In Praise of Old Technology: the Sunbonnet

I read today that more people die in this country from skin cancer than on the roads. Which, considering the average standard of Kiwi driving, is saying something.

The leading cause of skin cancer is radiation. Before you congratulate yourself on living somewhere nuclear-free, consider that what we are talking here is radiation burns from our nearest star, or – as we casually describe it – sunburn. (You can also develop skin cancer from being imprudent enough to use a tanning bed.)

There are two chief means of protecting yourself from this dangerous radiation. One: cover all your exposed skin in a thicker-than-you-think layer of gook – being sure to reapply every two hours, or more often if swimming, sweating, towelling etc.

Upper arm demonstrating the results of incompletely applied sunscreen. Ouch.
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Swimming in Strange Waters: Finding a Swimsuit that Suits

I have yet to meet any woman who finds shopping for a swimsuit easy. For some, the process is fraught with body-hating trauma, for others it’s a pure and simple pain in the proverbial. Because most swimsuits are designed to display the body, and if you aren’t happy having your body on display, you are likely going to have a hard time finding swimsuits that work for you.

And even if you do manage to find something you’re happy to appear in public in, you are going to have to deal with people’s assumptions – kindly meant for the most part, but insulting nonetheless – that the only reason a woman would want to cover up is because she is somehow ashamed of her body. This is not, in point of fact, true. Or at least, not in all cases. Yes, some women cover up because they don’t like their bodies and they feel that everyone else will, given the opportunity, share their low opinion.

Bathing suit 1858

But not all. Some cover up because they’re very fair skinned and they look like a lobster after five minutes in indirect light. And others cover simply because they feel their body is their own damn business and the general public does not have viewing rights.

I fall into the latter group. It is well known among my friends that the day I wear a bikini is the day hell freezes over. Not even over (or rather on) my cold dead body. My body is mine and I don’t have to share it (even visually) with anyone, unless I choose to. Not even if I like to go swimming sometimes. Which I do.

Of course, this leaves me in a rather difficult position, swimsuit-wise. But it gets worse. Erogenous zones, as mentioned before, differ from place to place and time to time. Where I grew up, the erogenous zone on women was between the waist and the knee. Elsewhere – meh. Breasts are for feeding babies.

Lactancia 9 meses

I had made my previous swimsuit last ten years (with infrequent use) – a one-piece worn with board shorts. I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone who’s ever tried this how inconvenient it can be, and it made me feel like a rather pudgy kid running around the beach. I’m a grown woman; I wanted to look (and feel) like one.

Incidentally, in the course of my runnings round the beach, I found I was the only person there not baring their midsection. When my husband lost his glasses, all he had to do to find me was scan the beach for swimsuit material at belly-height – and there I was.

So I decided to see what the internet could tell me about modest swimsuits – and I was, to put it lightly, surprised. The companies trumpeting themselves as cornering the market in modest swimwear were advertising two-piece suits where the stomach was well-covered and the legs were bare right to the crotch. OK, I’m probably more sensitive about legs than the average Westerner, but really? The stomach?

I’ve never actually sat down and listened to Nicki Minaj’s song Anaconda, but I’m pretty sure the lyrics aren’t “Oh my gosh, look at her GUT!” (At least until Weird Al sings it.)


It’s the same with kids’ togs, actually. Little boys get to run around in a pair of shorts, and little girls get to wear a top which covers their puku and the chest they don’t have, while their bikini bottom shows off half their butt to the world at large. (And that’s before they start riding up.) Who thought that was a good idea?

The internet also brought to my attention various family-run companies in the States who make swimdresses with matching tights, but I ruled them out on the grounds of a) expense and b) luridness of material. Henry Ford said you could have any colour, as long as it’s black; these folk seem to think black and “Hawaiian” print are a sufficient number of options.

Then there were the companies that said they were all about letting women decide how much they wanted to expose, but offered only skin-tight bicycle-courier styles. Call me nit-picky, but adding a glaze of lycra to my butt doesn’t give me a whole lot more privacy.


Eventually, I found what I was looking for. Not perfect, but pretty close. It covers what I want covered (and keeps the sun off most of the rest), it’s feminine, it’s good quality at a decent price, and it doesn’t ride up or restrict my movement. It’s a burqini.

For those of you who’ve never seen a burqini, it’s basically a long-sleeved tunic over leggings or, in my case, slim-fit trousers. Like a shalwar kameez, but made of UV 50+ swimsuit material. They come in a variety of colours (and fits): mine is deep plum and coral – which is to say, purple with pinkish sleeves. (And it arrived on my doorstep less than 48 hours after I ordered it from another country.)

I’ve taken it to the pool to water-test, and it was fine. Slightly more drag than bare limbs, but that’s to be expected. Full range of movement, and no embarrassing air-pockets. I felt free and easy, and the thought of only having to apply sunblock to my face, hands and feet the next time I hit the beach is a very cheering one. Try as I might, I always managed to miss a bit somewhere…

Sunscreen on back under normal and UV light

There was another unexpected benefit. New Zealand English being non-rhotic (unless you’re from the south of the South Island), I was able to fool one of my pro-bikini friends into thinking that hell had indeed frozen over, and I had bought a bikini – because the two words are pronounced almost exactly the same way. The look on her face when I walked in wearing a burqini will warm the cockles of my heart for years to come.

I admit, I’ve never really understood why people are comfortable appearing in public in outfits that cover less of them than their underwear does – but then have nightmares about appearing in public wearing said underwear. As the classic Trumpet ad says: “Skin tight swimming togs: an item of clothing you’d happily wear in public, but not in public.” Can someone please explain?