The Short Swimsuit: A Personal & Historical Account

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I: Nostalgia

My father wore a short swimsuit. I have a goofy picture of him, circa 1970: he’s on the beach holding his infant son (my brother, Scott), and he’s wearing a short blue swimsuit with white piping and a nifty snap at the waist. This was the Golden Age of short swimsuits—an epoch that lasted into the eighties. As a child, I experienced the end of this epoch. I have a picture of myself, circa 1983: I’m on the beach in Stone Harbor, and I’m wearing a short red swimsuit with a white and blue stripe down the side.

Every summer, my family spent a good two weeks in Stone Harbor—a tradition that spanned my own, and my mother’s childhood. The tradition ended in 1987, the year my parents divorced. That fall, I moved into a small apartment in East Petersburg, PA with my mother and younger sister, Katie. I spent my afternoons, after school, locked in my room, listening to my mother’s Beach Boys albums, and dreaming about summer. My greatest, and only hope, was that my parents might get back together, and this hope was imagined as a return to Stone Harbor.

Even now, as an adult, I comfort myself with Stone Harbor nostalgia. I remember a post-beach meal at Green Cuisine. I was flanked by my mother, my father, and my brother who was holding our baby sister, and before me sat a giant blueberry smoothie. I desperately had to pee, but I just couldn’t bring myself to abandon the table—so I sat, fidgeting, unspeakably happy in my short swimsuit.

***

II: History

From the start, short swimsuits were contentious. Michael Capuzzo writes in Close to Shore, his wonderful account of the 1916 New Jersey shark attacks:

“Swimming was a new and godless pursuit, a worship of the cult of the body…The most shocking development was in the water, where the rising hems of swimming costumes became a battle line drawn by the Victorian establishment.”

The battle continued until at least 1957, when California beach culture exploded with the publication of a little book—Gidget. As Peter Lunefield notes in his wonderful article, “Gidget on the Couch”: “Within a few years, the Beach Boys, woodies, hangin’ ten, and board shorts were as popular in Kansas City as Santa Cruz.”

Today, we associate board shorts with a longer, baggy style; back then, and for some time, boardies rarely moved beyond the mid-thigh. 1957 might be called the beginning of the Golden Age of short swimsuits—a vibrant moment inspired by California beach culture, celebrated by Hollywood, and emulated by men across the country.

 

 

Sean Connery wore a short swimsuit to “memorable effect” as James Bond in Thunderball. As the website The Suits of James Bonds notes: “Bond’s light blue swimming trunks sit just below the waist and have an inseam of only a couple inches or so.”

Until at least the mid-to-late eighties, “rising hems” were accepted on and off the beach. Male tennis players rocked short shorts throughout the eighties (until Agassi intervened with his Spandex Revolution, changing the sport’s fashion sensibility), and basketball players wore short shorts until 1988, when, according to NBA.com, Michael Jordan changed the style forever:

The real short-shorts stuck around until Jordan discovered he didn’t have enough room to wear his University of North Carolina shorts underneath his Bulls shorts…In order to stay close to his alma mater, so to speak, he needed more space. So he approached Champion, then the NBA’s apparel-maker and outfitter, through the Bulls and asked that his shorts be wider and longer.

Incidentally, the lone holdout to this trend was John Stockton. Today, many continue to call short shorts “Stocktons,” and Stockton came to be a poster-boy for the short short apologists. Jordan’s influence was pervasive:

“Jordan also appeared in several Nike commercials with Spike Lee wearing the roomy shorts. Jordan was emerging as an icon and trend-setter among kids both inside and outside city limits and the commercials caught on nationally.”

Was Jordan responsible for the shift away from short shorts, and by extension, short swimsuits? Certainly other factors influenced the shift away from short hems—most notably the rise of gay culture in the eighties. In a sense, the gay community co-opted short shorts and swimsuits. What was once natural for all men, became the domain of gay men—and many straight men, ever-fearful of appearing gay, went the way of Jordan.

The result? From the New York Times:

There is a sad deficiency of well-made men’s swimwear…we are drowning in a sea of bunchy nylon, bad graphics and unfortunate cuts. You know it’s bad when the most prevalent and popular trunks are hideously baggy knee-length board shorts covered with weird neon symbols, strange netting and stripes. They make you look like a human energy drink.

***

III: The Bold Swimmer

As a teen in the nineties, I lost touch with short swimsuits. For me, the decade was, in fact, a period of “hideously baggy” board shorts. It wasn’t until 2001, when I was twenty-four and living in Barcelona, that I rediscovered short swimsuits. (In Europe, short swimsuits never went out of style.) I was a headstrong vegetarian who’d conjured a self-image made from equal parts Walt Whitman, The Big Lebowski, and magical realism. I had romantic sense of “singing the body electric,” and this passage from Gabriel García Márquez’s story, “Miss Forbe’s Summer of Happiness” struck the exact coordinates of my soul:

All at once Oreste, the local boy who taught us how to swim in deep waters, appeared behind the agave plants. He was wearing his diving mask on his forehead, a miniscule bathing suit, and a leather belt that held six knives of different shapes and sizes…He was about twenty-two years old and spent more time at the bottom of the sea than on solid ground, and with motor oil always smeared over his body he even looked like a sea animal. When she saw him for the first time, Miss Forbes told my parents that it was impossible to imagine a more beautiful human being.

