Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Swimsuit Edition, Breast-Free Style

It's the time of year when spring flowers and balmy air inevitably lead to thoughts of summer and swimsuits. Like many women, I always found swimsuit shopping a bit of a trial. Since I had my bilateral mastectomy, it's been downright challenging. Until recently, I've mostly dealt with the issue by avoidance. A few weeks ago, all that changed.

My husband and I traveled to Key West with friends for a long weekend. I had known there would be a pool at our hotel but after trying on my two mastectomy suits, I decided not to bring them. I hated the way they looked on me and in addition, they weren't comfortable. Like most mastectomy suits, they were cut high in the front and under the arms. I realize that suits are designed this way so women will feel secure and scars won't show. But I can't stand suits that come up high under my arms. They chafe me, especially when I swim. So, off I went to Key West with no bathing suit.

It turned out to be a hot weekend and the pool provided a welcome respite for everyone except me. While my husband and friends enjoyed a refreshing swim, I sat on the edge of the pool dangling my legs in the water. I vowed that I would never let that happen again.

Back at home, I visited a few local stores, but found almost nothing in styles that suited me. So, I began scouring the Internet for options. Before investigating mastectomy swimwear, I decided to look for non-mastectomy suits that could be adapted . A friend who has lived breast-free for many years and is an avid swimmer always buys non-mastectomy swimsuits and sews inexpensive foam breast forms into them. So, I knew that could work, especially if I brushed up on my skills with a needle and thread.

First, I checked out Zappos.com, which has a huge swimwear selection. As I perused the styles and read the descriptions, I noted that a number of suits featured "removable soft cups," which are thin cups designed to provide a smooth shape over a natural breast. Since such cups require pockets, that meant there would be a place for me to insert a breast form.

Next, I searched for styles that might be appropriate. For me, that meant high enough in front but not high under the arms. I discovered a number of one-pieces and tankinis that fit the bill, with halter tops or inset straps. Since Zappos has a generous free shipping and return policy, I decided to order several and try them. Zappos and all of the companies mentioned below allow swimsuit returns, so long as suits are in original condition when returned, with sanitary strips and tags in place.

Most of the suits I received from Zappos didn't work out, but two of the one-pieces fit beautifully. I kept them and can now go to the pool with confidence and comfort. Among the various items that I ordered, I discovered that sometimes the pocket openings from which the "removable soft cups" could be removed were too tiny to allow insertion of a breast form, even a foam one. However, the pockets could probably be expanded by anyone reasonably adept at sewing. I also learned that the more expensive brands were the most likely to feature nice stretchy pocket openings. The suits I wound up with were by Michael Kors and DKNY and in the $100 range.

Even though I had found two suits that worked for me, I didn't stop there. I was on a quest! In the course of my research, I discovered a number of interesting possibilities.

I found a nice line of swimsuits called Hapari, marketed as "modest" swimwear that is "stylish and comfortable for all body types." Most of the suits are made with pockets for silicone inserts (enhancers), which can also be used for breast forms. When I spoke with a company representative, she said that Hapari has been selling swimsuits to an increasing number of women who have had mastectomies. I ordered a suit to try and, while the fit wasn't quite right for me, others may like the style and fit of these well-made, reasonably-priced swimsuits. If you decide to try a Hapari suit, make sure to check whether the style you like has pockets.

On the higher-priced end, there are some sexy, stylish suits offered for women post-mastectomy. Hilary Boyajian at Chikara Design uses fabrics in interesting ways to create great-looking suits. Veronica Brett offers fabulous-looking swimwear, more for lounging around the pool than serious swimming, but gorgeous nonetheless. And About the Girl features a line of very appealing suits, including cute bikinis and tankinis. About the Girl is based in the U.K. but will ship to the U.S. and other international destinations. As noted above, all of these companies allow returns.

My research next led me to Nicola Jane, a British mastectomy-product retailer which sells attractive suits, including some under its own label. Like About the Girl, Nicola Jane will ship to the U.S. If you'd rather not order from the U.K., a nice selection of Nicola Jane styles can be found at the Women's Personal Health Resource, a U.S. online retailer. The Women's Personal Health Resource also carries a couple of adorable mastectomy suits by Jamu, an Australian designer of mastectomy swimsuits. Please note that when you return a swimsuit to the Women's Personal Health Resource you will be charged a 15% restocking fee in addition to shipping charges (unless you are exchanging the suit for another item).

Spanx, the shapewear company, now makes swimsuits, including several with removable cups that might work well as a mastectomy suits. About the Girl offers one Spanx suit on its website, but this and others can also be purchased from U.S. sites and in local department stores.

I don't mean to give short shrift to major manufacturers of mastectomy swimsuits—Amoena and Anita have some very attractive suits in their current lines, and Land's End has been a consistent source of reasonably-priced mastectomy suits for many years. These three manufacturers tend to design mastectomy suits that come up high under the arms. If that's not a problem for you, you may well find a great suit from one of them.

Overall, I found the new emphasis on creating stylish mastectomy swimsuits heartening. Matronly mastectomy suits still abound, but now choices are available for those seeking something more youthful and attractive. For women who wear an A cup, though, it can still be hard to find mastectomy suits that aren't too big on top. Hopefully, the future will bring even greater selection and options for different cup sizes. In the meantime, for smaller women, wearing regular suits that feature removable soft cups may offer a viable alternative.

So, things are looking up when it comes to swimsuits for those of us who have chosen to live breast-free but still wear breast forms. If you prefer to go flat, some of the Chikara suits could work for you, as well as many simple tank suits and other designs. Happy swimming!

I welcome your comments, suggestions, and feedback about swimsuits that have worked well for you.