Swimsuit season strikes terror into even the most confident woman. Walking around in public in what equates to your underwear does not make any female heart sing with joy. Today, inundated with images of airbrushed perfection on Instagram and Facebook, and when the 'standard' for the female swimsuit body has morphed into a hybrid of Barbie meets Olympian, deciding what to wear to the beach can be fraught. Women must be svelte yet curvy, tanned and toned, pneumatic of chest yet flat of abdomen and utterly devoid of perceived imperfections.
Even when you are 25 and relatively slim, trim and stretch-mark free, donning a bikini can be intimidating, so the challenge is doubly daunting when you are 50 and carrying all the associated anxieties about age-appropriate dressing and body image.
At 50 your sense of self-assurance may be improved, but your body confidence can be diminished courtesy of cellulite, stretch marks, C-section scars and bingo wings. Having turned 50 six months ago, I am facing into my first sun holiday debating whether I can still wear a bikini without feeling like 'mutton dressed as lamb'. Am I now too old for a two-piece?
Stripping off after a long and weary winter, my body is pale and a bit flabby. My stomach lurches: I hate diets, don't go to the gym and am not quite ready for the "swim-dresses" beloved of OAPs, so how will I tackle my poolside wardrobe? What annoys me about ageing is not so much changes to my body, but the school of public opinion that dictates that women of a certain age shouldn't have the temerity to show their physiques. This school asserts that post 40, we should recede into sedate and sensible one pieces but I don't want to relinquish fashionable for frumpy.
Why should I care about public opinion? Look at Alexandra Shulman, former editor of British Vogue, who posted a candid bikini selfie (aged 59) on her holidays last year. Her Instagram post garnered thousands of likes and she declared: "I happen to love bikinis and have never felt that it mattered to anyone how I looked wearing them. I fully intend to continue wearing them to my grave."
Roslyn Ellis, swimwear buyer with Brown Thomas, is ideally placed to observe changing attitudes among mature customers. When queried whether women over 50 buy bikinis she replies in the affirmative: "Yes most definitely. Our customers want to look the best version of themselves and not be dictated to by younger influences. They're confident in their own individual style and want something striking and different."
Regardless of what type of swimsuit you choose, Roslyn asserts: "It's all about the cut and the fabric" and declares it's women who create the best swimwear as they possess "a love of the female form". She mentions names including Stella McCartney, Lazul, Heidi Klein and Jets as examples of female-owned and designed brands who create swimwear that both fits and flatters, regardless of age or shape. She justifies the spend: "Investing in good quality swimwear means you will be wearing a piece that works with your natural shape. It will move with you and you will feel great."
Details such as double Lycra fabric, mesh panelling, ruching, fold over waistbands, and side boning can all work with curves, support curves or add curves to give confidence.
She explains that age isn't the defining factor when selecting swimwear but individuality: "I'm finding more and more that customers of various ages shop across the different brands as they want to express their own individual style and find the best fit for their specific shape." Chantelle, Simone Pérèle and Fantasie are excellent brands for mature figures as they offer cup-sized suits and bikinis.
Carla Johnson of Irish luxury swim brand, Mona Swims, has also seen women's attitude to swimwear evolving: "I think people are feeling younger than ever and travelling more. It's not just about summer holidays. The fitness lifestyle has totally turned it all around too because people are sculpting their bodies in the gym or in yoga and they want to feel good while at the beach."
She continues: "Women can feel self-conscious or unmotivated to try on a bikini when shopping… But then, as soon as they're on that holiday and on the beach, all the insecurities melt away - if you can just remember that while shopping. I suppose a slight tan helps, so maybe put on some fake tan before the day of bikini shopping."
A Google search of "bikinis & women over 40" returns a wide selection of older models and celebrities happily wearing bikinis. While it is inspiring to admire Cindy Crawford, Elle Macpherson, Halle Berry and Liz Hurley looking toned and tanned in their bikinis, I am neither blessed with their genes nor their generous budgets for self-maintenance. How will I pull off a bikini in comparison to these goddesses?
However, there are other women over 50 who still provide inspiration to keep dressing as you want, despite the tight-lipped warnings - Helen Mirren in 2008, (then age 63, pictured above), looking striking in a red bikini; Nicola Griffith (56) in 2016 sporting a gold bikini paired with long grey hair in Sports Illustrated, followed in 2017 by Christie Brinkley, (also 63). All these women looked wonderful because of their curves, age and confident sense of self.
Some say that the key to wearing a bikini is confidence - and that those who wear them best aren't necessarily those with the most perfect bodies but those with the perfect attitude. While the cynics might sneer, I think there is a kernel of truth in this. When abroad, I admire Mediterranean women, who are totally happy in their bikinis, regardless of shape or size. They are utterly uninhibited about cellulite, round bellies and ample bosoms, radiating a comfortable sensuality that is relaxed and natural. They embody the message that being slim is not a prerequisite for self-confidence.
Perhaps it's a particularly Irish trait to feel insecure without clothes. Almost all women of my generation experienced lectures on modesty and morality, courtesy of our Catholic education, and the associated conditioning. There is also the particularly white, milky pallor of Irish skin after a prolonged winter, which makes baring limbs daunting. If we were golden-hued like our Mediterranean sisters, then shedding inhibitions might be as easy as shedding our garments.
I resolve that a positive mental attitude, a layer of expertly applied fake tan and some great accessories - such as incognito sunglasses, a flowing silk kaftan and glamorous pool slides - can all help to bolster the act of going bare.
When I consider how lucky I am to be fit, healthy and solvent enough to go on a holiday, I feel stupid about feeling self-conscious. Admittedly I don't project a picture of sculpted physical perfection, but unreachable airbrushed standards are set to undermine us, and we will always fall short of them, so what is the point of stressing about them?
I feel further encouraged by a UK survey by JD Williams, in 2015, into the feelings of the mature fashion sector, which found that 94pc of women aged 50 plus, feel younger than their years. Body confidence among the over 50s is on the up with positive role models breaking down taboos around ageing and supposedly age-appropriate dress. Better diet and lifestyle means that 50 now is a re-imagined middle youth, rather than a frumpy middle age.
If by continuing to wear my bikini I am asserting my right to be visible at 50, to celebrate a healthy body and to relish that I am hopefully going to live long, stay fit and continue to care about my appearance, then I will banish my insecurities and enjoy the feel of the sun on my bare back. The bikini is going into the case and the inhibitions are staying at home.
Organise a professional fitting for your swimwear and get your bust measured. It will make a real difference to how you look if your bikini top fits.
Stick to sophisticated solid colours like black, navy, chocolate and grey.