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How to Be a Guy: Swimsuit Edition

Six months after my top surgery, a trip to the beach is less terrifying than I imagined

My friend Brett is serious about Speedos.

To a young, closeted Brett, Speedos represented the ultimate taboo. Even after he came out, they always seemed a bit too much. When he started wearing them to swim laps in his early 30s, he kept it carefully secret.

Luckily for the world, Brett is out of the spandex closet these days. He’s written a lot about that journey — including some great encouragement and tips for any guys who might be interested in giving Speedos a whirl (and/or need to know where to find trunks emblazoned with the mustachioed visage of Tom Selleck). So Brett’s the guy I go to when I decide to make my seaside debut as a dude — not because I’m looking for a Speedo, which I’m not, but because Brett’s self-aware and gently iconoclastic approach to masculine identity is part of what inspired this column in the first place. I’m going to be in New York in July, I tell him. Will he take me swimsuit shopping? Can we go to the beach?

Sure, he says. And so, six months after getting top surgery (female-to-male chest reconstruction), I’m getting ready to hit the beach for the first time since… Actually, I can’t remember the last time I was at the beach, or even a pool. And swimwear is a pretty big part of why.

Swimsuits have always been dangerous territory: The HERE THERE BE DRAGONS on the already-treacherous straits of gender and clothing. As a kid in Florida, I grew up loving the water, but once puberty hit, beaches became an invitation to harassment, swimsuits a stark map of every way my body failed — or worse, succeeded — at conforming to a feminine ideal.

Shopping for swimsuits as a guy presents a different sort of challenge, and a different sort of choice paralysis. There may be more selection now than there would have been a decade ago, but at every department store we visit, most of the options are baggy and knee-length.

“Do guys actually swim in these?” I ask Brett. I’ve never really paid attention to men’s swimsuits. Brett nods, and we thumb through rack after rack. My usual preferences don’t really apply here: The clean lines and somber colors of the rest of the men’s department leave off abruptly where the nylon picks up. The patterns look like they’ve been warped in from the ’90s. I feel like I’ve died and gone to Saved by the Bell.

My size narrows the selection significantly; from the remaining suits, I find a handful that seem okay and slink off to try them on, which is hurdle number two. There’s nowhere I get clocked more consistently and aggressively as female than in department stores: Last time I went hunting for a jacket, I left empty-handed after 10 minutes of dealing with a salesman who called me miss while zealously “helping” me with styles better suited to “feminine figures.” Here, at least, no one bats an eye when I walk into the men’s fitting room.

Locked safely in my stall, I shuck off my shorts, and, after a moment, my shirt. My body is a weird paradox right now. I haven’t started on hormones; when I am clothed, a bevy of subtle cues broadcast “female”: the curve of my waist and hips, the softer lines of my face and neck, shoulders that, despite months at the gym, have stayed stubbornly narrow. My voice is an absolute tell, even pitched down as far as I can get it without resorting to a ludicrous growl.

Without a shirt, though, the curves in the mirror are overshadowed by a chest that reads unmistakably male, despite the telltale twin scars tracing the bottom edges of my pectoral muscles. In the six months since top surgery, my body has made more sense, felt more like it was mine, than in the previous 33 years combined.

I can do this, I tell myself, and I’m not just talking about the swim trunks.

Which is good, because the first few are all busts: awkward, bunching at the waist and ballooning at the hips; too long, too weird. There are a few cut more like casual shorts, but they restrict movement, and if I’m going to buy swim trunks, I’m damn well going to buy ones I can swim in.

The best pair I find fit well, even if they’re longer than I’d like. They’re also white, which leaves me confronting another challenge most shoppers in this department don’t need to consider: it’s the second — and heaviest — day of my period.

I buy them anyway. It feels like an act of rebellion, of claiming my identity in the face of biology. Maybe white swim trunks are my answer to Brett’s speedos.

The beaches of The Rockaways in Queens are an hour and change from Brett’s place, and by the time we get there, the bus is packed with people in swimsuits. We head down to the water and stake out a plot of sand in the overlap between the family-oriented and predominantly queer sections of the beach.

