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).