The Sundays of my childhood had a wonderful routine. My family would pile up in our bilious mustard-coloured Fiat and drive for an hour to the outskirts of New Delhi. Our destination: a chic farmhouse in Chattarpur. Today, a posh residential enclave, in the late 1970s the area had select summer homes set amid vast tracts of vacant land. It was the ultimate luxury destination. And we couldn’t wait for the weekend.
Our routine was simple. Hours in the pool. Followed by heaps of meat curry and rice. Punctuated by babe watching. For three hairy and definitely unattractive Sardarni sisters—who faced the ignominy of wearing nearly identical one-piece swimsuits with multicoloured fish running amuck—the hot firang women in tiny bikinis were akin to The Others (from the TV series Lost).
But we invariably came home with stomach aches. Not because we overate—but because even at ages 9, 7 and 4 we knew we didn’t fill out our swimsuits to that degree of perfection. Perhaps we even had a premonition that we never would.
Your average woman has a terrible relationship with her body. It’s a well-known fact. But the real shame is that this image distortion starts at an incredibly young age. We were too young to have started our periods, but we weren’t too young to think we resembled fat toads. Which, to be honest, we did. But in retrospect, we were cute. And since that sense of inadequacy didn’t last well past our teens, I didn’t think too much damage had been done.
Sure, we hated bikinis. But we told ourselves it’s only because “sluts” wore them. We were able to justify our disdain with the fact that every time we came upon the bikini, it was generally lying on the floor—ably placed there by a randy cousin with a little assistance from his girlfriend.
My maillot travelled with me everywhere and life seemed just perfect. Until I landed in Mumbai. I still remember my horror the first time I saw my best friend in a bikini. A perfectly nice girl seemed comfortable stepping out in her underwear. This was the stuff that nightmares are made of and just because her innerwear was dressed in a little lycra, she seemed to think it was acceptable. Strangely enough, she wasn’t the only one. Alibaug’s palatial mansions were littered with women of loose morals!
And then, I went to Goa. Back in the time when it was still paradise and Baga was actually a beautiful beach. You could be naked and still no one would look at you. I lost my inhibitions and my bikini top—to the first crashing wave. And it no longer mattered.
There is a reason the bikini is the unchallenged star of the swimwear world. Bandeaus or one-pieces may currently rule the fashion charts, tankinis may be more flattering for the Indian silhouette and yet, it is these two tiny scraps of material that inspire. From songs to films (the Bond babe and her many me-toos are indelibly etched in our memories) to determining an actor’s popularity, the hosannas are reserved for the bikini. And, I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that the garment was named after the Bikini Atoll—a site where nuclear testing took place (check out Wikipedia for some great trivia and information). The bikini grabs our imagination because the sexiness lies in the psychology of the wearing. Once you decide that your bra and panty are going to take you out—you have made your peace with your body. And that freedom is endlessly seductive. To a point where you find yourself stepping into the sea in your underwear, because this time you have forgotten your bikini!
Currently, I have a very harmonious relationship with the bikini. It’s not monogamous, but it has been a long-term one. With 40 looming ahead, however, I plan to get age-appropriate—or abs like Shah Rukh Khan—and dress my age/body. I haven’t decided yet. But whatever I do, I know I won’t be like the fat foreign women I see tanning themselves in Thailand. Squeezed into a swimsuit, they seem to be testing the tensile strength of lycra and string. I bet one of them was even at the poolside at Chattarpur. Now, I only wish I could remember her name.
(Nonita Kalra is editor-in-chief, Elle )