FAR FROM ITSY-BITSY

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Happiness is a state of undress: why it’s time to stop worrying and love the bikini ...

You know the dream where you are at the office, or walking down a busy street, and you suddenly realise you are completely naked? The dream is supposed to be about shame and inadequacy, but I’ve long suspected that it’s really about beach holidays. They can strike an unseasonal chill into the female heart, becauseunless you’re a cabaret artiste or a modela bikini is the most revealing thing you are ever likely to wear in public. For many women, the prospect of a beach holiday is like getting an invitation to a wonderful party with fantastic people in a beautiful setting, and then seeing that it says “dress: underwear”.

It ought to be an unalloyed pleasure to be on a beach in the warm sun: not quite naturism, but still a communing of the body with nature that modern life mostly precludes. So why is the clear blue horizon so often clouded by a flicker of self-doubt? It’s that modern malaise again, body image: whereas the body itself was the problem for Victorians, our obsession plays out inside the head, rather than in the drawing room. We live in a world that records and distributes images as never before, so that the freakish images of womanhood the media pumps out begin to seem normal. This is the time of year to remind yourself that they are notneither the size-zero model nor the girl on page three.

Step one is to get a copy of “Fat is a Feminist Issue”, do some revision, and get angryanger is the best defence against the fashion magazines that fetishise the new, creating a sense of inadequacy with our wardrobes and ourselves in order to propel us towards the shops with our wallets hanging out. And we need extra-strong defences now when there are articles everywhere telling us how to Get a Bikini Body in Just Six Weeks and ridiculing celebrities who have forgotten to hold in their tummies while on holiday. It’s a pincer movement that can induce panic in grown-ups, even when we think we’ve got over ourselves.

Feeling good in a bikinior, better still, forgetting we’re wearing oneis about getting used to how we are. Most of what makes us ourselves, as Michael Jackson helpfully demonstrated, is not subject to successful alteration: our height, build and colouring are life companions. Unless you are obese, diet and exercise change only the margins: you still look like you. More or less toned, perhaps, a bit curvier or a bit leaner, but basically you. So let’s not waste time agonising. The sooner we recognise that we’re a Rubens, a Giacometti or somewhere in between, the sooner we can get on with enjoying things like summer holidays. Whatever the magazines may say, a bikini is a state of mind: it’s 99% about acceptance, and only 1% about shopping.

While we’re here, though, let’s deal briefly (as it were) with that 1%. The young and the Giacometti-ish may be able to wear teeny string bikinis, but the rest of us need to know about Heidi Klein online. Until you’ve worn a Klein bikini, you can’t imagine how it could be worth the £175-odd price tag. The answer is careful cutting designed to flatter different shapes, quick-drying and hard-wearing fabrics, and discreet support (side boning, underwiring, lining, power mesh). Top and bottom sizes can be mixed and matched, and many are adjustable. You can now mix styles, too, and there’s a new D-G cup range.

If you can’t or won’t do investment undressing, try the British store Debenhams for a cheaper range by Melissa Odabashanother designer who knows about flattering swimwear. Alternatively it can be good to buy on holiday, when you’ve got used to wandering around with not much on. I was like a child in a sweet shop when I discovered a tiny boutique called Tezuk in Milano Marittima, with drawer upon drawer of bikini tops and bottoms in different sizes, styles and colours (I have a silvery one from there which should have been put out to grass, but is somehow still in my cupboard). But you have to be someone who enjoys the quest aspect of shopping to want to spend holiday time like this.

A century ago, women didn’t swim, they “bathed”, wearing voluminous costumes with bloomers and skirts andwait for itstockings. It must have been like swimming in seaweed. We are lucky to live in an age and a culture that allows us to exercise our bodies in water and to feel the delicious lap of it against our bare skin. Many women in the world still can’t. Without meaning to be too heavy about this most lightweight piece of clothing, we owe it to them, and those women who went before us, to strive for our prelapsarian day in the sun. We should wear our bikinis with pride and count our blessings. The beach is a feminist issue too.

Rebecca Willis is Associate Editor at Intelligent Life. Illustration: Bill Brown