Last April, my husband and I set aside our pipe dream of buying a cabin in the woods and instead poured all that precious cash into one big hole in the ground. That is to say, we succumbed to the Southern California cliché and built a swimming pool in our yard.
Suddenly, and predictably, our lives revolved around the pool. Dinners became poolside BBQs. Play-dates became pool-dates. There were always, always, towels in the dirty clothes hamper. And our 9-year-old daughter’s closet became home to a rapidly accumulating collection of bathing suits.
The last part was my fault. I am a sucker for adorable kids’ clothes in general and bathing suits in particular, especially those that are even remotely vintage-looking. Pictures of my daughter, Maxine, in a navy blue suit with buttons along the side and little anchors all over it kept my Instagram feed alive for months.
But I always drew the line at bikinis.
At 9, I just thought, you know, no. Just … no.
Occasionally Maxine would pick out a bikini in her size, but I’d make some vague comment about not caring for it, and she’d move on to something else. Then, about a month ago, she came out of her room wearing … you guessed it … a bikini.
Oh boy, I thought.
Maxine and her dad had bought the turquoise-and-white-striped two-piece at Target earlier that day, and the look on her face told me how clearly delighted she was.
“Do you like it?” she asked.
What could I say?
“I don’t know, Max. The suit is very cute. And you look very cute in it. It’s just that I’m not crazy about bikinis on little kids.”
“Well,” she announced, “I like it. And Daddy likes it.” And she was right. Her dad had no problem at all with the belly-baring number. In his mind, his daughter was simply wearing the swimming suit of her choice.
As my husband and I sparred light-heartedly about the decision, I realized how personally torn I was on this one.
On the one hand, I wanted to support my kid’s choice of clothing. I myself wear bikinis all the time (and so do some of her friends, incidentally); is it any wonder she would want follow suit? I certainly didn’t want to make her self-conscious about her body, not when puberty was around the corner. And, let’s face it, two-pieces really are more practical when it comes to bathroom breaks.
On the other, I wanted to preserve my kid’s childhood. There was something that icked me out about bikinis on kids. I couldn’t help but see the suits as sexualizing them in some way.
Seeing no clear resolution, I decided to turn to the real authorities for advice — my Facebook friends. (Who did you think I meant?)
“Help settle a debate in our household,” I wrote in a post. “How do you feel about little girls wearing bikinis? For instance, for the sake of argument, a little 9-year-old girl?”
There were 45 comments in total, and the reactions were all over the place.
“Completely fine,” said one friend.
“It depends on the style of the suit,” said another.
“Hmmm,” said a third. “In public? Or in the backyard?”
And then the unflinching: “No!”
It was like a web of opinions, all intertwined, many dovetailing with one another at one point or another. Most of the responses came down to conditional “yes’s.”
“There are little-girl bikinis and there are bikinis. I think the little-girl bikinis are probably fine.”
“I think it’s all about proper fit and her own comfort. I’ve seen girls in ill-fitting one-pieces that make necks crane in an inappropriate way.”
Some said it was a matter of raising confident kids, but didn’t necessarily agree about the type of suit that would accomplish that.
“A one-piece will preserve that beautiful skin and give her the confidence to swim like a fish.”
“If it’s cute, she’s comfortable, and feels good about herself, I feel great about little girls wearing bikinis.”
A couple suggested that bikinis were fine for girls but not for young women.
“Something to think about is you can’t go back. If you’re ok with her wearing a bikini at 9, then, when she starts developing, you can’t take it away.”
A couple cited skin cancer as a factor in choosing one-pieces.
“There is an extremely good argument, given where we live and your child’s skin tone/risk factors, for insisting on a one piece or MORE (rash guard, etc), for skin protection.”
Several, speaking from personal experience, said it was just fine.
“All 3 of our daughters wore the age-appropriate bikinis meant for the little girls.”
“I’d say sturdily made. No strings or ties. I remember feeling very cool in mine!”
“Totally fine. Totally, totally fine … [but] whatever you decide, explain it to her in excruciating detail. I speak from experience as a person who had boobs at 10.”
“Well, I wore them when I was a little girl and I didn’t grow up to be a hooker or anything, so I’d say they’re fine! Lol”
And then there was a little humor thrown in from her grandpa:
“I am ok with it until they are 13 or so, and then they should be covered from neck to ankles if they are my granddaughters.”
But of all the comments, the one that rang loudest in my ear was one written by my friend Heather Wood Rudulph, a feminist writer.
“I think giving her the power to choose what she feels good in is a great gift. Do you want her in a string bikini top? Probably not. But if you harshly restrict a wardrobe choice such as this, which is probably just an inkling from a little girl who wants to wear cute swimsuits like her friends, she’ll ask why. And in the answer, even from an awesome, feminist parent like you, lies a smidgeon of shaming. And we only do this to girls.”
The word “shaming” hit me like a ton of bricks.
In that moment I stood outside myself and saw someone who was hovering uncomfortably close to slut-shaming her 9-year-old child.
All of a sudden I remembered all those stories I’d read about college girls who were being raped on college campuses across the country but not reporting it to authorities because they felt they were somehow to blame — that they had led the boys on, had too much to drink, or dressed too provocatively. Those stories unearth a terrible truth: We as parents are sending our girls into the world with the notion that it is their responsibility to not get raped. It is never — and I know you are with me on this, but I’m still going to say it — ever a girl’s fault for being raped.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with preferring modest bathing suits (on children or on ourselves!) for any number of reasons. And varying circumstances require varying decisions; each parent should do what’s right for her or him. What’s more, I do think that, around puberty, kids should be told (if they don’t know already) that the more skin they show in public, the more likely they are to attract sexual attention. Sex Ed is important stuff.
That said, for me at least, in my particular situation, I was won over by my feminist friends. Girls have just as much right as boys to wear what is comfortable and what makes them feel good.
I went into my daughter’s room later that day, where the two-piece was already holding court among the clutter of her bedroom floor.
“Maxine,” I said, “ I just want to let you know that I changed my mind. I think bikinis are fine, and I think yours is cute. And I have no problem with you wearing it at all.”
“Thank you,” she said.