The Great Bikini Debate

I get asked questions similar to the one below about girls and bikinis regularly and my answer is always the same: A child needs to be able to move her body in the ways that childhood requires. And, wear sunscreen.

Bikini

Is your daughter an instrument of play or an ornament of cute in her suit?

Parent Question: My friends and I have been discussing the topic of bikinis lately. We’d love to hear your advice about how to talk to our daughters about why our families choose not to have young girls wear bikinis. We’re having a hard time finding the right words – we don’t want to convey that they should be ashamed of their bodies (or we think they should be ashamed of their bodies) or that it is their responsibility to “prevent” others from being attracted to them (e.g., rape culture, current discussions regarding school dress codes). Please point us in the right direction!

PPBB Answer: Hi Jill – First, let me say that I love that you and your friends are aware of the issues of body shaming and Rape Culture mind set. We’re starting off on the right foot here! People don’t like bikinis for a number of reasons for little girls, but for me there are two:

1. Little girls don’t need to worry about being sexy, it is not age appropriate.

Some bikinis sold for children are way too sexy for my comfort level as a sex-positive person who wants these girls to have the freedom to develop their own sense of sexuality in their own time.

2. Some bikinis would limit or prevent movement and play, which is a child’s job, and really the main reason I do not like them on children.

If range of play and motion is inhibited I really discourage parents from buying things that teach girls not to take up space in the world. (Tight, low-cut jeans is another example of this. I hear about it all the time from gym teachers in elementary schools.) 

Also – there is the issue of sun protection for the skin and less suit means more sun exposure on young skin.

I don’t think all bikinis are problematic and I’m not against girls wearing them. Some of them are really cute! I think the cut of the suit is critical. Tankinis are a good compromise, especially where you can mix and match tops and bottoms – super fun! Two pieces also make potty breaks easier. 

Not all bikinis are cut and built the same, so this post is focusing more in skimpy cuts. When you are constantly tugging a skimpy bikini back in place or worried some private parts may splash out you aren’t having as much fun as you should be.

If your daughter has a bikini that allows her to play and be a fish in the pool or ocean then GREAT! Wear sunscreen.

Recently I chaperoned a trip to a water park with my daughter’s Girl Scout troop. I smiled to myself when I overheard the girls (ages 8-12) saying that when we head to the giant water park tomorrow it was a “one piece suit kind of day” because they wanted to play hard and fly fast down water slides and not worry about what they looked like or what might get exposed. 100% yes to this! Smart girls!!
Greater than the issue of sexualization of children, for me, is the restriction of moment and self-consciousness a bikini might create that takes away from a girl her natural right to feel good and carefree in her body to play, romp, jump, swim, dive, slide, cannonball and somersault in the water uninhibited.
There is no magical medicine for our girls when it comes to the ills society will soon teach them about body image, beauty standards, obligation of sexiness, and gender roles. But learning to take up space in the world, to be daring, try new things, and enjoying all the amazing things your body can do, and that those are WAY more important than what it looks like is a pretty damn good elixir.

 

I would explain to the girls that some bikinis don’t stay in place like tankinis or one pieces do. Who wants to be tugging on their suit all day, or lose their bottoms on a water slide or big wave in the ocean? I’ve been a lifeguard and swim instructor for years and I constantly see girls tugging their bikinis back in place. Every male teacher I’ve worked with has told me the skimpy bikinis on little girls creep them out and make them really uncomfortable. The tops to the suits don’t stay in place while swimming and they are concerned they’ll be accused of something that was not taking place while they are holding the beginning swimmer around the chest and the suit has changed position. I’ve actually had great conversations with these college-aged guys on the sexualization of girls, something that totally confound them. Do they love string bikini on a young woman their age? Yep! On a five year old? Please God no. They’ve had great insights on our cultural phenomenon of sexualizing our girls in the age of helicopter parenting.

 

Last summer I had no issues telling my nine year old that a bikini she inherited was cut in a way that grown up ladies bikinis are cut to enhance their breasts (skimpy triangle cut) and that it was not appropriate for a child. During our conversation she said to me, “Well, if Dad says it is okay can I wear it?” My reply to her was that her dad does not control her body nor give permissions for it, that is her job and she is responsible for making good decisions once she has the information to make them. So I let her wear the bikini around the house one day and for a few hours counted the number of times she had to tug it and put it back in place. 47 tugs later I asked if she understood my point that bikinis are great for laying still while tanning and looking sexy by the pool for grown ups. Kids are supposed to play and have no need to look sexy. She got it, mostly because I allowed her to teach the message to herself.

