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Summer Bummer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The curvy high school girl trying on the reversible pink two-piece bathing suit is less than thrilled with what she sees in the dressing room mirror.

“This makes my [rear] look huge!” she groans. “I need to work out.”

Her fully clothed friend, standing nearby, says, “I think I want to eat something really fat today.”

“Don’t say that right now!” the pink two-piece girl pleads as she pulls the beige plaid partition curtain across her body.

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If it’s summer it must be swimsuit season, a time that evokes more fear and loathing in some women than tax deadlines, finals and root canals put together.

While some manage to skip the annual ritual, others aren’t so lucky. Pool parties, beach barbecues, spa vacations, resorts--they all demand bathing suits. And so the pilgrimage is made, despite the dreaded, but inevitable, up-close-and-personal encounter with the dressing room mirror.

On a recent weekday morning, women are perusing the racks at Canyon Beachwear at the Beverly Center, picking through hundreds of one- and two-piece suits. Hanging neatly along the walls they form a colorful mosaic, from black-and-orange tiger prints to ‘60s pop-art florals, staid black tanks to bikinis made from a scant few inches of fabric. Suits that tighten tummies, raise rears and create cleavage.

But sifting through the racks is the easy part. Next, it’s back to the dressing room for try-ons, which spark the self-deprecating remarks and raw commentary. Some women are confident enough to hop right out of the little cubicle and stand before the big mirror. Most never venture past the curtain.

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“Joanie, look at this,” a woman says to her friend through the dressing room wall. “You’ll have to come here. I’m not coming out.”

The teenage girl in the pink bikini won’t let go of the nylon sweat pants that sit halfway on her hips. She tries hiding the rest of her body with the curtain. Torn between the pink outfit and a similar style in yellow, she worries that the pink top is too revealing.

“I leaned over and they fell out!” she tells her friend.

“You look great!” her friend assures her. “Besides, half the people in this town get [implants] put in anyway.”

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“Well, there’s a difference between showing it classy and showing it hootchie,” the pink-bikini girl counters. “And I also don’t like the fact that the bottom part dips down below my pooch,” she adds, pointing to a slightly rounded stomach.

The saleswoman looks, raises an eyebrow and says, “Your pooch? My definition of pooch is a little different.”

After more angst about the bust line issue, the suit is ultimately put on hold and the two girls merge back into mall traffic.

Buying a bathing suit isn’t like buying a dress. Women put it off and put it off, waiting to shop until the very day they need it. Some come in frantic, desperate to find something that will do.

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Take the young, slim woman in the oversized overalls--she’s just hours away from catching a plane and she needs two swimsuits for her vacation.

A calm saleswoman brings a steady stream of bikinis back to the dressing room; some are quickly rejected, others are considered. The customer makes disparaging remarks about her size, although there isn’t an ounce of fat visible anywhere. The saleswoman patiently assures her, all the way up to the cash register, that she looks great.

A trim woman in her 40s with a little girl and a stroller-bound toddler in tow scans the racks for a one-piece suit.

“I need something with some support,” she says gazing at the myriad styles. “I’m still nursing, and these,” she says pointing to her breasts, “are twice the size they normally are.”

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At the dressing room mirror she surveys her body in a black tank, narrowing her eyes at the mirror, hands on her hips.

“I really need a square neck. And I’m old, and I have this thing, this fat right here,” she says, pinching some bit of flesh under her arm. When women don’t like some part of their body they often grab it and talk about it as if it were some parasite that had suddenly lodged there.

She leaves the store swimsuit-less.

Traffic at the store waxes and wanes; when the dressing rooms are full, bodies spill out of the cubicles and everyone starts offering an opinion. A young, fit woman trying on bikinis gets unsolicited advice from a roomful of strangers. The plain black is OK, but nothing special. The gingham check is cute in an Annette Funicello way. The bright green and blue floral print is a keeper.

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The young woman immediately rejects suits that don’t flatter the bust: “This really flattens me,” she says of one. Another winds up on the floor because it shows too much rear end: “See, I’ve got this,” she says, grabbing some imaginary butt fat. “But I am roller-blading now.”

Not every woman is at war with her body. A group of zaftig females tries on bikinis without so much as a negative remark or concern over not having a Barbie body. A woman in her 30s with a large bust and rounded hips tries on a black two-piece and stares dreamily at herself in the mirror, only worried that the straps offer enough support.

“There are some women who accept how they look,” says Kathleen Egan Mudd, owner of Canyon Beachwear, who started working at the store in the late ‘70s when she was 14. “They say, ‘This is what I’ve got to work with. I’m never going to have big [breasts], but I’m going to buy this anyway.’ I think that goes along with being a little more confident, being a little more secure with your body.”

But Mudd adds that they’re still the minority. Nearly two decades in the trenches has made her an expert, and she’s seen and heard it all.

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“Women will say, ‘Look at my arms, look at my legs, they’re so fat.’ They blow up their flaws, things that you and I wouldn’t even notice.”

Mudd can sympathize. “I know I do that to myself as well. When I put on a suit I’ll ask my husband, ‘Do I look fat?’ It’s even hard for me to go into the dressing room, but the salesgirls always say, ‘That looks cute, you do not look fat.’ So I think it’s really important for us to be really sensitive and aware of how the customer is feeling.”

Swimsuits, Mudd says, are “an intimate sale. It’s a totally different experience than buying a skirt or a blouse. You’re going to be seeing someone’s body, and you don’t even know them.”

Mudd adds that happy endings do exist: “When you can fit in a suit and feel good about yourself, it’s very rewarding. Women come back and say, ‘I got so many compliments on this.’ It relieves all the pressure.”

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