Y’all, summer is here—and not just any summer. This is Hot Vax Summer ’21! This is our time to live it up and catch all the hot rays and chill vibes that you missed out on in 2020 (still within reason because the pandemic is still poppin’ even if you’re vaccinated). For me, that means getting into one of my most colorful speedos and spending as much time at the beach or any pool that I can get to within the five boroughs. I am ready to live again, honey! And I am at my happiest and most comfortable when I’m a few drinks in, either in or near a large body of water with all of my friends—and yes, when I’m wearing nothing but sunglasses and a speedo.
This was not always the case, though. My summer part-time job as an unofficial Speedo Ambassador is not a position I felt comfortable holding down until I was in my 30s. Growing up in Tennessee with access to Nissan’s family center, an above ground pool in my backyard, and grandparents with a place on the Tennessee river and pontoon boat parked at the dock, I spent my summers immersed in water. I have always loved a pool moment, but I—like every human being—always felt constrained by body shame and societal expectations when it came to activities that were supposed to be fun and relaxing. And the societal shame that crackled like static in my brain was broadcast via ’90s sitcoms.
If only I’d grown up in the ’70s, when a dad like Mike Brady could wear this at the beach and it not be the focus of every single joke!
And just because I’m a stickler for details: Speedo is a specific brand as well as a generalized trademark (like Xerox and Kleenex) that’s come to be synonymous with all brief-style swimwear. My personal rule is to only capitalize it when I’m talking about the brand, because “speedo” is just easier to use than “swim brief.” Moving on.
Sitcoms are way more than entertainment—especially the ones that aired in the 20th century. Their fast turnaround and targeted mainstream appeal make episodes feel like a Polaroid of a week in history. Back then, we only watched comparatively few shows—and those shows had just as much power over us as we did over them. Audiences could get sitcoms canceled if they stopped watching (see: the swift cancellation of any sitcom the instant it left that cozy spot between Seinfeld and ER). On the other hand, how many people carried magazine clippings of Jennifer Aniston into salons hoping to leave with a perfect Rachel cut? We made sitcoms into successes, and then they told us what we should look like.
And for me, as a teen growing up in a conservative family in Tennessee watching nothing but Must See TV every night of the week, it felt like I was constantly told that men should not wear Speedos or speedos unless they are gifted with the physical characteristics of a Chokachi.
Furthermore, there was nothing more hilarious, more worthy of excessive ridicule, than an abs-less male who was comfortable enough with his body to wear a speedo. Men, especially those average men, should know where they stand—and where they stand is slouched over on the edge of the pool wearing plaid swim trunks with a 16-inch inseam. Now stay put and let those yards of cold, wet fabric cling to your legs!
I could not help but notice this board short propaganda as a teen who watched roughly 28 hours of TV every single day. Pop culture also made me think speedos were cool! The Beatles wore them and the X-Men wore them! And yeah, the 1996 Olympics were probably when I subconsciously realized I was gay—a revelation I would personally not have for another 9 years because I never saw gay people on TV that I related to (but that’s another piece that I’ve already written). TV can help us validate who we are, and it also shows us who we might want to be—and speedos were my Rachel.
But sitcoms routinely let me know that I was wrong. There’s the 1996 NewsRadio episode “Coda” where Matthew tries to get the WNYX crew to sign up for a summer house, but everyone is hesitant to do so because Bill McNeal wears speedos.
Bill’s swimsuit choice is treated as, of course, summertime heresy. The mere mention of a speedo is enough to render Matthew speechless, and then Bill creepily says that Matthew should consider trying one. Later on in the episode, the entire staff revolts when they find out that Bill’s looking forward to a whole summer of “speedo freedom—or should I say speedom?” Bill McNeal is a well-dressed egomaniac and sociopath. There are plenty of reasons for the WNYX cast to not want to spend any more time with him than is required. The fact that he wears a swimsuit at the beach should not be one of them.
Even worse is the 2001 Friends episode “The One Where Rachel Tells…” which reveals that Chandler—legitimately one of my teenage role models—wears speedos.
