An American Horror Story: Swimsuit Season (Guest Post)

By Kara Martinez Bachman 

Dear Diary,

Today we found a purple swimsuit at Lerner’s. I just gave up on my diet. That’s because I could not keep it up, and because when I wear my new swimsuit it looks better when you are fat. –diary excerpt from 1980 (age ten)

I have always been both littler and bigger than everyone else. How anyone can be both at the same time only makes sense if you have seen me. I have a small frame and tiny wrists and smallish hands. Sometimes, fully linked and clasped bracelets used to even fall clear off of me.

So much has changed since I wrote 37 years ago about the legendary swimsuit that looks better when you are fat, but one thing has not changed: I’ve never been able to reach the upper portions of cabinets, or grab Fruity Pebbles boxes from the top shelf at the grocery, or drive a car and have the motorists behind me observe more than the shadowy implication of a head behind the wheel. Because I only measure somewhere under five-foot-two, I’m continually raising my seat in the car, or stretching uncomfortably to reach the top shelves in the kitchen or pantry. Although my views and opinions have changed a bit since age ten, my height certainly has not.The weight, however, is another story. In a country where being slim is the “end all and be all,” some might call it a HORROR story.

The weight, however, is another story. In a country where being slim is the “end all and be all,” some might call it a HORROR story.

This is the part where I explain how I have always felt “bigger,” despite the tiny frame. It’s always been there, insidiously lurking. The specific examples are hard to come by now, but the foggy memories and bad feelings are still intact. I remember stuff through old diaries, and through crappy photos from my mother’s Instamatic camera. I have fuzzy remembrances of always feeling chunkier than the rest.

When I look at old photos, I see why. I’m not so much fat as I am a fat person in the making, a plus-sized blueprint, waiting to be built. You can see something there in the hips, some kind of telltale heft, even years before the tidal change of puberty. Despite my tiny wrists, you can see that I would, some day in the future, be willing to give anything for a swimsuit that looks better when you are fat.

There is a photo that hints of this, taken around age fourteen. It is a studio shot, very carefully staged. I am of course in it; my two sisters are there; my little brother is there. And, one day, I saw it: I saw how comparatively big I seemed, how much presence I had in that picture. The photographer had placed me in the center, as a big anchor. My siblings posed around as if they were a litter of pups, slim and gossamer in their lace dresses and infantile dress-up clothes. I saw that I had been used for a sort of grounding.

I looked as if I were their mother. I looked less like a teen and more like a chubby middle-aged woman. With bird wrists. Or at least it seemed. And when I was fourteen, I suddenly realized I was no longer an overweight person in the making, but had, perhaps, already arrived.

I suddenly no longer felt too skinny for a swimsuit. In fact, trying on swimsuits became somewhat like an episode of “American Horror Story,” an exercise in confusion and misery. Feelings of being in a freakshow are hard to beat back when staring in the mirror at spandex spanning your ass, elastic cutting in at the top of the thighs and saddlebags protruding like the bumpy dough of a huge unbaked biscuit.

I always sought out suits with the most “coverage” and optical illusion; only vertical stripes and strategic cinching would do. In addition to stressing about whether anyone had tried them on before me (and whether or not they wore their underwear to do so), I now had two things to worry about. Year after year, I’d enter the fitting room each spring and delay putting the things on. I’d first inspect the crotches for telltale pubes, to distract myself from the fact that I was about to try on a swimsuit that no doubt would NOT look better when I was fatter.

Nowadays, years later, I still get sweaty from the fact that this process takes fifteen hours and half a bottle of tequila. But in a sense, I’m now old enough, and big enough, that I’ve come full-circle. Sometimes, when trying on these garments, with their full underwire cups and frilly thigh-covering skirts, I actually do think: “This looks better when you are fatter!” And I’m 100% correct in this. No slim woman would look good in a swimsuit mumu; they’re best left for the women of substance. A plus-size design on a slim person would make her seem like an embellished balloon, ready to float aloft. She would always look textbook beautiful, of course, but might appear as a child playing dress-up, grasping at a bulk of spirit that she may, or may not, ever possess.

I do end up buying one of those suits every few years. But I also know now in my adult brain that tall and skinny does not matter one bit when you’re lying in the waves. Instead of the horrors of the fitting room, I think instead about the beautiful things no one will ever notice: the small bones in my pinkies, and the sparkly bracelet that covertly slipped passed my downright malnourished palm, and off into the endlessly forgiving surf.


Kara Martinez Bachman is a journalist and author of the humorous essay collection about the pros and cons of reaching midlife, “Kissing the Crisis: Field Notes on Foul-Mouthed Babies, Disenchanted Women, and Careening into Middle Age.” Her writing has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers, websites and literary journals, including The Writer, Funny Times, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and the website of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. It has also been heard on NPR radio.

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