I began typing this sitting on a sun lounger in Spain whilst sporting a slightly faded floral bikini. Yellowed by chlorine and with the elastic slowly deteriorating, it's not going to be making it into any magazine lists of ideal swimwear. However, it was designated the 'sun bathing' bikini, perfect for lounging. My vintage St Michael striped blue and lime number above, being a bit more robust, was the one used for swimming. One stringy where the other was shaped. Neither was accompanied by make up, hair products or shaved legs. One of the more pleasant aspects of a holiday is foregoing (or in my case forgetting) the rudiments of personal grooming beyond showering and brushing teeth. It’s a hiatus from everything – internet, beauty standards, the lot. Besides there's no point putting on eyeliner when the day is divided between dipping, diving and splashing in water, eating huge amounts of food, skimming through Victorian novels and sleeping.
Spending a week in little more than panels of stretchy fabric means that I have been sporting what is known in some media circles as a 'bikini body'. I like Hadley Freeman's list of steps towards embodying this term:
“1. Take one body, probably yours.
2. Take one bikini, probably yours.
3. Put bikini on body.
4. Go to pool, beach or other bikini-meriting place. (No, the park does not count. To be discussed another week.)
6. The end.”
I do like the way my fifties-style bikini makes my body look. It has all the predictable associations of old shoots from Vogue, and of films where the decade can be guessed from the clothing. It has the potential to be styled glamorously: the high-waisted bottoms giving definition to the lines of my shape. But it is also functional. It was perfect for snorkelling in the sea (leaving me with an amusing striped tan on my back) and for playing elaborate versions of blind man's buff in the pool. The only accessories were flippers and insect bites.
I don’t object to idealised fashion shoots where the models look like they wouldn't dare get their hair wet. That's what I did here. The first few images show an imagined scenario, created using the location to hand. It was the first (and only) time lipstick appeared on holiday, while my feet grew used to being either bare or in flip-flops - not buckled into tall sandals. Thus, these shots suggest a level of glitziness never quite found outside the confines of the camera. I liked the stylized drama of it.
The second set of images are a tad more truthful, although still planned rather than impromptu. Any image shown here is, of course, a version of my appearance: chosen, possibly cropped, expressions checked and poses scrutinised. Even within the naturalism, I haven't presented the snaps where I’m grimacing or coughing because I accidently swallowed water. If you wanted an accurate representation of the week, it would just be a lot of wavy blurs – much of each day spent wriggling around underwater. There would also be big red lines across my face from goggles. Nonetheless, here I am wearing nothing but a bikini. No additional enhancement thanks to mascara or concealer. Just me and the pool. I wanted to illustrate the divide between a swimsuit shoot, and the act of swimming. One is about presenting a visual identity or image, the other an act of setting loose the self and letting it float away.
Fashion shoots are not true to life. This is the line used by many within the industry to justify the augmented ideal of beauty held up in ads and shoots. And it’s true. We don't look at Tim Walker’s photos and expect our world to be filled with pastel cats and cable-knit cars (more's the shame). But the problem lies in seeing a slender adolescent model sporting a selection of bikinis by a sea so blue it looks painted, and then confusing that (and the photoshopping) with one's own personal reality. Some who write for certain women’s mags are particularly keen to tangle up fantasy with actuality. Those unreal images are taken as the scale by which judgment is measured. Slightly more flesh than a lithe teenager? Time to diet! Boobs too big? Invest in a really, really expensive bikini! Hairy/stubbly armpits? Traitor to femininity! Feeling ok with your self-esteem? Great, time to laugh at these famous people who’ve inadvertently shown that they possess cellulite!
People who might see you in a bikini are: partners (who are likely to have seen you in a greater state of undress), family (perhaps including your mother who gave birth to you), friends (not worth the effort if they think merit is based on appearance) or strangers on a beach (who have much more important things to consider than the size of your hips). The only arched eyebrow of judgment is the media. And the collective of magazines, websites and commentators aren’t going to be watching your holiday shenanigans. They're all much too absorbed in tracking down celebrities who dare to perspire on beaches, or in breathless coverage of the royal baby. The problem is that this external source affects internal commentary. This is what needs to be switched off. But then, isn’t that what holidays are for?