body image · fitness

Bathing beauty in form and function: an ocean of possibilities

Last week, Tracy posted here about her recent experience camping and swimming in hot weather. She saw kids splashing about, often just in bathing suit bottoms.  Many men were shirtless in the campground. However, some of the women there expressed embarrassment and shame about showing their bodies, so they wrapped up in towels as much as possible, often avoiding wearing a swimsuit at all.

We’ve written a lot about bathing suits, swimwear and the politics/psychology/marketing and general swarm of discordant messaging around them. See a couple of them below:

Bathing suit anxiety and why it’s so bad

Boobs and bathing suit shopping: my response to the whole “bikini body” thing

Tracy’s post provoked some really interesting conversation (check out the comments here) about the reasons and motivations behind why we choose the swim duds we choose. The issue of body shame and how it affects our clothing choices is a sensitive and personal one, and it touched a few nerves. What I realized from reading and participating in the discussion was this:

We all have complex and tender relationships with our bodies. And swimwear presents a double challenge for many of us:

  1. We have to choose swimwear that accommodates that tender relationship and lets us feel comfortable enough to present our bodies in public and participate in watery activity;
  2. We have to develop emotional tolerance for the ways our swimwear sends signals to others about us (sometimes with misleading information).

We post a lot about body positivity, body neutrality, body image, body shaming, etc. For me, the result of this continuing conversation is that one view certainly doesn’t fit all here.  We have the bodies we have, we have the emotional issues we have, and we have the preferences and motivations and interests we have. They’re all different.

However, I hope that, despite all these issues, it’s still possible for us to enjoy cannonballing into the pool, bodysurfing the waves, paddleboarding in that lake, or hanging out on the beach, enjoying sun and shade and breeze and sky.

Here are some of our thoughts about what we want to wear in water and why.  I also wanted to share some of our non-traditional options or preferences.


The first thing to note is that I’m not really A Swimmer, so I tend not to have technical swim gear. At the same time, I have a very functional relationship with my swimgear — I pretty much swim to cool off in the summer or make sure I have a bathing suit when I’m traveling in case I want to take a dip in a pool. I prefer a sporty two piece that feels more like a sports bra and a bottom that covers my butt and has a draw string so that when I jump in, it doesn’t come off.

(That is, in places where it shouldn’t come off — when camping or in private, I prefer to swim naked). …. At the same time, I’m simultaneously Determined to Feel Comfortable being semi-clad in public, not always in the mood to keep the hair under control in the “bikini” area, and have had an experience with basal cell skin cancer on my face. So I tend to have layers that start with the sporty two piece and include a pair of shortish board shorts if I’m going to be hanging around for a long time, and maybe a white cotton long sleeved shirt that covers my shoulders and chest. I kind of look back longingly on the times when I felt comfortable on the beach in a real bikini (when I was in my 30s), but that’s more about my relationship with the sun than my relationship with my body.

I am also sort of Ostentatiously Comfortable running around in shorts and a sports bra. When running I often end up taking off my shirt and winding up in a sports bra, and the other day after a long hot ride, I whipped off my jersey and ran through a splashpad in my bike shorts and sports bra in full view of a number of adults who were totally covered up and constantly telling their kids not to splash them. I made the kids squirt me with their water cannons. I think I’m a different kind of adult.


I was thinking about the ways I like to feel in swimwear, namely skin covered but body shape exposed. I love tight speedo one pieces and I also liked the stinger suits (adult swimming onesies) for snorkeling in Australia. In fact, I’d wear one for ocean swimming, as I wouldn’t have to worry about sunscreen (just my face). I’ve always hated tankinis, as they ride up, which makes me feel frumpy and uncomfortable. Yes, I know—it’s also about my negative feelings about showing my belly.  Well, there it is…

Why do I like one-piece suits?   I think I feel sort of professional– like I’m a swimmer/athlete, even though I don’t swim a lot these days. It feels like it identifies me as an athlete in the way that wearing cycling kit does. I feel great in cycling kit, too, for the same reason.

Writing this post is making me rethink my position about two-piece suits; I feel self-conscious about showing a lot of skin and prominently displaying my breasts (albeit covered by a cute top).  But I can now imagine circumstances where it might be fun and freeing, so it’s worth exploring. I’m now on the hunt for a bikini that says me.

