Home The Guide to Choosing Flattering Plus-Size Swimwear

The Guide to Choosing Flattering Plus-Size Swimwear

NC State

Summer is here, and it’s time to hit the beach! Or the pool. The point is, the sun is out, the weather is gorgeous, and it’s time to break out your favorite swimsuit.

And if you’re not feeling your swimsuit this year, it’s time to invest in one you love.

Swimsuit shopping can be stressful if you’re a plus-size shopper, but it doesn’t have to be. You just have to know what you’re shopping for. Here’s a review of everything plus-size women need to know to find their go-to swimsuit, including figuring out your size and body shape, knowing what silhouette flatters you, and how to shop to flatter your body shape.

Know Your Size

First things first: you need to know your size. Unfortunately, this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds thanks to vanity sizing, which essentially means every designer (and every store that stocks them) has their own standard measurements and sizing.

The trick is to know your own measurements so that you can find the right size, whatever the letter on the label says.

How to Take Your Measurements

Since a swimsuit doesn’t include sleeves or legs, you’re concerned with four areas: your bust, your waist, your hips, and the length of your torso. You’ll have to measure these areas individually.

All you need to do this is a tape measure. Don’t measure while wearing bulky clothing, or even a padded bra when measuring your bust--trust us, it makes a difference. It’s easier to have someone measure for you, but you can measure yourself as long as you use a mirror to make sure the tape is positioned correctly.

Bust, Waist, Hips, Length of Your Torso

To measure your bust, measure around the fullest part. Wrap the tape measure around the circumference of your bust (i.e. your whole body).

To measure your waist, wrap the tape measure around where your body bends. Bend from side to side if you’re not sure. Use your finger or a band to mark the correct spot, and again, wrap the tape measure all the way around you.

To measure your hips, measure around the widest part of your hips (usually the seat area). This is not to be confused with high hip measurements (about three to four inches below the waistline) which are used to assess stomach shape to fit pants and slim skirts.

To measure your torso length, you have to measure the front and back length. For the front, measure at the shoulder right at the base of your neck all the way to your waistline. This should include the fullest part of your bust. To measure your back torso length, measure from the center of the base of your neck to the center of your waistline (this is easier with someone to help you).

While measuring, the tape should be snug without making any indentation in the body. It shouldn’t be loose either. Just wrap it around you and hold it in place.


Check Your Old Swimwear--Too Snug? Too Loose?

If you’re buying from a brand whose measurements you already know, it’s a good idea to check your old swimwear and assess the fit. This will give you more finesse in sizing if your measurements fall between sizes and you’re not sure what’s comfortable to you.

The good news is this is easy--just put on your old swimwear, do a personal fashion show, and feel the fit. Is it too snug? Too loose? Any particular areas that are too snug or too loose? Write it down so you don’t forget.

Size Around the World

Keep in mind that where in the world you shop changes your clothing size and the standard of measurement used to craft sizes.

The best rule of thumb in the U.S. is that vanity sizing is king, so you can expect everything to be a size smaller even if it fits your measurements. When you travel to the U.K., everything is a size or two bigger, so a woman who fits a size 12 in the U.S. would have to buy size 14 in the U.K. A size 6 in the U.S. will generally be a size 7 to size 9 in Japan.

As for the EU, it depends on where you shop. France, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy, Portugal, and Spain all size based on waist measurements instead of a number system, starting at size zero and working up by twos. Also, French sizing is different from Italian sizing and both are different than German sizing (out of spite, perhaps). France, Spain, and Portugal use sizing numbers consistent with each other. Germany and Scandinavia are consistent with each other. Italy is consistent with itself. A size 40 in Italy will be a size 36 in France and a size 34 in Germany.

The best rule of thumb is to know your measurements and check the store’s measurement standards. This will allow you to pick the right size.

Know Your Body Shape

Knowing your measurements will get you a swimsuit that fits. Finding a swimsuit that flatters requires knowing your body type.

William H. Sheldon introduced the concept of body types in the 1940s, which he split into ectomorphs (naturally lean with little body fat and little muscle), endomorphs (lots of body fat, lots of muscle, and easy weight gain), mesomorphs (athletic and solid without being over or underweight, a solid middle-ground) and combination body types.