What is happening here? Phoebe and Joey react as if Monica said she couldn’t find Chandler’s complete collection of Maude on VHS—not because it’s embarrassing to own that, but because it would be ridiculous to take a dozen VHS tapes on your honeymoon. I actually find it wildly out of character for Phoebe and Joey to be anti speedo. Phoebe’s a free spirit who is blissfully unaware of societal hangups! And I feel like Joey, the man that wanted to be bracelet buddies with Chandler, would be more likely to high five his ex-roommate for emulating superhero style. But instead, a mortified Chandler—who was on the high school swim team, by the way!—has a mini-breakdown and then runs away, insisting he’s going to “go pack my regular, long bathing suit” Just let the man live! He’s going on his honeymoon!
But while Bill and Chandler only have to endure hurtful glares from their friends (okay, Bill delighted in making his co-workers squirm, even if it was dumb of them to squirm), no character on TV suffered more regular speedo shame than Cliff Clavin on Cheers and even Frasier. As soon as Cliff returns from Florida, which was a transformative experience for this sad sack of a postal worker, the mental image of Cliff in a speedo becomes the gag that won’t quit.
This razzing continues all the way to the 2002 Frasier episode “Cheerful Goodbyes.”
This running speedo joke is so essential to the character that it’s even part of his final appearance!
I know there are definitely more of these sitcom body shame-y moments out there, but these are the ones that stick with me because these are the ones that made me feel wrong for just wanting to try out a different kind of swimsuit. And that’s how my summers went for, like, 20 years. Settling, hiding, shaming, etc.—all because of easy, throwaway jokes that reinforced all the cultural barriers in place that keep masculine expression in a tiny box. Seriously, do I look happier in the “how it started” or the “how it’s going”?
just spending my friday evening gathering visual evidence that speedos are more flattering than trunks on people who aren’t totally ripped models pic.twitter.com/IfHaYHQTd4
— Brett White (@brettwhite) June 25, 2021
Those sitcom jokes even continued to do a number on me when I finally did start wearing speedos when I turned 30. I was honestly afraid that my friends would react like Joey and Phoebe, or people would tease me like Carla. All of this was blown way out of proportion, because—unlike what ’90s sitcoms would have us believe—it’s been my experience that no! One! Cares!
And to do the very fun thing of fact-checking every speedo joke ever: speedos are comfortable, traditional speedos with 3-inch sides are only slightly less modest than classic swim trunks, speedos are flattering to all body types as long as they fit well and you just relax, speedos do make it incredibly easier to swim, they’re only emasculating in the minds of dumb dumbs, and they’re only gay if you are gay. Bonus: they also dry faster and are available in way, way, way many more fun colors/prints/designs/etc. than you’d ever find in the swimwear section of a JC Penny.
Even if I can’t sell you on the idea of switching to speedos, at least consider lessening the amount of soaking wet fabric you have to deal with every time you get out of the pool. Follow Major Nelson’s example.
Now that I do follow Cliff’s lead every summer and “live in my speedos,” I like to view these three moments of body shame in a different way. I love taking what were meant to be jokes about how men should never show their thighs in public (never mind that all women of all sizes are always expected to do so in any aquatic setting) and turning them around. These aren’t speedo shame moments. These are speedo pride moments. Men with bodies like Phil Hartman, Matthew Perry, and John Ratzenberger can wear speedos . You don’t have to have the “right body,” you just have to have a body. And in the case of Bill and Cliff, they clearly wear them with pride, despite what anyone else thinks. Isn’t it great that these guys have found the kind of inner confidence to follow their own swimwear compass? I want that for everyone (and I want that for Chandler—seriously, why can’t his friends back him up?).
This should be such a non-issue, but the way these jokes teamed up for a relay race drove up my anxiety. And judging from the number of DMs I’ve gotten from people over the years, I know I’m not alone! For people who are anxious about wearing what they want to wear, I want to be what Bill, Chandler, and Cliff couldn’t be for me.
We’ve had a year of living our worst lives, and we’ve all been shown that YOLO isn’t just a hacky acronym (hackroym?). It’s real. Hot Vax Summer is the time to do what you’ve always wanted to do and wear what you’ve always wanted to wear. And it’s about time we stopped letting tired jokes from sitcom characters tell us what to do. If there’s something about yourself that TV shows have made you self-conscious about, no matter how insignificant (clearly), let those jokes just be jokes. Embrace yourself. Work through it and celebrate it!
And for me, because I’m me, celebrating it means representing for Cliff Clavin’s swimwear of choice, no matter what the Carlas of the world might think.