These are two of my favorite swimwear pics (from about 5 years ago, so I need to get going with more recent bathing suit shots!), in my blue reversible speedo one-piece.



I have always found bathing suits really problematic. Mostly because they don’t fit properly. There’s also a lot of fuss and bother because there are expectations on how women should look in bathing suits. But five years ago I was interviewing a woman who runs a lingerie store and discovered that there are lots of new styles in bathing suits. She encouraged me to try on this one suit and I absolutely loved it. Since last summer I have been averaging at least one swim a week if not two when my schedule allows it. My thought now is that once you get past the assumptions that people will make about differently sized and different looking bodies that are female in a suit you can find something that will work for you in the way that you need it to.

Here’s a selfie that Martha took of her in her favorite swimsuit:

Selfie of Martha's greenish skirted v-neck swimsuit with a waistband; her foot is wearing a pink flip-flop.
Selfie of Martha’s greenish skirted v-neck swimsuit with a waistband; her foot is wearing a pink flip-flop.


It took me awhile to find the right sort of bathing suit, one that matches who I am. The bikinis I wear and prefer are athletic bikinis. And I think with my shoulders and leg muscles, the message they send is ‘I’m here to swim.’ Think athletic over aesthetic values, something I’ve blogged about here. Opting out of the bathing suit aesthetics has served me well but that’s not such an easy choice if you’re not someone who thinks of herself as an athlete.

These days I also wear skimpy hot tub bikinis. Think minimal coverage. But they’re for backyard use only. Just friends and family. I wouldn’t wear them to the beach though I’d comfortably go nude at a nude beach. But these days I’m also frantic and anxious about sun and skin damage. I had a friend of 15 years die in her early 40s with two kids under 5, from skin cancer. Lots of friends have had less serious skin cancer lesions removed. And a few years in Australia cemented the sun and skin cancer worry. Sunscreen is a back up thing. It’s not as effective as we think. The best plan is covering up and staying out of the sun.

Here are some pics of Samantha in swimwear:


What I look for in a swimsuit depends on what I’m looking for it for. I spend a lot of time on a sailboat and these days my swimsuit purchasing is mostly about what I can wear aboard. So I’ll get to that.

For lap swimming though, I like a simple one piece sport style suit with a racer back. My three most recent are plain suits that fit snugly and cost very little when I bought them at cost from my triathlon coach back when I did regular swim training. At that time (three years ago) I also really liked swimming in a wetsuit with my triathlon suit underneath. Wearing a wetsuit makes me move through the water in a way that feels sleek and fast. Mine is a full suit designed for swimming not diving. If you plan to get a wetsuit for swimming you absolutely need to get that kind. A diving wetsuit for scuba lacks the arm mobility for the kind of stroke you’ll do while swimming. Besides keeping me sleek in the water, the wetsuit is also great protection for lake swimming where there are weeds and fish and other things that freak me out. I’m not sure if they protect against jelly fish but they’re great for non-stinging creatures and plants.

Okay, for the boat. I’ve got at least ten bottoms and a bunch of bikini tops, two tankini tops and a one piece I never wear because it’s usually too hot. My favourite go-to bottoms right now are boy-shorts. I have two pairs — one black with white polka dots and the other plain blue. I wear them almost all the time on the boat. But I also have a few “Brazilian” bikinis. That’s the kind that are so skimpy they don’t even try covering your butt. They’re a bit too skimpy for some occasions (parents, for example) but good for a quick dive in and out, then off they come and the boy short comes back on. It’s functional and great for active living. I never have to pull at them or adjust them. My idea of successful clothing choice is something I can put on and stop thinking about. That extends to swimsuits.

I confess to feeling a bit self-conscious in a bikini top at the beginning of any time I spend on the boat. If there is one part of my body that I feel shame about (I’m doing my best not to write an angst-filled paragraph here) it’s my belly. Everything I actually believe rails against that and knows that it’s simply the old oppressive ideas of normative femininity combined with lingering body dysmorphia from my days of disordered eating and body obsession. So at the beginning I need to force myself. But I have tops that I really like and that fit well, and lots of them. And in a pinch, if I’m having a tough day where body acceptance eludes me, I go for the tankini top. On a positive note, I haven’t done that for some time AND I like my butt!

