by Debi Hall

I'm not sure when swimwear purchases became an exercise in torture. Water boarding? Standing in front of a full length mirror lighted with hideous fluorescent lights in a bathing suit, looking like a blimp squeezed into a summer sausage wrapper? I'm not so sure which is worse. Okay, okay, waterboarding, but swim suit season is still agony time for many baby least in this country. And the tragedy is that it wasn't always a scene from a horror movie.

When I was three, my grandmother took me to Perkins Timberlake, an upscale women's shop in Wichita Falls. She told me I could have any bathing suit I wanted. And so, on that Saturday morning, I tried on every swimsuit in the store. I paraded and modeled for my doting grandmother and everyone else in the store, admiring myself in all the store mirrors. As indulgent and spoiling as a grandmother should be, Grammar thought they all looked so cute that she bought me three, and two of them were bikinis! And, she bought me two coverups and three matching swim caps. And then she took me to the country club swimming pool where I changed outfits three times throughout the afternoon of splashing and laughing in the pool. There I was, all the glamour of Esther Williams and the confidence of an Olympic athlete. Where did I go? What happened to that precious little free spirit?

The blame for my self conscious body image lays just where you'd suspect, Mexico. That's right. At age 15 our family invaded the country on a driving trip, including Acapulco. That's where the disaster occurred. I had made myself a bathing suit and matching coverup. It was a cute two piece: cotton, black and white polka dotted. Unfortunately, I had skipped the pattern directions that called for elastic under the top, and so every time I jumped out of the water, my top came up to my chin. Having so much fun splashing and playing, and a clueless wonder to boot, I did not connect the dots. So, when my sister encouraged me to jump up and out of the water a hundred times in front of the college boys we were flirting with, I leaped at the chance to bask in the spotlight. I could not believe I was sooo popular! That night, when she told me what a spectacle I had made of myself, I told my daddy, and she was grounded the next day. Still, I'll be in a therapist's office for the rest of my life over that incident.

Flashforward to today! I'm not often homicidal, but I confess, when I stand in a padlocked dressing room miserable as I stuff myself in layers of spandex, and hear some 20 year old pencil ask her friend, "do you think this thong makes me look fat," I want to strangle her with her tube top. And then...there was Kim.

I never go to pool parties. It's just a matter of principle. But, a few years ago, all my friends were going to this July 4 pool barbecue, so I bit the bullet and went. In walked Kimmie. One month older than me...Kimmie...and built like a flawless supermodel. Where was she when we were all getting cellulite? But here she was, in her teeny tiny American flag bikini covered in sequins. As my friends and I waddled over to the Jacuzzi where we could remain submerged, we hissed as all the men sat in a circle around Kimmie, listening intently to her complaints about the two sequins that had fallen off her swimsuit. They practically cried in sympathy. I asked my boyfriend on the way home if he even knew what a sequin was. "Huh?"

And in the millennium, we add insult to injury with swimsuits that make promises they can't possibly fulfill. The "miracle suit" is supposed to make one look ten pounds lighter...instantly. What a crock. And the "slim suit" guarantees an immediate 7 pound reduction. Well, I want my figure back, because I put that thing on and still look like cottage cheese in a condom.

What is the true miracle suit, you ask? A full body scuba suit. Those rubber girdles hold in everything. All the bulges, lumps and vestiges of age and gravity are stuffed in and zipped up in a suit the thickness of tire tread, giving the illusion of sleek lines and smooth skin. Of course, all the excess fat is likely to spill out over the neck of the suit...which is why a turtleneck is suggested. The end result is a bit of fat that can't find anywhere else to go and lands in the face, giving you a plump, healthy glow. And, should any fat try to find its way out the ankle of the suit, a nice pair of plus size flippers will take care of the problem in short order. A good speedo swim cap and goggles and your anonymity is guaranteed. Oh sure, when you stand in your garb at the country club pool in 105 degree heat you might get a look or two, but who'll know it's you? Nobody.

The fact remains, my baby boomer friends...and you know who you are...gravity is not your friend, and we have arrived at that hallowed moment in life where it takes twice as long to look half as good as we did when we didn't care what our driver's license picture looked like. Oh, sure, folks encourage us to exercise to look and feel fit. Tough to do when my idea of weight lifting is standing up. And besides, I tried aerobics...twice, and I didn't see one result. So I'll keep to my swimming, oblivious to comments from the shallow end of the pool and bask in the depth of my character, the exciting chapters still left to be experienced and continue to purchase swim suits like any other sane member of the majority...on line. Because while department stores are the devil's playground, Ebay truly is your friend.