By Daisy Alpert Florin
My nine-year-old daughter, Ellie, is going to sleep away camp this summer, and the packing list calls for four bathing suits, but “no two-pieces.” While I understand the likely reason for this rule—one-piece suits might be more appropriate for active play—it still irritates me because it seems to imply that there is something shameful about young girls wearing bikinis, so much so that they are forbidden.
In our house, bikinis and one-pieces are both suitable choices for swimming. I have purposely not drawn a line between the two because I don’t want Ellie to think there is a big deal about choosing to show more or less of her body. Granted, a string bikini might not be the best choice for swimming or cannonballing into the lake. But a well-fitting two-piece suit that gives her room to play and can easily be pulled down for bathroom breaks—well, I don’t see anything wrong with that.
When Ellie was little, I dressed her in one-piece bathing suits simply because they fit her better. If she wore a two-piece suit, I discarded the top and let her run around in just the bottoms. Putting a bikini top on a pudgy toddler chest seemed impractical to me, but I didn’t have a problem with parents who did. For the most part, I think mothers (and it is usually mothers) have fun dressing up their daughters in tiny versions of their own clothing, be it skinny jeans or bomber jackets or bikinis. I did this to Ellie myself when she was small, but by the time she was four she would have none of that, and I had to respect her decision to dress herself the way that made her most comfortable.
I prefer a bikini to a one-piece suit because I like the way it looks on me, plain and simple, so why should I ask my daughter to do anything different? I trust her internal monitor to signal when something feels right for her, and when it doesn’t. I want Ellie to carry herself without shame, and telling her not to wear a certain article of clothing might suggest that there is something wrong with showing a part of herself. I think there is a fine line between modesty and shame.
When they were first introduced in the 1940s, bikinis—which take their name from the Bikini Atoll, a site of U.S. nuclear testing—were considered dangerous, explosive even. Early in their history, they were banned in several countries and declared sinful by the Vatican. This idea of female sexuality as wild and destabilizing might seem silly to modern sensibilities, but forbidding our young daughters from wearing bikinis seems to be an extension of that kind of thinking.
There is something about girls and their burgeoning sexuality that we as a culture—and as parents—still find threatening. We worry about our girls growing up too fast because we feel there is something scary about female sexuality, and watching them step into that murky landscape terrifies us, when it ought to be something to celebrate. But our daughters don’t stay little girls forever of course, so what’s the tipping point when wearing a bikini is suddenly okay?
Nine years old was the last time for a long while that I saw only the good in my body—its strength, beauty and possibility. At nine, I hadn’t yet started to judge my body against some external ideal. Puberty hit me hard and by thirteen, far from wearing a skimpy bikini, I went to the beach wearing an oversized t-shirt covering my bathing suit. Even then I can remember wanting to go back to the version of myself that still felt beautiful and powerful. Now, at 42, I wear a bikini all summer and try to do it with confidence; I hope it sets a good example for my daughter.
Watching Ellie move through the world without self-consciousness about her body brings me a bittersweet joy. I want to bottle that feeling so she can always access it, opening it every now and then for a whiff. Because I know it doesn’t last. The world is hard for girls that way.
But maybe if Ellie wore a bikini now, those two pieces would imprint on her somehow. Maybe by owning her body in all its glory now would help her bank some self-love for later on, for 13 and 25 and 42—for whenever she needs it. Maybe wearing a bikini now would help her love her body that much more for that much longer.
Daisy Alpert Florin is a writer, editor and mother of three. A native New Yorker, she lives, works and lounges poolside in Connecticut.
By Sharon Holbrook
It was a beautiful, warm June day on our backyard deck, where we were celebrating my daughter’s birthday. She pulled a little flowered tankini out of one of her grandma’s gift bags, and Nana hastily announced, “It’s open in the back, but it’s not sexy!” I sure hope not. It was my daughter’s second birthday.
My mother-in-law already knew my feelings on this subject, and kindly respected them. I don’t care for bikinis, or any other “sexy” clothing, on little girls.
I’m usually hands-off about clothes, almost to an extreme. My daughters dig through their drawers and match or mismatch as they like. I don’t care if they wear pants or dresses or—as on one recent school day—a bandanna around the 7-year-old’s hair, an ankle-length flowered skirt over patterned leggings, and a brown velour bolero jacket inherited from her cousin. “You look like a fortune teller,” her older brother commented, not unkindly.
When I do draw a line about clothing, I like to have a good reason. Icy winter day? Must be warm from head to toe. Special occasion? Be respectful, and wear something a notch or two above the everyday. Dirty or damaged clothes? Just, no. Underwear showing, very short skirt, super tight leggings on the butt? Cover it up, because those areas are private.
Not surprisingly, bikinis don’t pass my modesty rules. Sure, we’re all wearing small, tightish clothes at the beach, because that’s just a practical reality if you want to move in the water. I don’t think anyone in their right mind wants to return to those awful bathing dresses of a century ago.
But a bikini takes it to another level, and its small size has nothing to do with practicality. A bikini is meant to emphasize the breasts, hips, and bare skin of a woman in a sexy way. That’s the whole appeal of it, and it’s why men are such big fans of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, right?
That focus on and sexualization of the body isn’t appropriate for girls. One could argue that it’s innocently silly when a toddler’s little pot belly pops out of a teeny two-piece. Adults laugh and wink and say, “Isn’t that cute?” Amid the attention, the little one learns to vamp for others, to entertain them with her looks, her body, and the way she’s dressed.
Instead, the longer we can protect girls from focus on and display of their physical selves, the stronger and more mature they will be when they meet the full reality of a world obsessed with their bodies.
Their round babyish selves seem to turn lean and leggy overnight, then rounder again with the buds of breasts and the swell of hips and, before we know it, their bodies are womanly in every way. We owe them clothing and modesty rules that are consistent over the years and don’t fixate on or show off their bodies at any given moment—that let their bodies just be their own.
When she’s four, it means we can allow her a little girl body, instead of imitating sexy grown-up clothes and pointing exactly to where she’s going to have boobs someday. She can wear simple, practical clothes that allow her to run, jump, play, and swim with ease.
When she’s eight or nine, it means she can still be a little girl, even if she’s entering puberty early, an increasingly common reality. It means we don’t have to burden her with why she suddenly shouldn’t wear a bikini top that emphasizes her budding breasts, when it was okay before, a conversation that might make her feel her perfectly normal body changes are somehow shameful.
Even when she’s fourteen, though my daughter might argue otherwise, it means protecting her from her own sense that her body is all grown up, and therefore she is too. Just because her body has sexualized does not mean she has the maturity to take on all aspects of her brand-new sexuality. Sure, like all women, she’ll have to learn to sift through the admiration and catcalls and come-ons. But she needn’t come out of the gate into that reality wearing a bikini.
Through all those stages, her body is just as it should be, a beautiful thing, neither to be flaunted for attention nor covered up by shame. And when it comes time for bikinis, if she’s someday interested, it will be when she herself has the adult maturity and sense to know — and handle — what a bikini says: “Look at me!”
Sharon Holbrook is a freelance writer, who lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio. Find more from her at sharonholbrook.com, and on Twitter @216Sharon.