🙁 Not expecting to look good, I’m way overweight, old and ugly. But how I would love to feel I look ‘ok’ . Trying not to let it ruin our big splurge for the year, but cant see how I can face it 🙁

    • Reply
      May 19, 2015 at 4:35 pm

      Well, how fun does that sound! Ron White is a hoot! I say do what Amy said (in the comments section) and buy a suit but wear the great coverup caftan and you’ll be able to forget about the swimming suit part and enjoy the entertainment! Remember, suits really are doing their best to be flattering. Buy one with a print to keep the eye moving around and not settling in one specific area. And also remember, everyone else (almost) is uncomfortable in their suits too! I think this might be one of those “act as if” moments. Have fun, Laurie!

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