Melissa headshot 1 fb sizeMelissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com. Find her at www.melissaatkinswardy.com. You can connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals) and Pinterest (Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies). 

Comments

  1. Kimberly Herbert says:

    For some kids the Tankinis might be the suit that gives them the freedom to move and enjoy the water.

    The district I used to teach in had swimming class as part of PE in 4th grade. The supply list included swim trunks (not speedos) for boys and one piece for girl. The reasons were the same you have given. The kids need to be able to move freely without having to tug their suits back in place. Also to protect the instructors from being accused of touching inappropriately if the bathing suit shifted.

    One year I had a mother come to me in distress. Her daughter had a chronic medical condition, that required she take steroids. This cause her to gain a good deal of weight, but not taking the meds meant pain and death.

    The mom was worried about her being teased in the locker room, or in the pool. There was the added problem that due to the weight she could not wear a 1 piece. If it was big enough for her lower half, it would be to big (and have a built in bra she didn’t need) for the upper half. The Mom wanted the child to be excused – but that meant a U in PE.

    I contact the swim teacher and explained the problem. She told me that she really wanted the girl to try the class. In part because it sound like the child had no swimming skills and where we live accidental drownings especially from people falling into rivers are way to common. The child could wear a tankini style suit. That would be a ADA / 504 accommodation. Honestly the group of girls was so sweet and lacking any mean girls I wasn’t afraid of her being teased by them – she was extremely well liked and a leader.

    There was 2 boys, I was worried about. One had his own issues (foster care, probably saved his sisters’ lives calling 911 when their mother was out of control, but blamed himself for her going to jail and ADHD on top of that). He would put people down when scared – and he was scared of swimming.Our coach had a talk with him.

    The other little imp lacked social skills but had great empathy. If he sensed someone was uncomfortable he would try to put them at ease – and insert his foot into his mouth. He was also impulsive. His mom and I had a good working relationship due to a few incidents like him sneaking his karate sparing gear to school and bringing in a baby cotton mouth to school (he thought it was a garter snake). I talked to her about how to handle it. She basically told him not to comment on anyone’s body or suit and only say good things about their swimming – and he remembered.

    The Girl’s Mom agreed to the tankini and was able to find a suit combination that fit. The fact that it would only be my class at the pool (Mom thought whole grade went the same time or classes from multiple schools), lessened her fears of teasing. The girl was still scared she was breaking the rules and would get in trouble. So I accompanied the on the bus to the first lesson. (usually they are put on the bus to to the district pool, then come back) The coach handled it great. The little boys did not make any inappropriate comments.

    End of the session, the little girl was not only swimming but going off the high board in the deep end. Mom joined the YMCA so she could keep swimming. The doctors loved it because she was getting more exercise, without putting pressure on her joints.

  2. Great story, Kimberly.

    My 9 year old daughter only likes one pieces, although I have been concerned that they are trending towards being skimpy with cut-outs, string ties at the top, chains (yes, really) and very low cut at the back. I like the way you let your daughter work out for herself what was comfortable and appropriate, Melissa.

  3. Great discussion! Thankfully where we live, with all the outdoor summer stuff we do, it’s really common for us all to be wearing rash vests and board shorts, or wetsuits, rather than swimming togs or bikinis. I really don’t want my wee girl in unsuitable bikinis, but I’m sure the discussion will come up at some point in the future, and you’ve given me some great answers to the questions I’m sure she will have.

  4. My daughters have only ever worn swim shorts and rash guard shirts- mostly because I’m too lazy to deal with the extra sunscreen. But I have suggested tankinis for indoor swimming because I thought it would be more comfortable. It turns out that both girls (10 and 13) feel very exposed with that much skin showing. I worry that they are not proud of their bodies and comfortable in their own skin. Unintended consequences? Thoughts?

    • They can be proud without having to put anything on display. *I* don’t really find the traditional women’s cuts conducive to being active (the pubic hair visibility issue ALONE is enough of a turn-off for me, and then there’s trying to get in and out of the damn thing every time I need to use the restroom), and it’s not about my body not being awesome or being uncomfortable with it. It’s just about wanting to SWIM and PLAY instead of tugging and adjusting all day long.

      • Yeah…the pubic hair issue is why I do not swim very often. I usually wear one-piece bathing suits and have to keep tugging at the front to keep anything from showing.

  5. I really like tankinies for regular pool trips. My very independent 5-year-old doesn’t want help in the bathroom & gets frustrated with a wet 1-piece (it’s OK dry, but wet…not so much). We do prefer 1 piece for water parks because of the slides, but she still gets annoyed in the rest room.

  6. All my kids wear trunks and short-sleeved rashguards to swim. Better sun protection, better abrasion protection, NO gender distinctions.

