The Big Debate: Speedos or shorts?

A new survey says women prefer men in the briefest of beachwear - as long as they look like David Beckham. Catherine Townsend agrees. Hermione Eyre prefers more modest attire
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The Independent Online

The first man who I ever saw wearing a Speedo was my high school boyfriend, writes Catherine Townsend, a talented diver with Olympic aspirations. Every day after school, I would head to the diving pit and watch he and his teammates - all incredibly fit and lean - slice through the water wearing the least amount of clothing legally possible. Back then, the tiny suits were the stuff of my fantasies.

So it came as a bit of a shock when I came face to face with my first holiday Speedo-wearer, a short, fat Frodo look-alike whose microscopic pants were completely overwhelmed by mounds of milky-white, gelatinous skin. Far from being the domain of professional athletes (and amateur sportsmen such as Prince William), I soon realised that most men wearing them on the beach look like the only competitive sports they have been engaged in is how fast they can stuff cheese curls into their faces.

Still, no matter how many geriatric men with gold chains I spot near the surf, I will always have a soft spot for Speedos. Because, as David Beckham and Prince William prove, men who spend hours honing their bodies to perfection can look amazing in microscopic swimwear. It just seems a shame the rule of tiny trunks seems to be much the same as nudist beaches: Those who bare all are the very ones we would have preferred to keep under wraps. And the super-fit guys down the beach throwing Frisbees all seem perfectly happy in knee-length baggy shorts.

Still, as a proponent of sexual equality, it seems to me that if we encourage larger women to feel good about themselves wearing bikinis, men should have the same right to shrinkwrap themselves into the smallest swimwear possible. But is it too much to ask that they adopt the same realistic attitude toward their body's shortcomings as most of my girlfriends? I do not know any woman who would put on a tiny bikini without agonising over her flabby bits, and ensuring she has the perfect fake tan/sarong/wax camouflage combination before hitting the beach.

Men rarely subject themselves to the same level of self-scrutiny. So they end up with outdated, poorly fitting swimwear, as Tony Blair proved on one holiday. Men should keep a few basic grooming points in mind. First, they would be wise to remember the two words that strike fear into the heart of women everywhere: back hair. On a remote beach in Ibiza, I once saw a man who appeared to have put a gorilla suit on under his microscopic shrunken trunks. Not a good look. Second, a tan also helps draw attention from flaws. Third, potential Speedo wearers on the pull should also be aware that, much as a cleavage-baring top draws a man's gaze downward, women may be unable to look away from their nether regions during conversation.

Which, given the shrinkage factor after jumping into cold water, may not necessarily be a good thing. Still, if men have the body, the confidence and the grooming to get away with it, Speedos can be a beautiful thing, so long as I do not catch my date wearing a thong.

No grown man should be seen prancing about the beach in lycra like a randy, wriggly child, writes Hermione Eyre.

I have never made a close study of men's personal swimwear - though goodness knows, I've tried - but I have prejudice by the bucketload, and on the beach, perception is everything.

The sight of a Tom Jones or David Beckham in a tight pair of trunks kindles emotions in me from mirth to disgust: I see a man who suffers from arrested development. (Speedos, after all, are fundamentally school uniform.)

I see a man who has a jetski and low credit rating, a man who would rather be seen than see; who will be too busy preening himself in front of his imagined female fans and the lurking paparazzi to notice I have become trapped underwater in a snorkelling accident. A man who is likely to whimper if he gets sand in his eye, who gets petulant when he loses at water polo and who takes rather too much pleasure in ducking men who are smaller and less strong than him.

And it gets worse. In this Speedo-strutter, I see a man who is just that little bit too keen to get himself a lovely suntan (though in the interests of fairness, the plucked and preened short-wearing Gavin Henson falls into this category too).

But as for our Speedo friend, before I know it he will hog the factor four, spend hours rump-up in the sun and then run off with the waiter from the local taverna. Or even worse, in a Boris Yeltsin kind of way, tumble into the pool after one too many vodkas. No, I do not want him for my boyfriend.

This might seem like a rather involved way to look at someone who simply happened to take the sun lounger next to you. But I would argue that all poolside fantasies are basically Darwinian. So when I see someone getting into the shallow end, wearing a pair of lengthy, modest shorts - well, I see someone who will make a better mate. A man in possession of a good reputation, a private income, and a healthy sense of his own physical limitations, rather like the slightly podgy, foppish yet eminently eligible Hugh Grant. A man who can't dance and knows it. Cautious and steady and rather a catch - Jemima Khan can't be wrong.

A man who, just possibly, might notice and dive to the rescue were I trapped and struggling under a giant inflatable Ninja Turtle.

Clearly, Mr Speedos could be a fun holiday distraction. But the chap in the floppy, flappy shorts is certainly a better long-term proposition. For while Speedos are the sartorial equivalent of Pina Colada (one will do every 10 years), bathing trunks are something you could be happy with every day, rather like a cup of Earl Grey.

And as a final word of caution to the man who thinks he looks fine in skimpies, I say (with apologies to Ogden Nash):

Sure, deck your limbs in Speedos
Yours are the limbs, my sweeting.
You look divine as you advance
But have you seen yourself retreating?