What Bathing-Suit Shopping As A Trans Woman Is Like

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
This article was originally published on June 24, 2015.

Standing in a fluorescent-lit retail fitting room can feel like the tangible analog to being trapped within many proverbial boxes. Strips of hygienic plastic lining were on the walls, floor, and sticking to my feet. I was scared, nearly to the point of wetting myself. Frustrated, yet determined, I was not leaving this store without a new bathing suit.
My favorite running club recently started a lap-swimming spinoff group here in Manhattan. Slight problem: I didn’t own an appropriate bathing suit for athletic aquatics. I love swimming, and I completed a sprint triathlon once. But my old trunks won’t cut it now. The gender divide in swimwear reminds me of shoes; it is nearly impossible to compare what passes for footwear in the women’s aisle to that of the men’s. Walkability in a given pair of shoes, a concept I took for granted as a male, became a selling point as I switched aisles — except when it isn’t, and I still buy them anyway. Likewise, the vast majority of ladies’ swimsuits leave us more preoccupied with how we look while wearing them (and later once the tan lines set in) than with their usefulness for actual swimming.

The gross upheaval of self-reinvention is behind me at this point. Over the past three years, I have revealed the woman formerly concealed within myself. I have navigated the paperwork bureaucracy to legally establish her, all the way back to birth records. I have served as a bridesmaid for a close friend, and I've gone about everyday existence as a woman in ways that once felt forever inaccessible. What remain are the lesser milestones and maintenance points — tasks avoided because they stink just as much for plenty of other women.

I was a strange little kid; being closeted does that to you. Growing up, I spent summers by the town pool, taking every chance to observe girls walking so effortlessly — without bulges between their legs. My pubescent attraction to women and innate longing to be one grew entangled. The spandex contouring their bodies accentuated every direction in which they were changing and curving and I was not.

I joined the local swim team for a few months. I wondered if wearing the boy’s racing suit would feel like I was wearing the bottom of a bikini. I hardly remember trying to tuck my male parts back; instead, I remember stuffing a sock in my suit to imagine looking like the older boys on the team. Having no penis was a fantasy, but for now I was a boy. Swimwear simultaneously epitomized everything I wanted to be and naggingly reminded me of who I actually was.

Eventually, my simple solution to anything requiring revealing myself became avoidance. Things became complicated as I started taking hormones over 18 months prior to my 24/7 female life. I should emphasize that this is only my timeline I speak of; there is no single right way to socially or medically transition. With my breasts distinctly budding, taking off my shirt would have exposed my gender transition before I was ready to admit it. Once I finally did switch over, my chest wasn’t the problem — my penis was. Beaches still seemed out of the question. If went swimming at all, he got tucked back and covered by board shorts, and only ever in friends’ private pools.
For laps in a fitness center public pool, a beach bikini would draw unnecessary attention — my trans status notwithstanding. It’d be like wearing sandals into the gym weight room. Before heading to the sportswear store, I asked friends for pointers. What do I look for in a bathing suit? How is one supposed to fit? How do I put it on? How do I pee in it? They reassured me that every woman hates this task, but I’d have to explore for myself.

I use fitting rooms with impunity now, though it took years. Nobody sneers at me being in the women’s section — this time or ever anymore. I don’t pass for a woman; I am a woman.

Short of pantyhose, one-piece swimsuits are the most infernal contraptions commonly confused for clothing. I tried larger sizes first and worked my way down. There were different choices of cuts for leg holes, key holes, straps, cups, and linings. My small B-cup breasts seemed more difficult to flatter than flatten. One would hope that, after all the years fantasizing about curves, I’d be able to finally stand back in this little box of introspection to appreciate the ones hormones and a recent surgery have bestowed upon me. No such luck. Needing no shorts over my swimsuit bottoms to obscure a penis from view, I discovered myself transfixed by the novelty of mirror-reflection camel-toe.

I am gradually acclimating to my new life in women’s swimwear, embracing the bad alongside the good. My hand slipped the very first time I held the bottom of my new swimsuit sideways to pee. I felt like a moron, but something clicked. While new to me, this surprisingly complicated maneuver must challenge every woman. I emerged from the ladies’ locker room as if nothing strange had happened. I’m a normal woman, after all — one who can finally let loose and have a blast with her friends. They appreciate me for me, no matter what kind of suit I’m wearing.

Rock the pool. Rock the beach. It’s normal to feel uncomfortable about your body and even to be conflicted about what you feel, like the closeted little girl within me who still tried packing her bathing suit to look more manly. Everyone else may be looking at you, but what insecurities are they hiding? Next time you find yourself trapped within a box — proverbial, literal, fluorescent-lit, or filled with chlorinated water — let it go. Own yourself first, and nobody else can.

Hannah Simpson appeared in Refinery29’s Trans America series. She frequently appears as a commenter on trans issues and was recently featured as a guest with Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, as well as on Fox 5 (WNYW) Good Day New York. You can follow her on Twitter at @hannsimp.

It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.


More from Body