Adulthood has shown me that some feelings are near-universal — so too is the sense that you’re the only one experiencing them. This is especially true about the angst I’ve felt around bathing suits. It all just feels wrong: If the problem isn’t that my body has changed proportions, then it must be that the nylon has been shrinking or expanding while sitting in my sock drawer for 10 months out of the year. Most swimsuits I’ve worn have made me feel one of those big salamis at an Italian deli, all wrapped up in crisscrossing rope and twine. Growing up, it seemed like other girls’ bikinis clung to their bodies’ curves and angles just right. I felt like the only one aware of the elastic’s strong hold on my thigh. However, when I came out as queer and developed relationships with people in the LGBTQ+ community, I realized more and more that swimwear is a particularly fraught area for many people — especially if they’re queer.
The problem starts with sizing. Traditional swimwear has always had a sizing problem, but until recently, the few brands that did offer an inclusive range often only carried hyper-femme styles. A swimwear brand that offered a wide range of cup sizes, for instance, might ignore that some people want to minimize their breasts.
“Gender-affirming swimwear is hard to come by, especially as a plus-size non-binary person,” says queer plus-size style blogger Maggie McGill. “I have a curvy body and I don't always want to accentuate that.” Luckily, she says, now “there are more and more options for plus-size swim that's not gender specific. Some of my personal faves are Beefcake Swimwear and TomboyX.”
But it’s not just sizing that needs to be inclusive. Traditional swimwear is unavoidably concerned with anatomy, and as such it often adheres to and emphasizes a deeply flawed notion of the gender binary. Bikinis are designed to cover breasts and cinch around waists, but men’s swim trunks don’t come with matching tank tops, because they assume the wearer doesn’t want or need to cover their breasts or nipples, for instance.
Men’s suits also don’t often account for wearers who have a wider thigh and a smaller waist, making swim trunks hard to find for transmasc people — or anyone that’s interested in a more masculine suit experience. “I usually buy men’s swimsuits, but the adjustable waistbands are important,” says Rachel A. Lisner, a nonbinary writer and creator of the queer newsletter Normal Clothes. “I need a suit that has a wider thigh. A strong adjustable waistband makes it possible for me to tighten the waist as much as I’d like; they’d be falling off if not.”
Women’s suits, on the other hand, are not made with people with penises in mind. A femme AMAB (assigned male at birth) person might want a more feminine suit, but the clothing cut on the bottom needs to have more room for it to fit them comfortably.
There is good news, though, for a community that’s had to deal with largely lackluster swimwear options for summer after summer. There are now a handful of brands that are truly changing the game when it comes to design, sustainability, sizing, inclusivity, and more.
CHROMAT, an undeniable frontrunner in queer swimwear fashion, was founded in 2015 by queer designer Becca McCarren Tran. CHROMAT’s mission statement stresses their commitment to fitting all shapes and sizes of bodies.This isn’t just lip service, either: All styles are stocked up to a 4X. Fran Tirado, a queer editor, writer, and podcast host is a huge fan of CHROMAT. “I personally hate swimsuits and how they feel on my body. Wearing a gender nonconforming swimsuit, full body, was the first time I felt confident heading to the beach or pool,” Tirado says. “In a sea of Speedos, I stick out like a sore thumb, but my look is ownable and mine and no one can say I don’t look good.”
TomboyX, one of the brands McGill name-checked, is best known for its size-inclusive, masculine-style undergarments. But its swim collection, which also goes up to a size 4X, is a breath of fresh air for anyone who’s sick of rocking the board-shorts-and-a-sports-bra look to the beach. Their suit bottoms, available in a variety of lengths, all have matching tops that range from sports bra-esque to compressive tank, mostly featuring high necklines, thick bands for back and chest support, and zippers in the front for added structure. They offer unisuit options too. And they look great, with trendy patterns and universally flattering cuts.
“A high neckline swimsuit that really compressed my chest was a game changer for me,” says Griffin Wynne, a nonbinary reporter on sexuality and gender issues. “A lot of gender funkiness and body funkiness are so connected, and there’s so much about feeling too big and too feminine. Something about having a flatter chest made me not think about the parts of my body that I (as an AFAB person) grew up conditioned to scrutinize,” Wynne added. “I went to the beach with friends and it was the first time in my adult life that I went swimming and just felt like a little kid, body surfing and running around. I wasn’t worried about ‘looking fat’ or that my boobs were hanging out.”
These brands are paving the way toward swimwear that feels truly inclusive to all people — regardless of size or gender identity. But right now, they’re still part of a very small pool. They’re plagued by problems that are common to smaller and new companies: Styles are often out of stock; the prices can be prohibitive, the sizing is still woefully narrow. (4X is a great start, but it’s hardly the ceiling in terms of size inclusivity.)
“I haven’t been able to find a swimsuit that feels affirming. There are some swimsuits that aim to be alternative or gender inclusive, and they all just make me end up feeling hyper-aware of my body,” says Levi Todd, a 23-year-old queer relationship health educator. “I think that's because there's a lot of pressure for swimsuits to be sexy and that's not something I feel like I can achieve right now. Last summer, I just ended up wearing swim trunks with a tank top tucked in, and it wasn't sexy or summery per se, but it reminded me that sometimes clothes are just functional.”
It makes sense that finding swimwear that feels good is complicated. It can bring up a lot of thoughts around one’s body, gender, sexuality, and more. While we may have a long way to go, it’s empowering to see brands like CHROMAT, TomboyX, and Beefcake Swimwear take major strides towards making swimwear with all bodies in mind. Anyone who has been to New York City’s Jacob Riis Beach on Pride weekend knows that queer people will pull off incredible looks with the options available to us — even though we know there should be more.