  7. Our kids wear swim shorts and long sleeved rash guards, on account it’s about +100f here most afternoons in the summer. I’ve discussed with them (both girls) how the young ladies in bikinis spend a lot of time rearranging their tops and bottoms for coverage at the water park and that for playing and riding rides that could be disastrous! I think she gets it. We’ll see.

  8. Laura Podwoski says:

    I don’t like my daughter wearing dresses without tights, pants or shorts underneith. Just underware is not acceptable. She can’t run, jump, climb or do anything really, including sitting down, without her underware showing. She doesn’t care, but men, or anyone who might see her, might take this as a “sexy” thing and that’s not ok. We had this talk recently about “appropriate” dress, and some thoughts about “modesty”. I don’t know how much she understood, she’s almost 5, but something went in and she put on the leggings. We’ll see how the conversation progresses as she gets older.

    • Hi Laura –
      While I respect your passion to keep your daughter safe, I am generally uncomfortable with parents teaching their girls to be “modest” so as to thwart or avoid the lustful looks and thoughts of men. That is not a girl’s responsibility, rather it is the responsibility of the boys and men around her. Teaching our girls to cover up so that our boys behave is the opposite of what we should be doing, and leads to the high policing of girls and low expectations of boys.

  9. Sorry but why are you telling your kids it’s not ok to wear bikinis when they are little but it’s okay when they want to look sexy when they are older? Why does a bikini have to sexualize anyone? My daughter has a long torso and sensory issues and one pieces make her feel constrained so she has mostly worn bikinis she is happy and she looks cute in them. I am now at the point that she is developing and while wearing a bikini is still her choice finding something that isn’t too skimpy for her to move and play in is getting harder. I think some of you are putting you own issues on to something that is very innocent until YOU start making it about sexualization.

    • Pam,
      Bikinis are a great swim choice, and it is understandable why some people prefer them. No one is telling kids not to wear them, we are saying functional bikinis are great for childhood but the sexy suits need to wait until adulthood when it is appropriate to express sexuality. It is perfectly fine for an adult woman to want to feel sexy and look sexy. It is natural and normal for a teen to want that, too, but I think teen girls have better things to focus their energy on. It is not natural or normal for a young child, as their sexuality has not developed to this point yet, and our point is young children do not need bikinis that mimic sexy adult bikinis.

      Not all bikinis sexualize people, they are just a style of swimsuit. But some bikinis are cut to enhance and reveal much of the adult female form, specifically string bikinis revealing breasts and butt. Those are sexualized suits. The problem arises when those same suits meant for adults are made for children, as you said, it makes it harder for children to swim and play because that is not what skimpy suits are meant for. Learning about what your body can do should be the focus of swimming and water play, sexualized suits should not impede that.

  10. In response to the great bikini debate (Melissa Atkins): I’ve noticed that variety in choices
    bathing suit wear has improved compared to previous decades. Avon use to have a clothes catalog. Big plus has a great variety & style. I have worn the full bathing suit as opposed to the bikini. For safety reasons one could slip or fall. Physically one is very vulnerable in an outdoor setting (lake, creek, river, ocean, etc.). The other danger is man: Mankind. If there is bad intentions either from a female or a fellow who pounces or causes physical (or sexual) harm, having less on to wear does not help but it does not mean to say or suggest that the bikini wearer encouraged it. Decades of past, one had to be thin or super thin to wear a bikini. There was a limit of choices/variety as well as size. Personally, I was never comfortable in a bikini. I felt like an object. (some) Girls (preadolescence) are physically maturing/developing faster. While it’s important to teach/instruct/encourage them to be proud of themselves, they should be comfortable in any type of wear (clothes/garments). Our earth is aging. The sun’s rays (ultraviolet) & the results w/o the sunscreen protection encourages all when venturing to the great outdoors to use sunscreen protection & cover up instead of the opposite especially when out for a couple of hours. Girls need to be aware that there is responsibility when it comes to summer (the sun/the appropriate clothing). If there is a bikini or a bathing suit (non bikini) that a girl likes to wear should be aware that she needs to protect herself by using sunscreen when out for awhile. Premature aging in addition to skin cancer is the result of sun damage. It’s understandable that girls are influenced by the culture here in our country when it comes to fashion. Commercials. Shows. Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. Friends. School chums. So while out for awhile, time themselves before changing. It maybe a better idea to limit to the swimsuit wear to swimming only as opposed to playing around outside the pool. Except when out on a beach. It’s common for a small group of kids/teens playing w/a Frisbee. Volley ball on the sand. The other comments are good too. Thank you elissa Atkins

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