My return to short swimsuits was, in fact, a “miniscule suit,” and I wore it proudly on the Barcelona beaches, and later after we returned to the United States, at Spicer Lake in Minnesota, on Long Beach Island, a few miles away from the 1916 attacks, and on Brigantine Beach, New Jersey.

Brigantine Beach

 Wearing my miniscule suit, I felt like Whitman’s bold swimmer:

Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the

shore,

Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,

To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me,

shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.

I recall receiving a few taunts, but it didn’t bother me: I was confident, and young, and I felt the fashionable logic of poetry pushing me from behind.

***

IV: The Hole of Defeat

At the age of twenty-six, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. I became remarkably ill, but I refused to take the conventional treatment. As I sought an elusive “cure,” I lost thirty pounds. My skin yellowed. Recently, an employee at the local YMCA told me he remembered me from this time, and he’d assumed that I had AIDS.

“You were so skinny, so yellow, and so flamboyant,” he said. “I just assumed you were gay, and that you had AIDS.”

After my initial venture into the miniscule, I settled for Sean Connery’s two-inch seam look in Thunderball, and I would often sport this look at the Y. Flamboyant, indeed. The vibrant self-image I’d conjured had been destroyed, but I continued to wear my short swimsuit. I did so, of course, because I longed to deny illness. My short swimsuit was a symbol of bold confidence, and I wore it in defiance—of illness, and who I’d become.

This defiance was angry, not confident, but there was a smidgen of something else. I felt this “something else” on my better days: it was, perhaps, a calm trust; it was a love for my family and friends, and my girlfriend, Karen; it was hope. I had yet to discover my remedies: Ayurvedic pills from India, stellar probiotics, and a refusal of wheat and dairy. But I was seeing a mind-body therapist named Rosemary. And I was conjuring a new, wounded self-image from new books. James Hillman. Robert Bly.

In Re-Visioning Psychology, James Hillman writes:

“We owe our symptoms an immense debt. The soul can exist without its therapists but now without its afflictions.”

In Iron John, Robert Bly writes:

“People too healthy…too muscular, may use their health to prevent the soul from entering. They leave no door. Through the perfection of victory they achieve health, but the soul enters through the hole of defeat.”

I’d conjured the bold, bodily hero, and now I was attempting the soulful, wounded hero. All this conjuring embarrasses me—to a degree. But I must admit: I’ve found it helpful.

Anyway. At the time, I was living with my father. I recall a broiling summer morning, stepping out onto my father’s deck, and peering into the woods that surrounded the house.

“Fuck you, woods,” I said.

I grabbed a golf club, and dashed into the woods, slashing at brambles and weeds. I was crying, or maybe not crying, just trying to cry, which seemed infinitely pathetic. Still, I had this idea that a tirade might heal me. It did help, but not in a predictable way. All that slashing put in mind of my childhood, when running through the cornfields of Lancaster, I’d slap the tall, green corn stalks with a stick, and shout out for no reason, “Ha!”

Something about this memory did it: I stopped, and I began to cry. “What the hell am I doing?” I asked myself, and I looked down. I was wearing my short swimsuit, and I felt ridiculous.

***

V: How Goofy and Horrible is Life?

Last summer, at the local gas station, a car full of teens shouted angrily at me, “Dude, you’re gay.”

I was wearing my short swimsuit.

I shouted back: “Haters!”

I admit: I enjoy challenging people’s sensibilities. And I believe it is important to stand against bigotry and hatred in your own way. But I am not trying to challenge people when I wear my short swimsuit around town: I am merely wearing a short swimsuit.

Since I returned from Barcelona at the age of twenty-five, I’ve traveled from confidence to despair, from self-derision to self-mockery, from anger to acceptance—and now, at thirty-five, I continue to wear my short swimsuit. The meaning of this act has evolved over the years. I’ve felt bold, angry and defiant, even ridiculous. Now my feelings might best be expressed in a line from my Uncle Dean: “How goofy and horrible is life?” When wearing my short swimsuit I feel goofy, a bit horrible.

I have a goofy picture: circa Memorial Day, 2012. I’m standing on the porch of my father’s beach house holding my daughter, and I’m wearing a short black bathing suit with a white stripe.

 

Looking at the picture, I feel it, that smidgen of something. It’s flourished over the years, crowding out the brash confidence and anger, crowding out even my goofy feelings. I’m not sure I can describe this feeling exactly. It’s a shrug of the shoulders, and a thought: Well, that’s me.

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Seth Pollins is a writer and cook who lives with his wife and baby daughter in Ambler, a small town outside Philadelphia. He earned an MFA from the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers in 2009. Currently, he works at Villanova University's Writing Center, and at Whole Foods Market as a lively lecturer, recipe developer, and all-around food optimist. Seth's work was recently featured in in the literary journal 113 Crickets, and he is currently seeking an agent for his novel, Bump. More from this author →