These days, though, most people ditch Sheldon’s somatypes in favor of simpler visual signifiers: apple, pear/triangle, hourglass, rectangle, and inverted triangle are the most common. A 2005 study by North Carolina State University found that out of 6,000 women, 46% were rectangular, over 20% were pear, around 14% were inverted triangle, and 8% were hourglass.

Here’s how to figure out which type you are.


Apple body types are characterized by a wider top half of the body than the lower half, which typically means slimmer hips relative to a wider chest and stomach. You have an apple shape if:

  • You have wide, rounded shoulders
  • You have a full bust
  • You tend to carry weight in your midsection and shoulders

With this body shape, you’re looking for ways to add definition to your waist while bringing your hips in balance with your bustline.

Pear or Triangle

A pear or triangle body type is the reverse of the apple in some respects--your lower body is wider than your upper body. You typically carry weight in your hips and below the waist, with narrow shoulders and stomach relative to your hips. You have a pear shape if:

  • Your shoulders are narrower than your hips
  • Your waist curve is well-defined
  • You carry the most fat in your hips and thighs

With this body shape, you want to play up your upper body and play down your lower body to bring them in balance.


An hourglass shape is precisely what it sounds like: your bust and hips are roughly equal, with a narrower waist in between. You have an hourglass shape if:

  • You have a large bust and wide hips
  • You carry weight equally in your bust and hips
  • Your hips and bust are balanced
  • Your waist is well-defined

This shape is fun because you don’t need to worry about bringing anything in balance--you can play up your favorite assets as you like.


Where other shapes are all about ratios, a rectangle is an even keel across the board. For plus-size women, this shape can be confused with the apple shape. The rectangle shape typically has more angular shoulders than the apple, with less-defined breasts relative to the apple shape. Rectangle body shapes also have a less-defined waist than the hourglass.

You have a rectangle shape if:

  • Your bust and hip measurement are more or less equal
  • Your waist is not significantly defined
  • You have angular shoulders
  • Your bustline is not significantly defined

With a rectangle shape, you want to bring definition to your waistline by playing up your bust and creating the illusion of a narrower waist.

Inverted Triangle

An inverted triangle shape is the inverse of a pear shape. This shape is wider in the shoulders and narrows down from there. You have an inverted triangle shape if:

  • Your shoulders are wide
  • You have a well-defined bustline
  • Your hips are noticeably narrower than your shoulders
  • Your waist narrows from your shoulders to your hips

Your aim with this body type is the reverse of pear-shaped women: you want to slim your shoulders and enhance your hips to give the illusion of balance.

Know What Silhouette Fits Your Body Shape

The good news? There are silhouettes that flatter every body shape. You just have to know what you’re trying to emphasize. Here’s a breakdown of each.


With the apple shape, you’re trying to create the illusion of a slimmer waist and wider hips, which you can achieve by adding drama to the hips and using a few handy tricks to guide the eye.

One option is a peplum tankini top, which gives you ruffles at the bottom edge. This naturally draws the eye out in a curve, which gives the visual illusion of a slimmer waist and wider hips.

Another good option to create the same effect is an A-line swim skirt. An A-line skirt hangs in the shape of an A, fitted at the hips and gradually widening out toward the hem. Think of it like a peplum, but for your swim bottoms.

You can also opt for a ruched top, which is a top where the fabric is folded and pleated as embellishment.

If you’re not big on ruffles and pleats, there are simpler embellishments that give definition. Belts are a classic way to give definition to your waistline. You can also draw the eye down with a scoop-neck or V-neck.

Pear or Triangle

With a pear or triangle shape, you want all the drama to be at your bustline to make your upper body look balanced.

One of the best ways to do this is with a push-up bikini top, the better to draw the eye toward the bustline you have. For those who love ruffles, you’re in luck--ruffled tops, especially off-the-shoulder ruffled tops, are super flattering for a pear shape.

For those who want a bit more coverage while retaining feminine details, look for a peplum tankini. You can also reach for a bandini top for a sporty look that still draws the eyes up.

