The lighting in most retail change rooms is objectively terrible. It’s fluorescent, unforgiving, and not at all conducive to achieving the hot girl summer mindset Megan Thee Stallion hoped for us all — especially when you happen to be trying on swimsuits. I’m in a fitting room at the custom swimwear boutique Ūnika Swim in Toronto trying to channel Megan, surrounded by fabric swatches and bathing suit samples while Ūnika’s founder, Betsy Campos, pinches, pins and tweaks her designs to determine my measurements. Ūnika’s change rooms are bright, not harsh, like they were designed for lucent selfies, instead of an interrogation. But good lighting aside, this entire scenario is still pretty much my worst nightmare.
My anxiety over swimwear shopping makes me feel like a bad feminist failing at body positivity, but I know I’m not alone. The fear of seeing our bodies squeezed into a Lycra/polyester/spandex blend that may fit you perfectly across the chest, but gapes in your butt; the pain of trying to stuff into a medium top when you are a large just because it comes in a set (seriously, why!?); the angst of baring (almost) all, whether in the change room or on the beach, is so universal, Campos has built an entire brand on promising the opposite: made-to-measure pieces for all body types.
The 27-year-old was inspired by her upbringing in Brazil, where swimsuits are a way of life. A custom suit with a perfect fit, Campos argues, means we can highlight the aspects of our figures we want to, and inevitably feel more self-assured. “I love seeing women of all shapes and sizes being able to shop the same thing,” says Campos, who graduated from George Brown’s Fashion Techniques and Design program in 2016. (Ūnika’s offers bra sizes from AAA to J, XS to XL online, and for custom pieces, there are no size limitations.)
Since Campos launched the brand a year ago with the help of friend and now-creative director Vanessa Cesario, they have crafted suits for everyone from women who want matching mother-baby suits, to women who’ve had mastectomies, to women who wish for more conservative suits. The process, I learn, is surprisingly simple: You fill out a questionnaire about your sizing and your bathing-suit preferences and then have a private fitting where Campos measures and pep talks you while you try some of the 200 styles (prices range from $70 to $200 and up).
The fun part comes after: picking from 150 fabrics in an impressive variety of patterns and colours. The suits are then handmade on site by a small, all-woman team. “I am so proud of the fact that we are female-operated and run,” Campos tells me during my fitting. “There are a million swim brands in the market and even though custom swimwear has been done, I felt like...a lot of women weren't aware that this is an option. We want someone to feel like they can come in with their mom or their best friend and all leave feeling super confident. That’s what our entire team strives for, and because we’re women, we get it.”
Ūnika is just one company in a new wave of body-positive, women-led swimwear and lingerie brands, many of which have their roots in Canada. There’s Vancouver-based Left on Friday, Toronto’s Knix (founded by Joanna Griffiths), “lifestyle lingerie” line Mary Young, and “curve-hugging” boutique swimwear brand 437 to name just a few homegrown options. All of these brands market themselves as an antidote to the swim and lingerie messaging we grew up with. Stylish swimwear is not just for the six-foot, size 2 Victoria’s Secret model anymore.
Swimwear’s inclusive makeover is long overdue. In 2016, Refinery29 launched the series, Take Back The Beach, which addresses the anxiety women face about having a perfect “bikini body.” None of us is immune: The pressure to live up to that impossible standard and the disparaging voices in my head about going up two sizes recently are why I haven’t put on a two-piece in almost two years. (It’s also because it’s harder to find clothes that fit now, and I’m a size 10 — the average Canadian woman is a size 14 — so that tells you how ridiculously non-inclusive shopping off the rack can be.)
Sensing my unease, at first Campos puts me in a sample of the “Harper,” the brand’s most popular one-piece. It’s exactly the kind of style I’m used to. When she suggests I try on some bikinis, I begrudgingly do so for the sake of this story assuming I’ll hate them and lock myself in the change room forever and never come out. But Campos’s supportive approach (compliments mixed with real talk about what styles will accent the parts of my body I like and hide the parts I’m not so fond of) empowers me to venture outside my comfort zone.
With her encouragement, I start to see my body in a new light. It’s the first time in a long time that I really look at myself, in a full-length mirror and through someone else’s eyes, rather than my own critical ones. Usually, a hovering salesperson is my worst nightmare, but here it feels like a necessary collaboration instead of a nuisance. After trying on multiple samples, I start to realize that it’s just a bathing suit, and the process almost becomes enjoyable (free tea and a comfy silk rope to wear in between suits helps). Campos’s intention is to make her clients feel comfortable, and it works. “It's rewarding when someone comes in who doesn't feel confident that they can wear [a certain style], and they end up leaving with the complete opposite of what they walked in wanting.” She says this before I’ve chosen my suit, and it becomes a prophecy fulfilled. I end up with a canary yellow two-piece halter top with a plunging neckline and high-waisted “Sasha” bottoms that make my “little FUPA” happy.
Recently, I wore my new suit to a cottage bachelorette weekend and felt sexy and content. Trying stand-up paddle boarding for the first time in nothing but my new suit (and a stylish matching yellow life jacket), I realized what I had thought was going to be a lukewarm lady season was already a hot girl summer — and all it took was a reminder that a “bikini body” is, well, whatever body you got.