Monday, January 10, 2005

On Being a Woman: Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny

Ask any man to name the most excruciatingly painful event a woman can endure, and he will inevitably say: childbirth. Ask any woman that same question, and she will undoubtedly say: trying on bathing suits.

While I admittedly have not yet reproduced, I can say without question that I would rather give birth to twins simultaneously without an epidural while running a 5K than have to try on a thong bikini in November under harsh fluorescent lights in front of a three-way mirror. And I defy any woman to contradict me.

But like going to the dentist, or recycling, there comes a time when you just have to bite the bullet and do the thing that you most hate and fear. This time came for me a few years ago when a group of girlfriends and I decided to take a winter getaway to sunny Cancun.

My friend Vivian and I decided to go to Kohl’s Department Store to try on swimsuits for our trip. The trip was only a few days away, and I still hadn’t built up the courage to go bathing suit shopping. I kept trying to convince myself that maybe I didn’t need one.

“So… are you planning on laying by the poolside in jeans and a polo shirt?”

“No – I have some culottes I think might work out just fine. I’ll still be able to dangle my feet in the water, right?”

“Jen, you’re not wearing gauchos on the beach. That’s absolutely rid-“

“I didn’t say gauchos. I said culottes.”

“Same thing. You’re stalling.”

“Fine. Drive.”

When we arrived at the store, I tried to delay Vivian by dragging her to the shoe department. There was a sale on Skechers, and I knew that was her weakness. Unfortunately, Viv was single-minded in her mission, and couldn’t be distracted by discounted footwear. I begrudgingly followed her to the swimsuit department and started flipping through the racks:

“Ugly. Fugly. Slutty. Dorky. Frilly. Low-cut. Sleazy. Mannish. See-through. Heinous. Viv, let’s just go, there’s nothing here I like.”

“Jen, we’re leaving in three days. Pick out some swimsuits already and get in the dressing room!”

So I grabbed as many suits as I could find that weren’t completely offensive to me – about ten or so – and bee-lined to the dressing room. Since I had no idea what size I needed, I grabbed each suit in sizes 6 through 14, which gave me a total of about 50 suits to try on. As I walked into the dressing room, the clerk mumbled something about a limit of 10 items at a time. I bared my teeth and hissed at her, and she backed off.

While I wouldn’t normally share this level of detail, I feel it’s important to note that I had just gotten my period, and therefore was retaining approximately 14 gallons of water, primarily in my abdominal region. Additionally, it was late fall, and due to sunlight deprivation, my skin was a delicate shade of indigo, slightly translucent.

Since I don’t trust the “Sanitary Lining for Your Protection” inside swimsuits to actually protect me from anything, I, of course, kept my underwear on for the duration of this masochistic fashion show. Due to the previously referenced 14 gallons of water, I was wearing my industrial sized underwear, which stuck out approximately 4 inches on either side of every suit I tried on, requiring me to just imagine what the suit might look like if I didn’t have the equivalent of a beach towel hanging out of my ass.

Thanks to the unforgiving fluorescent lighting, my raging hormones, and my unusually long torso, my self-esteem was crumbling with each disastrous attempt at finding a swimsuit. Just when I was about to crawl into the corner, hug my knees, and rock myself into a state of calm, I heard it.

Like the trumpeting of the angels signaling the Rapture, a loud siren rang out from the streets, wailing louder and louder. Suddenly, a voice came over the Kohl’s intercom and said:

Attention Kohl’s shoppers! A tornado warning has been issued for Milwaukee County. Attention Kohl’s shoppers! A tornado has been spotted in the vicinity. For your safety, we need all shoppers to move to the basement of the store.”

Vivian ran into the dressing room to get me:

“Jenny – hurry up! There’s a tornado warning. We have to go to the basement of the store!”

I sometimes see my future in images, and this was one of those moments: I imagined my pale and flabby bikini-clad body being sucked out of the ceiling of the Kohl’s dressing room by an F4 twister which would spin me around for miles, ultimately rocketing my body through a tree trunk. When they discovered me, the sheriffs would debate the best way to get my corpse out, all the while snickering at my thighs, and wondering why I was wearing granny underwear beneath my bathing suit.

That image alone gave me superhuman speed, which allowed me to whip off my bathing suit and put my clothes back on in 2.7 seconds flat.

I stepped out of the dressing room to meet Vivian and was immediately corralled by a 19 year old sales clerk who just shoved us both toward the back entrance to the basement.

“But Viv, why do we need to go to the basement? It’s just a warning. A tornado warning is just when they think conditions are right for a tornado. A watch is when they’ve actually seen one.”

“No, Jen – you’ve got it backwards. The warning is the more serious one.”

“But we only live 10 minutes away. What are they gonna do, block me from leaving the store?”

“Jenny, there’s a tornado. They just want us to go to the basement. What’s the big deal?”

And that’s when it happened. The sirens were blaring. My hormones were raging. My bloated belly was giving me acid reflux. Vivian kept asking me questions. The 19 year old clerk was touching my arm. The intercom was squawking “Attention Kohl’s shoppers!” I could feel my blood boiling:

T minus 5 seconds to core meltdown…






The 19 year old clerk let go of my arm and stepped back, as did pretty much everyone within a 50 yard radius of me. The shoppers frantically ran toward the basement, more out of fear of me than the impending tornado. Viv stood there silently. Her years of working with the mentally ill in a homeless shelter served vital to our next exchange.

“Jenny. No one’s going to make you do anything you don’t want to do. But there is a tornado coming toward us. Right now. Why don’t we just go down into the basement and look around, and if you’re really uncomfortable, we can talk about it down there, okay? This will all be over in a few minutes, because that’s how fast those tornados move, okay?”

I stared at her with the crazed look of a trapped badger. I knew I had nowhere to go but the basement, so I followed Vivian down, snarling and gnashing my fangs the entire time. Once in the basement, I began to calm down. The stacks upon stacks of turtlenecks and Lee Jeans felt like a warm embrace. The scent of Jean Naté After Bath Splash washed over me like a spring breeze. The sirens stopped, my breathing returned to normal, and my heart rate dropped back down to a human level.

I imagine that the emotions I felt at that moment were similar to those a werewolf feels after he wakes up naked and confused, surrounded by the destruction he caused in his uncontrollable rage. I turned to my friend and said, “I’m so sorry, Vivian. I just freaked out. The sirens. And the bloating. And the thongs. Oh god, the thongs. Viv – they were going up my bu-”

“Shhhh. Jenny – it’s all over now. I’ll take you home, okay?”

“Okay. But Viv – I didn’t get a suit…”

“It’s okay, Jenny. You can wear the gauchos.”