It’s the moment every woman dreads – a sad milestone on the road to middle age. You look in the mirror and realise the time has come when you must Never Wear A Bikini Again.
And so, heart sinking, you embrace the awful truth and reach for the modest one-piece to spare your blushes – and everyone else’s – as the summer months approach.
But wait. Must it really be this way? I’ve just conducted a mini investigation for The Mail on Sunday and bring good news: we’ve all got it wrong.
The truth, contrary to the views of ageist fashion editors, is that the bikini is best for middle-aged women – precisely because a bit of cleavage and a flash of leg give you a shape, even if you have a tummy, while, in contrast, a badly chosen one-piece puts years on you in seconds.
My own Damascene moment came last year at the age of 55 as I tried on swimwear ahead of a family holiday. I looked like a lardy ball of dough – this was before I’d lost weight – and my boobs were so big they needed their own postcode.
I looked and felt ancient, the image of my mother, which is why I plumped for my navy and white striped one-piece from Monsoon.
And it was only thanks to my 17-year-old daughter, Esme, that I saw the truth. ‘Mum! What are you doing?’ she said, in the withering tone of an outraged teenager. ‘That thing makes you look frumpy! The bikini is so much better.’
To her mind at least, a swimsuit equalled grandmother. Even despite my bulk, a bikini was far more youthful. And she was right.
In other words, when it comes to the great beachwear debate, less is definitely more.
Not that finding the right outfit is an easy task because, thanks partly to internet shopping, the choice is overwhelming (beach-loving Coleen Rooney has been snapped in an astonishing 107 bikinis in the past decade).
We’re surrounded by styles that promise to smooth, sculpt and lift with endless padding, boning, ruching and swathes of unnecessary material that can make you look more frumpy.
Yet minor tweaks can make major differences to how you look and feel. With that in mind, I’ve agreed – perhaps unwisely – to pose half naked, in swimwear that highlights the good, the bad and the downright disgusting. And in the process, I’ve established a few simple rules.
My top tips for bikinis
The most important thing to know is that you’re creating an illusion. If you go to the beach, your body will be on show whether you like it or not, so the task is about the proportions on display.
Figleaves, an online bra retailer, is great for structured swimwear such as the £50 Secret Garden bikini in our main picture, far right. It has a floral pattern – a no-no on one-pieces – but it’s very modern. No twee rosebuds here. I would avoid padding, even on small boobs.
Bottoms should be relatively low-cut. Buy a size bigger than you are to avoid them cutting in and giving you four cheeks, not two.
The best bikini bottoms for people with ‘muffin mounds’ are those like the set by Olympia which have a bit of rollover fabric at the top – a blindfold for mum tums.
I hate tankinis because the top always rides up, but they do serve a purpose if you’re self-conscious.
And though I’ve been a great advocate of big pants, the retro 1950s styles make me look as if I was born in the 1950s. Don’t buy boy shorts to hide your bottom – they’ll make it look bigger. And side ties can dig into the hips, making you look like a trussed-up chicken.
I’d advocate buying everything online in multiple sizes, and sending back the bad ones. On a sunny day, go out in the garden in your swimsuit with a mirror and look at your reflection in one of your windows. Or take a selfie and see what it looks like. You’ll get a more accurate picture than a shop changing room.
Rules of the one-piece
It turns out that one-pieces are newly fashionable thanks to programmes such as Love Island, and I’m not saying that all of them are bad. If, however, you are going to wear one after the age of 50, stay away from costumes with large cut-out sections.
Your flesh will flop out of them like a wayward hernia, and do you really want a diamond-shaped tan on your stomach?
Don’t wear floral – unless it’s a very big print – or frills.
When it comes to straps, the advice is the opposite from bikinis. Thick straps are ageing. Leave love hearts and flamingos to the five-year-olds.
Like most older women, I carry my weight on my breasts and round my tummy. It’s tempting to flaunt big boobs to hide other things, but the more you push them up, the more crepey your skin gets, which is also ageing.
Don’t be afraid of a strapless costume if you’ve got a smaller cleavage. It creates a clean line across the boobs. Go for a lowish cut on the bottom unless you really want to look like Pammy Anderson in Baywatch circa 1992.
The only colour to avoid is black, which brings out the red in skin and makes you look heavier.
Bright and block colours are considerably better. Geometric patterns are fine; horizontal or vertical stripes can be fresh and youthful.
Ruched swimming costumes such as the £65 pink one-piece above left from Lascana are not necessarily bad, but I think all that added material can add ten years.
The key is to appear as though you live on the beach and have made zero effort. And remember that every other woman – and, increasingly, man – feels the same amount of self-loathing.
Finally, a sarong is your best friend. And if all else fails, take up skiing.
The good, the bad and the downright ugly
Olympia, Multi-printed Underwired Bikini, £45 (multi-coloured, animal print)
The best discovery I’ve made is flip-top bikini bottoms – brilliant for hiding muffin tops – like these ones from Olympia. The structured top supports my boobs and the print is bright and youthful without looking muttony.vcvv
The Collection by Debenhams, £40 This absolute monstrosity has got padding and underwiring yet still sags in all the wrong places because it’s cheap.
Its built-in skirt is to be avoided at all costs.
From afar, it looks like the equivalent of a middle-aged woman wearing a mini-skirt – an over-50s no-no I do agree with.
Women buy them to cover up sizeable bottoms, but it’s the equivalent of tying a cardigan around your waist.
Eres, Aquarelle square-neck swimsuit, £235
The key is not to show too much cleavage. Big boobs are very matronly. Swap plunging necklines and V-shapes for cuts that go straight across.
This one-piece from Eres is simple and clean. Yes, it’s expensive but spend the money. On more pricey suits, the fabric will be thicker and will hold you in more. They’ll be lined and well seamed.
Oliver Red Label, White Strap Bikini, £50
Stay away from white bikinis if you have big boobs. This one makes me look like I’m wearing a bra and knickers.
Oddly, showing more breast on a bikini gives a slimming illusion. Women think white will show off their tan, but other colours, such as yellow, can do this too.
Cheaper fabrics go see-through and sun cream can turn them yellow. If you must wear white, make sure that it’s a halterneck tie at the top.