Monday, April 6, 2009


A year or two ago I found myself in a focus group discussing swimsuits, apparently as a result of inattention on someone's part. The invitation to participate in this event was sent to my husband, whose androgynous name produces confusion from time to time. When a year or so after our marriage some email server polled him about his interests, I suggested that he say "shopping for swimsuits" -- at least the pop-up ads would be pleasant to look at.

The market researchers re swimsuits required "homework": design an ad expressive of one's experience of shopping for a swimsuit. I produced an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet with images of Cathy Guisewhite's "Cathy" trying to buy a bathing suit that she can stand to look at herself in, arranged in a circle around a big "AACK!!" in the middle.

When I appeared, homework in hand, I found that I was the only participant from any such proletarian locale as the working-class city where I live. The rest of them lived in expensive suburbs like Lexington and Wayland. I was willing to drive to Lexington and talk about swimsuits for a couple of hours for the $100 they were paying; unlike the rest of them, I'm sure, I was motivated mainly by the money.

Waiting for the group to start, I tried to strike up conversation with one or two of the other participants. They wouldn't talk to me and sat on the other side of the room. I wasn't altogether surprised. These suburban ladies can determine at a glance who does and who does not belong to the club.

I didn't have much to share with the group. The fact is, I've never done much swimming, and I can't remember ever buying a swimsuit in my life. I don't understand the point of swimsuits. They afford no protection to whatever modesty one might have, and they don't look comfortable. From the nude beaches south of San Francisco to a bathtub-warm mountain pool in Oregon, I have done my favorite swimming wearing nothing.

Neither the market researchers nor the focus group ladies needed to know that. I listened with at least an appearance of interested attention; contributed to the proceedings when I had anything to say; and when we were done, grabbed my $100 and ran.