If you’d rather play down your waistline instead of playing up your bust, there are two great options: swimwear with a tummy control panel or an empire top (clothing with a bodice fitted just below the bust, giving a high-waisted appearance).


The good news for hourglass body types is that most styles flatter you, so you can feel free to play up what you love. Just be sure to reach for styles that retain the natural balance between your bust and hips.

A great option on that front is a simple fitted swimsuit, the better to let your natural curves steal the show. A bodycon swimsuit also achieves the same effect.

If you reach for a bikini top, look for the right bra size to showcase your curves and reach for a style that shows off what you’ve got going on. A push-up bikini top or peplum are both great choices.

If you prefer a simpler style and tend to shop by neckline, scoop and V-neck styles will both be highly flattering for you.


With a rectangle body shape, you want to give definition to your waist while also creating the illusion of more curves at your bustline and hips.

The simplest way to do this is with belts, which give definition to the waist. Swimsuits with tummy control panels can also achieve the same effect.

If you’re looking to add interest to your bustline, push-up bikini tops or voluminous tops with ruffles and frills should be your go-to style. If that sounds like way too much fuss for you, scoop and V-neck necklines will both add interest and draw the eye exactly where you want it to go.

Last but not least, if you want to play up your hips, reach for peplum, which flares out at the hem. This creates a two-part illusion, slimming your waist while adding definition to your hips.

Inverted Triangle

With an inverted triangle body type, your shoulders are naturally broad and wide compared to narrow hips, so you want to draw the eye away from your shoulders and reach for bottoms that make your hips look more balanced compared to your shoulders.

V-neck and halter tops will both draw the eye down in such a way that it gives the illusion of narrower shoulders. Always reach for simpler tops with this body type.

As for the bottom half, that’s where you can add all the interest--look for bikini bottoms with strings, ruffles, and frills, the better to give the illusion of wider hips.

Know Which Colors and Patterns Fit Your Body Shape

You might not have thought colors or patterns matter all that much for your body shape. Remember: it’s all about visual illusions. Certain patterns do a better job of accentuating what you want.

Here’s a breakdown for each body type.


For the apple body shape, you want to slim down your midsection. Stripes are your BFF on this front, as are diagonal or horizontal patterns.

However, you should not wear horizontal stripes. Reach for stripes or horizontal patterns, but not both at the same time. Horizontal stripes draw the eye outward, which is the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.

Pear or Triangle

With a pear or triangle shape, your goal is to make your upper body look in balance with your lower body. This means drawing the eye toward your upper body and away from your lower body, as well as making your lower body look slimmer.

Reach for diagonal or vertical stripes as your bottoms--these both create the illusion of slimmer hips. Always avoid horizontal stripes for your bottoms--this makes your hips look wider.

As for your upper body, the opposite rules apply--reach for horizontal stripes on top to draw the eye out and widen your shoulders.


Hourglass women, you’re in luck: you have the most versatile shape and you’ll look good in just about any swimsuit. Choose what you love and what makes you feel ready to strut on the beach like your own personal catwalk.


For a rectangle shape, you want to create more definition in your waist while creating more curves in your hips and bustline.

Your best bet on this front are slimming patterns, which draw the eye in and create the illusion of an hourglass waistline. Diagonal and vertical stripes are your best friend for that.

Inverted Triangle

Like a pear shape, an inverted triangle shape asks you to play with a balance--slimming one area while adding interest to another. Dark colors paired with loud prints do the best job of this.

Plain, dark colors (black, in particular) have a slimming effect, which makes them ideal for your upper body. Loud prints and bright colors are enhancing (since brightness attracts the eye) which makes them ideal for your lower body. If you’re not much for bikini bottoms with patterns, reach for bottoms with embellishments--strings, ruffles, and frills are all fair game.


Once you know the style and pattern you’re looking for, you should do your homework on the type of fabric you’d prefer to wear. In general, swimsuits are made from one of four fabrics: nylon, LYCRA, cotton, or polyester/PBT.

