By Kathy Stevenson

The most dreaded time of year is almost upon us. No, I'm not talking about the holidays that stretch in an eternal loop from Halloween through New Year's Day, although I'm sure we'll all be getting gift catalogs soon.

I'm referring to something even more harrowing. I'm talking about bathing suit season. Now, don't get me wrong - I love summer. There's nothing I enjoy more than plopping myself on the beach for the day with a good novel and a thermos of iced tea. The problem is that in order to really enjoy the beach (or the pool), you have to wear a bathing suit.

I usually begin my annual search for a new swimsuit just before spring break. At that point, since I haven't seen the sun in about seven months, my skin tone is somewhere between anemic and pasty. I'm afraid to go to the tanning salon in the winter because of skin cancer, although, as my sister Avis points out, I think nothing of baking in the sun at the beach for hours on end. (Sisters can be so annoying.)

The search usually begins in the bathing suit section of a department store, a place where they must start out all the new employees. What normal person could answer the following question all day with a straight face: "Do you think this looks good on me?" Yeah, lady, maybe if you're thinking of joining the circus.

I've noticed a trend in swimsuits in the last few years. The tags all use descriptions like "Amazing Miracle Suit" or "Tightens Your Tummy While It Lifts Your Buns" or "Revolutionary New Slimming Fabric." When you try these suits, though, on they feel similar to a suit of armor, and manufacturers also neglect to mention one of the most important laws of physics: fat that is squeezed out of one area of your body must squeeze itself into another area. So if you are able to tuck your underarm flab into the upper part of your miracle slim-suit, it will redistribute itself unattractively somewhere else. No telling where, but it won't be pretty.

Now, for the .001 percent of you out there who don't suffer from bathing suit trauma (teenagers between the ages of 17 and 171/2), don't think you are immune forever. I, too, once took my youth and cellulite-free thighs for granted. I blithely went along thinking that if I ate properly and exercised regularly, I would never have to resort to wearing a swimsuit with a matching sarong.

But something happens as the years pass. Childbirth is a biggie. Nothing like a couple of pregnancies and maybe even C-sections to wreak havoc on the stomach muscles. And don't think the guys are getting away with anything. Studies show that men often have "empathy belly," which means that they gain weight right along with you.

Then there is the most fun you can ever have as an adult - trying on swimsuits with your children in tow. Twenty years later I can still remember in vivid detail a certain dressing room in T.J. Maxx with my two darlings in a double stroller. Let's just say that if there is such a thing as repressed memory, they may both someday have a chapter in their own version of Mommy Dearest.

Once you have found a selection of suits to try on (always forgo anything with bows, buckles or horizontal stripes), it's time to just get it over with. It doesn't help that the mirrors in the swimsuit section are made by the same company that makes funhouse mirrors for amusement parks. When you turn around to get a view of your backside, you will swear it is someone else's thighs that are somehow attached to your rear end. It's usually at this point that I remember with longing the ads in glossy magazines touting the benefits of cosmetic surgery.

Too late for that, though. And, after all, it's not like any of us are meant to be perfect. (Except the Victoria's Secret models, but can they cook? Or help with algebra homework?) Men are luckier - they pretty much have two choices, baggy surf shorts or the bun-hugger. Just a suggestion - in all cases go with the baggy surf shorts, unless you have the body of an Olympic swimmer. That eliminates all you Tony Sopranos out there.

At last, I find a suit that will have to do. It is not a Miracle Suit; it does not claim to lift, hide, or separate. It doesn't even have a skirt. But if they ever decide to do a swimsuit edition for AARP, I'm right there.

Kathy Stevenson lives and writes in Haverford.