Rear-Guard Action

The striking woman in the black Mossimo bikini played softball on her high school team and took up martial arts for a few years after that. Since then, she has spent much of her time raising three children, who are 14, 9 and 4. She still rides her bicycle far more often than she drives her car. She wears conservative business suits every morning, when she hurries off to work at a law office, and she switches into an old T-shirt and baggy sweat pants if she has time to get to the gym.

But when she goes to the beach, she goes there to relax. And she wears a bikini. Always has.

"The best thing about walking down the beach in a swimsuit is how it soothes the soul," says Lisa, who lives in Long Beach. "There's a joy I get internally from being in the sun and the sand and the water, taking a break from how hard I work the rest of the time. It's rewarding to know that in my mid-30s, I can put on a bikini and still look good after having several children. And there's the attention from others, too, of course. It's nice when guys smile and say hello as they walk by, when you can tell they're enjoying it as much as you are."

Lisa has been wearing bikinis since before she was a teenager. "I must have owned at least 25 of them over the years," she says, getting a Memory Lane look in her eyes. "The first one was tie-dyed. When I was 13, I had one of those two-color French-cuts-you know, alternating colors for each cup and bottom panel-with a strap that went over the hip and back under and tied around the stomach like a shoelace. Another time, I had a macram string bikini, but not for long because they weren't very comfortable when they got wet. For a long time, I wore one made out of pink leather that I bought at a little shop in Sunset Beach. These days, I wear this black bikini. It's by Mossimo, yeah, but I bought it at Ross, which I think is pretty funny."

Susan, of Santa Ana, wears a bikini of periwinkle blue-designer unknown-and it's the only bikini she's ever owned. "I'm a bikini convert," she acknowledges. Her voice is chopped with a hesitance that suggests a hint of guilt. But it's also colored with a low, glowing giggle that revels in a guilty pleasure. "I don't know how it happened," she says. "I always felt more comfortable in one-piece suits. I always thought their single, long, form-fitting line was perfect for my figure."

But about four years ago, a friend steered Susan into a bikini shop and cajoled her into spending an afternoon trying on bottoms and tops. "It was a nightmare for me, since I'm top-heavy: a bikini that fit my bottom was too small for my chest," she says. And anything that fit her top was too weird for her bottom. "As a black woman, my behind doesn't tend to match the shape of bikinis that are mostly designed for white women," Susan says. "Not only don't the bottoms cover enough to begin with, but as you wear them, they tend to show more and more. There is this constant progression toward thong-ness."

Not long before she would have given up searching, however, Susan tried on that little number in periwinkle blue. She gets her low laugh going again as she remembers her first look at herself in the mirror. "That suit totally nailed it," she gushes. "It was perfect, and I was converted."

But not quite confident. "Even though I knew I looked good, I still felt a little apprehensive," Susan says. "I wasn't a woman who grew up wearing a bikini. For me, it was weird at the beginning. But once you get out there and become aware of how kick-ass you look, you think: 'This is cool. I can do this.' Your head goes up, your chin gets kind of set, and you get into the vibe of it."

Bring up the possibility that by wearing a bikini, she is somehow participating in her own sexual objectification, and Susan sighs. "Please," she says with a groan. "When you're on the beach, the rules are different. It's not like I'm wearing a bikini to the mall."

Lisa agrees. "To me, bikinis are just another part of the beach experience," she says. "Swimsuits are fashion, and fashion is intended to be noticed and appreciated. When you find the perfect swimsuit-perfect style, perfect color, perfect fit-people are going to look. There's nothing perverse about that. It's like inhaling nature."

Not that Lisa doesn't remember occasions as an adolescent when presenting herself in a revealing bikini was part of a search for acceptance and popularity, when her beach activities might have been better served by some of the practical fashions-board shorts, tank tops-that are available and popular today. "Sure, there were times I'd wear a sexy swimsuit because I wanted to fit in, just like with everything else I wore as a little girl," she says. "I became very full-chested at a young age, and I definitely got a charge out of the looks I'd get when I showed up in a great bikini. But I was very nervous, too, because I was also drawing attention I did not want and definitely did not need: whistles, crude comments, guys thinking they could put their hands on me. When I was younger, I didn't know how to handle it. Today, I have the self-assurance to be firm-and even more than that-if someone is giving me the wrong kind of attention. But I had to learn that. I probably wouldn't want my daughters wearing bikinis until they're at least 16. But, you know, one way or the other, they've got to have learning experiences, too."

Meanwhile, Susan is facing the prospect that she might have to find a new bikini. "I don't want to think about that-not after all it took to find this one," she says. "But late last summer, the little plastic thing that adjusts the shoulder strap broke. I've tried gluing it, but it hasn't worked, and I haven't figured out what else to do. The idea of searching for another bikini is almost traumatic. Because it's got to be perfect, you know. It's got to be you. With a bikini, you can't fake it."


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