Just like any other swimsuit shopper, you want a fabric that’s chlorine, UV, and salt-resistant. This will prevent fading and keep it looking fabulous longer. After that, think about what you’re looking for in a swimsuit fabric--the feel, durability, printability, and drying speed.


Nylon is by far the most common swimsuit material, and for a good reason. It’s lightweight, strong, soft, and stretchy, giving you the right balance of fit and comfort.

Most of the time, you’ll see nylon simply called nylon, though you may also see polyamide (PA) which is the same thing (nylon is a subgroup of polyamides). You’ll also frequently encounter nylon blends, usually 80% nylon (the soft bit) and 20% something else (the stretchy bit, usually LYCRA).

Nylon is:

  • Very soft
  • Very stretchy
  • Highly durable
  • Relatively quick to dry
  • Not printable
  • Water-repellant

There are three things to keep in mind with nylon. First, it’s rarely chlorine-resistant, which means it doesn’t age well in pools. Nylon is occasionally UV resistant, but not always, so pay careful attention if that’s a concern. Finally, nylon is a bit more high-maintenance and requires hand-washing and hang-drying to age gracefully.


LYCRA is the brand name for elastane, a highly stretchy synthetic fabric. This is the same material as spandex. Most of the time, you’ll encounter LYCRA as a blend with other fabrics, since stretchiness is its best quality.


  • Highly stretchy
  • Quite strong
  • Highly durable

However, any fabric with LYCRA is not chlorine-resistant, which means a LYCRA-blend swimsuit will lose its shape after a few months of pool swimming. The only exception is treated LYCRA blends, so pay careful attention to the label.

Also, unfortunately, LYCRA isn’t all that comfortable on its own, which is why it’s usually blended with other fabrics. The higher the LYCRA content, the less comfortable (but more stretchy) the swimsuit.


Some companies use cotton to produce swimwear, often cheaper sets. Cotton is super soft and comfortable in your favorite t-shirt, but as a swimsuit material, it retains too much water to be worn comfortably.

Most of the time, you’ll see swimsuits as a cotton blend. If water retention and rapid drying are major concerns for you, steer clear of cotton blends and reach for synthetic fabrics instead.

Polyester and PBT

Polyester is by far the most competitive swimsuit fabric on the market right now. As in, you’ll usually find it in competitive swimwear made for competitive swimmers. That said, there’s a lot for non-competitive swimmers to love.

It’s a synthetic fabric like nylon and LYCRA, but it offers excellent chlorine and UV resistance. With the addition of PBT, you get a fabric that conforms well to the body without feeling tight.

Polyester is:

  • Soft
  • Stretchy
  • Highly durable
  • Fast-drying
  • UV-resistant
  • Chlorine-resistant
  • Water repellent

Polyester isn’t as soft as nylon, so if you’re thinking of comfort, you’ll be happier with nylon. It’s not as stretchy as LYCRA either. But for quick-drying performance, nothing beats polyester, which is why athletes love it so much.

Plus Size Facts

Did you know that 68% of American women wear size 14 and up? For context, size 14 and up are considered plus-size clothing, which means that by that metric, 68% of American women are plus-size. In fact, the average American woman wears a size 16 or size 18.

What’s more, plus-size women are willing to spend on their wardrobes. In fact, the plus-size clothing industry is worth more than $20 billion.

Interestingly, plus-size women spend less on clothes (monthly and yearly) than non-plus-size women, though that may be because so few brands cater to them. In fact, a review of the 25 largest multi-brand retailers (which collectively carry more than 15,500 brands) found that a meager 2.3% of that apparel is plus-size. Brands are slowly becoming more inclusive, though the change seems to be at a glacial pace.

It’s deeply frustrating for plus-size women, but it also means that brands that cater to their clothing needs successfully can garner a highly loyal following. So if you find a brand that does plus-size swimsuits well, give them your business and show them that it’s well-worth pursuing you as a customer.

Key Takeaway

There are a lot of plus-size women in the U.S. market, and with evolving brand attitudes, there are increasingly more options available to plus-size women. In short? There are a lot of ways to show up to the beach feeling like your most fabulous self. We hope this guide gives you the confidence you need to feel amazing every time you don your favorite swimsuit.


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