- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

It’s that time of year again. A ritual of spring that brings on panic, trauma and terror to millions of Americans. It’s not April 15. It’s the official opening of bathing-suit shopping season, and it grips women with the kind of fear and loathing second only to having needles stuck in their eyes.

“You just want to commit suicide,” said Marsha Klein, 54, standing in the swimsuit department at the Nordstrom store at Pentagon City the other day. “It’s a shock.”

Nearby, Jan Heininger of Arlington flips through the Miraclesuits, the one-piece black models, the ones that promise to hide, conceal, tuck and trim all that jiggly flesh that’s been hidden for the past seven months and will soon be on display at a pool near you.

“It’s the fact that we no longer have the bodies of 18-year-olds,” said Mrs. Heininger, who buys two to three swimsuits a year and favors Anne Cole and La Blanca swimsuit lines. “And bathing suits accentuate every flaw you have.”

“It’s always the skinny girls, too, who go into the dressing rooms and you hear them scream, ‘I need a new body!’” said Helena Sloan, 26-year-old manager of Water, Water Everywhere in Sterling, Va. “And there are women who have problems: big hips, small hips, big behinds.”

While men simply flip through a rack and grab the right size waistband in the least obnoxious color and pattern, women agonize over bathing suits. “I guess men don’t care how they look,” said Miss Sloan.

There are so many choices for women: bikinis, tankinis, halterkinis, boy shorts, strapless, bandeaus, maillots, padded, unpadded, French cut and, of course, the Brazilian monokini. But the Girl from Ipanema is now a grandmother, seized with the sudden reality that gravity has taken hold.

In a recent Illinois poll of female shoppers, 52 percent of the respondents would rather have dental surgery than go swimsuit shopping.

“It’s definitely traumatic,” said Colleen Corrigan, 50, owner of the Washington boutique the Bikini Shop, which opened in 1986. Although her current shop is temporarily closed, she’s learned to soften the trauma with soft lighting, chandeliers, soothing music and instant suntan spray to banish the winter white underbelly. Husbands are offered a cushy chair. “All the husbands sit there and think, in their minds, Raquel Welch is going to come out of the dressing room.”

The first thing many women do, she said, is “say they wear a size 6.”

“We know she’s clearly a size 10 or 12. But she’s mentally upset. So we start slipping larger sizes under the dressing room door. We say all the suits are cut smaller. We let them start out with what they think they wear, then we go up.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s a disorder,” said Jerilyn Ross, director of the Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders in the District, who mainly deals with more serious psychiatric issues. “But there is something called Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Women actually look in the mirror and see things that aren’t there. A lot of women have this image of themselves at age 25. They simply don’t have those bodies anymore. They can either freak out or accept themselves.”

Many women blame contemporary culture, a society that exalts the thin and punishes the thick.

Back at Nordstrom, Marsha Klein said she was buying her suit on the store’s online site. “I’m going to try it on at home to avoid the trauma.”

“I’ve never resorted to Land’s End,” said Mrs. Heininger. “Part of it is whether you can come to peace with yourself.”

Saleswoman Camelia Belt confirmed that her job is more than ringing up a purchase. “The women do say it’s depressing,” she said. “But we have a suit for everyone. And it happens every spring. There was a customer the other day who came out and said, ‘What’s up with that dressing room?’”

Mrs. Heininger has only one piece of advice: “Leave your ego outside the dressing-room door.”

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