The first thing I notice is the sheer range of shapes. Seeing a lot of men in swimsuits drives home how much menswear is designed to hide and homogenize bodies. The body diversity campaigns I’ve seen are — justly — focused on women. And so it’s not until I’m sitting at the beach, in my too-long swim trunks and shirt, that I realize just how much variation there really is. There are guys of all ages here, all sizes and shapes. Sure, my body doesn’t look quite like any of theirs, but none of theirs looks quite like anyone else’s, either.

Here’s the paradox of the beach, as Brett explains it to me: Everyone is self-conscious, because they’re in swimsuits; but no one cares what anyone else is wearing, because they’re at the beach. They’re too busy worrying about getting their sunscreen even, or keeping their book dry, or hitting the next wave at just the right angle, or how they look in their own swimsuits. Yeah, there are a few model-perfect people in sight, but they’re busy turning cartwheels and laughing when they wipe out in the surf.

I take off my shirt.

And it’s no big deal.

It’s still no big deal when I go into the water, although I wish one more time that my shorts were a few inches shorter when the ocean first hits the hem. And it’s still no big deal when I have to call to someone in my too-high voice, or a breaker throws me into another swimmer and we laugh and high-five. I stop caring how obvious my scars are. I stop caring whether anyone notices my hips.

Back on the beach, Brett and I sit on our towels and talk about growing up as queer kids in the South. Around us, families and people of all shapes and sizes and genders build sandcastles and pass around sodas and read under umbrellas, and I think I finally kind of get the point of the beach as the great equalizer — at least until I realize I need to change my tampon.

And this is a problem, because bathrooms are my final frontier.

I’ve thought it over long and hard, talked it over with friends and family, and decided that until I more consistently pass as male, it’s safer to stick to the women’s room. And normally, that’s fine — it’s weird, it’s awkward, it’s an exercise in code-switching and pitching my voice back up and self-consciously putting on chapstick to avoid getting gender-checked, but it works, at least for now.

That was my plan for the beach, too. Except now I’m here, in wet swim trunks, and I’ve only got one shirt, which I need to keep dry enough to wear home for an hour on the bus, and suddenly the day has gone from idyllic to really fucking scary.

“Are there stalls in the men’s room?” I ask Brett.

He nods.

I’m nearsighted, and swimming has left my sunglasses streaked and splattered with salt, blurring the few hundred feet of beach between our towels and the bathrooms into a surreal kaleidoscope. I get halfway there before losing my nerve and weaving my way back between towels and umbrellas to ask Brett to come with me.

The men’s room is huge and crowded and loud. The stalls and sinks are the first things I see past the door, and there are enough of them that I don’t even see the urinals. I duck into a stall, change my tampon, and do the girls’-room-ninja trick where I hide the used one in a wad of toilet paper to throw surreptitiously away on the way out the door. At least my swim trunks have pockets.

I’m washing my hands when I realize that no one has even glanced at me. Just like everyone out there is too busy playing or tanning or reading to care what I look like, everyone in here is too busy digging sand out of crevices, or peeing — or hell, changing tampons — to care what anyone else is up to.

I rinse the soap off my hands and the salt off my sunglasses, and when I head back out into the sun, Brett’s waiting with a hug and a high-five.

“I did it!” I tell him.

“You did it!” he says.

“I used the men’s room!” I stage whisper. I can’t stop grinning. “For the first time! To change a tampon!”

“Hell, yeah,” says Brett.

“I feel so badass,” I whisper, and crack up, but it’s kind of true. I feel invincible. Yesterday, I got ma’am’d in airports from Portland to New York. Tomorrow, I’ll cringe when I push open the ladies’ room door at a bar. I’ll correct someone’s pronouns and try not to wince at the sound of my own voice.

But today, I don’t care. Today, I’m at the beach. Today, my body is my body and my voice is my voice, and for once, it’s no big deal.