Final point: I am not opposed to tankini, one pieces, swim skirts, or anything that gives more coverage. Women can wear what they like. But if we wear these things out of body shame then there is work to do. That’s the main point I was making in my post the other day about body acceptance and camping.

Here are some swimwear pics of Tracy:


I’m posting here for her because she is, of course, way ahead of all of us, having already written two summers ago about her bikini body.  Read all about it here. And you can see more photos of Natalie in her newly purchased bikini below.


My swimsuits tend to be largely functional. I have two suits, both are over 5 years old, one of them is a one piece and the other is a two piece but it essentially fits together like a one piece.

I don’t think I have owned a bikini since I was a little kid. It’s not a matter of self-consciousness, they just never had much appeal for me.

I did try to buy one a few years ago – just out of sheer stubbornness after I saw an article that explained why women my age *shouldn’t* wear them – but I didn’t like the lack of support. I hated the idea of spending my swimming time wondering if my top was slipping!

When I go swimming at ponds (if you are not in NL, you would probably call them lakes), I often keep a cotton skirt on when I go swimming – but that’s about not wanting to put on even more sunscreen rather than being concerned about how I look in my suit. (I view sunscreen as a necessary evil and I dress in layers to minimize having to apply more).

Readers:  what are your favorite swim wear ensembles? What do you love?  What do you hate?  Who knows, maybe someone is listening to us– you never know…

6 thoughts on “Bathing beauty in form and function: an ocean of possibilities

  1. I love this post. It was really interesting to read everyone’s different take on the swimsuit. I can’t wait to hear from readers too. Thanks for pulling it together, Catherine.

  2. Well, I already commented on another post about my current swimwear due to wanting more sun coverage. A constant issue for me is fit. While I’m not small chested I’m certainly not as huge breasted either and yet, finding a swim top that fits there has always been problematic no matter my weight. I don’t like the feeling of “spilling out” and, another problem is the support. I hate the feeling of my breasts swinging inside my top. It’s actually one reason I haven’t done a one piece in years, my breasts always felt too loose in them and on the verge of coming out the sides. I actually bought an underwire tankini top a few years ago , but due to the low cut, it still felt like I was about to come out. Now, since I put on a full swim top over a bikini top, it has definitely felt good to not worry about that. Sadly, I feel like I do want to cover up more during times I’ve weighed more. So there is definitely some culturally ingrained stuff I deal with too.

  3. I love one pieces with boy legs so I feel like all my ‘bits’ aren’t going to just flop out when I’m swimming, and then I wear a ‘rashie’ or long sleeved top over it because I’m in Australia, over 50, and SKIN CANCER PEOPLE! Great post, thanks to everyone for contributing 🙏🏼

  4. Interesting conversation to have.

    Most often, I wear a very simple one-piece. I bought a bikini a few years back, but my body quickly didn’t fit it, and I haven’t gotten a new one yet. As someone mentioned, shaving is also a concern when choosing.* Since moving to the beach, I do find myself often doing a sports bra + bikini bottom combo — when I finish running, I can strip the top layer of clothing and hop in the water. In all my bathing suit choices, I struggle most with the sense of what will draw attention to me, or have people looking at my body. I’m not ashamed of my body, but I’ve been conditioned to not want attention. I’m still working through how I feel about that. I do find myself drawing toward more athletic presentation, like Sam. In addition to function, maybe that’s a way of outwardly justifying my clothing? Not sure.

    *I’ve become less worried about shaving legs & arm pits since moving to a beach town. Since I live here and basically never wear long pants, I just can’t afford the time to be worried about constantly being hairless. Living in a colder climate, I was more likely to pay attention to it.

    Amazing to see all the comments about skin cancer. I feel as if I’m more sensitive to it than most my age (20s) because of my parents’ experiences with it, but I’m certainly not as careful as most of the ladies here! I wear sunscreen when I’m out more than 30 minutes and try not to get direct sunlight more than an hour or two at a time, but I almost never cover my body as a means of skin protection. Maybe I should!

  5. Thanks for this post Catherine — I enjoyed the tour through our relationships with uncovering in public and the pics 😉

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