July 31, 2011

“Proper Swimwear” for a Toddler Girl Includes a Top?!

(This article was originally published at Good Vibrations Magazine.)

"Proper" (girly!) swimwear
At the city pool on a steamy Sunday, we were recently told by the lifeguards that our daughter, who just turned three, needs to wear a top and not just a bottom. Isn’t that taking the sexualizing of young girls to the extreme?

Really, what is going on when the nipples of a girl’s undeveloped breasts are asked to be covered? Is the case as bestselling author of three parenting books Liz Fraser poses that “the public’s media-fueled terror of pedophilia is now so strong that many parents don’t want their children to be seen naked by strangers ‘just in case’ they are photographed and put onto the internet, or peered at by sexual predators”?
A naked child has become, for many, a potential sex abuse incident, rather than the beautiful, pure thing it is, despite the reality, which is that — mercifully — abuse by pedophiles is far less prevalent than the furore that surrounds them would imply.
Continues Fraser:
Most damaging in all of this is the bizarre paradox that this whispering, blushing shunning of nakedness comes hand in hand with our culture’s obsession with sex and sexuality.

As a scientist friend of mine, and father of one, put it: ‘Public nudity is a crime here, and yet pornography and hypersexual advertising is everywhere in the UK and North America.

‘The ever-present appearance of sex and sexual messages in our culture and media goes along with fear and horror at actual nudity — and causes all kinds of problems for people’s sexual activity and self-confidence.’

When nudity is considered unacceptable, but highly-charged sexual messages in advertising and pop videos are not, is it any surprise that so many children are growing up with a confused attitude to their bodies, or feeling ashamed to take their tops off in a park when they’re hot?
Fraser is referring to her own eleven-year-old daughter who after an hour or so of running about with a football on a sweltering day, and having turned into "a sweaty, par-boiled lobster," did not want to take her T-shirt off to cool down when Fraser suggested it to her. Because "people will stare and point!" Comments Fraser:
Where boys often take their tops off in the hot summer months, many girls, even as young and totally undeveloped as my younger daughter, already feel that they ‘shouldn’t’ expose their top halves in public. Because their nakedness is somehow . . . wrong.
Topless Bowery lady (The Village Voice)
Grown women feel this "wrongness" with their nudity too. In New York and Canada, women have fought and won the right to walk around topless in public according to the right not to be discriminated against based on their sex. If a man can, so can a woman. Yet, fifteen years after Canadian women won the right to appear topless in public, not many women are taking advantage of the right:
"I think women are concerned with the other people who are watching them," commented one woman interviewed by the Toronto Sun; "Some women are uncomfortable with their bodies and they don’t want to be the only one walking around with their breasts hanging out."

“It still is considered taboo even though it’s legal and there’s tons of nude beaches and nudist colonies," commented another.
But as SlutWalk co-founder Heather Jarvis points out to the Toronto Sun:
“Breasts, like the entirety of women’s bodies, may not always be sexual." -- "The fact they’re treated as such contributes to a lot of fear, low self-esteem, shame and harassment on the streets and elsewhere.”
Jarvis' point is crucial. Breasts are not just or always sexual. But sadly, our culture's sexualization of breasts affect even breastfeeding moms feeling the need to hide beneath nursing tents, as I discuss here.

I have complained about the top requirement to the pool manager who clarified that "proper swimwear" requires a top for girls from when they are at least of school age. I asked her if she's a mom (yes, I did). She is not. But she told me she used to work as a teacher and has been a pool manager for seven years. When I told her I have a problem with her interpretation of "proper swimwear" requiring tops for girls as young as five, she answered that "as a parent, I wouldn't want my child to feel uncomfortable not wearing appropriate swimwear -- not that I'm saying your child would be. But if they see someone from school at the pool ..." -- She left the statement kind of hanging in the air there.

Take a minute to reflect on that statement. -- In the manager's mind, a girl aged five will feel UNCOMFORTABLE if she runs into someone (a boy?!) from school without wearing a top. Should she really have the reason to feel uncomfortable? For displaying the nipples of her undeveloped breasts?

In my opinion, it's this kind of thinking that's the very cause for why young girls today often feel uncomfortable even with their undeveloped bodies, as Fraser points out.

It's interesting to think that, as one fellow mom at the pool pointed out, had we swapped my daughter's bikini bottoms with the bottoms of her three-year-old boy (who has the same curly, blond locks as my daughter) the pool staff wouldn’t have said anything to us but instead picked on them. In other words, the gender stereotyping enforced by manufacturers of children’s attire is also an issue here. Despite her blond locks, my daughter is still mistaken for a boy by strangers due to her boyish hand-me-downs. -- Had I dressed my daughter in a rare to come by pair of gender neutral bottoms as opposed to the frilly bikini bottom she got from her grandma, the pool staff wouldn’t have said anything, because they wouldn’t have been able to tell if she's a boy or a girl.

But this isn't about covering up the child's sex. It's about gender equality. And it's about standing up against the sexualization of the female sex and empowering women to own their bodies.

Fostering a culture where women feel comfortable with all parts of their bodies begins with encouraging young girls to feel comfortable with their budding bodies. Telling them to cover up is not the way to do that.


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