As we creep past the last day of school and summer begins in earnest, concerned mom boards everywhere begin to discuss something that has been discussed since the dawn of mom boards (probably): should you buy your daughter a bikini? People have the feels on this one, everybody. Strong feels. Confused feels. Angry feels. Indignant feels. Pearl-clutching feels. Basically all the feels. Discussion can get thorny, mired, and hostile. It's a metaphorical minefield out there, so let's try to navigate this together, shall we?
I should start with a full disclosure. The adorable, bikini-clad kid pictured above? That's my daughter. Yes, my daughter wearing a bikini. So I'm pretty solidly on "Team Let The Kid Wear A Bikini." However, "Team Kids Should Not Wear Bikinis," I get you. Your team makes some really, really excellent arguments, and I respect any parents' decision when it comes to their own child. At the same time, of course, I think my particular team makes some really, really excellent arguments as well, which is why, at the end of the day, I can understand why the whole "should your daughter wear a bikini" discussion/argument/debate is complex and passionate and difficult to traverse.
Still, regardless of what team you inevitably land on, I do think there are questions both teams can consider useful in assisting parents in deciding what choice works for them. Hey, being a parent is hard, and while we want our children to love and accept and never be ashamed of their bodies, we also want to protect them to the best of our ability. With that in mind, I think we can all agree that asking ourselves the following questions before making an informed decision, is the best way to go.
"What Are The Origins Of The Bikini?"
The history of the bikini technically goes back to antiquity, usually as active wear. While two piece bathing suits began to gain traction as early as the 1920s and 1930s (aided in the 40s by fabric rationing and shortages before and after World War II), the modern bikini was conceived simultaneously in 1946 by two different French guys: fashion designer and beach shop owner Jacques Heim (who dubbed it "the atome") and automotive and mechanical engineer Louis Réard, who had taken over his mother's lingerie business a few years earlier. Heim's design premiered first, in May of 1946, and was the first to be worn at the beach. Réard's skimpier design (and by "skimpier" I mean it exposed the navel) garnered more attention. Réard's name for his specific design, "Bikini," (named for the Bikini Atoll where nuclear testing had occurred just days before the big reveal) is the one that stuck. While few women were quick to embrace the bikini, over time, starlets like Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, and Sophia Loren popularized the garment throughout and beyond Europe.
"Why Does My Daughter Want To Wear It?"
There are lots of reasons why someone wants to wear a bikini, but what is your daughter's reason? Does she just like the aesthetic? Does she want to look or feel more grown up? Is she emulating older sisters, cousins, or her mom? Has she expressed the idea that she wants to look or feel sexy? Is she doing it because she is seeking the attention of boys? Are her friends peer pressuring her or making her feel self-conscious in a one-piece? What if she's too young to choose her own clothing and you're choosing for her? What are your motivations?
With the exception of questions with answers like, "She wants it to make someone else happy," I honestly really don't know what the acceptable or unacceptable answers to each of these questions are. I just think they're legitimate questions to ask yourself.
"Is The Design Built Around The Male Gaze?"
What were Heim and Réard's motivations when unleashing the atome/bikini on the world? We can't really tell. Réard claims the idea came to him when he saw women in St. Tropez rolling up two piece swimsuits to get a better tan (#problemsolving). Both men aggressively marketed their products by touting above and beyond all else, their novelty. Heim proclaimed his "the smallest bathing suit in the world" in skywriting, where Réard claimed that it wasn't a real bikini if it couldn't be pulled through a wedding ring. Was this simply a solution to a problem sun-crazed women were solving themselves by rolling up their suits? Was it a lascivious attempt to see more of women's bodies at the beach? Was it merely a crass attempt to make money off (not for) the female form? Was it all three? My money would be on "All of the above," but I have no actual idea.
"Does It Matter If The Design Is Built Around The Male Gaze?"
One cannot deny that regardless of the sartorial origins of the bikini, it has been used time and time again to objectify women and cater to a heterosexual male viewer in pop culture. Look no further than Ursula Andress beach scene in Dr. No, the Sports Illustrated annual swimsuit edition, or 97 percent of music videos made between 1981 and 1991. (Damn those dudes loved bikinis.) However, should that even be taken into account when discussing something a female bodied person has decided she wants to wear? If the male gaze was instrumental in the creation and marketing of the bikini (maybe, maybe not, like Jon Snow, I know nothing), does that matter? Is donning a bikini with agency an act of reclamation or collaboration?
"Teaching Modesty To Girls: Creepy, Practical, Or Combating The Sexualization Of Children?"
What are the benefits and drawbacks of encouraging or insisting that our daughters dress modestly? Full disclosure here: personally, I find teaching little girls modesty as a virtue distasteful, because I believe it instills in them the idea that their bodies are inherently and primarily sexual and that they are responsible for other people's interpretations of their character. But is there a practical aspect to encouraging modesty? Because perhaps despite all my feminist ideals and beliefs, there has to come a point where we realize "There's the way the world should work and there's the way it actually works and if you're going to go up against that you have to be prepared (more on that later)." And, of course, there are very good arguments that counter my assertion about modesty as a form of oppression. Brilliant woman, BAMF, and Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, Dalia Mogahead talked about hijab on The Daily Show and I believe what she said can very much apply to this discussion.
Opression means the taking away of someone's power. What hijab does is it basically privatizes women's sexuality... so what are we saying when we say that by ... privatizing a woman's sexuality, we're "oppressing" her? What does that mean and what is that saying about the source of a woman's power?
Guys. I seriously don't know. I don't know. BRB, drowning my existential crisis in a bag of Doritos.
"Are You Prepared To Guide Her Through Other People's Potential Reactions To Her In A Bikini?"
Because no matter how old a female body is, it is frequently, usually, considered public property and up for discussion, debate, judgment, and control by a patriarchal society that seems hell-bent on keeping a sexist status quo. Comments questioning the appropriateness of the bikini, how she looks in it (positive and negative), and even well meaning "You go, girls!" or fawning attention may well abound. This, in turn, may inspire you to discuss these reactions with your daughter, so I think it's important to consider what you will say (or won't say) beforehand.
"Are You Considering Sun Protection Issues?"
More exposed skin means more sun exposure. Now, this isn't necessarily a huge deal, because sunscreen is awesome and sometimes you're not going to be outside for a substantial amount of time. Still, if you're doing a full day at the beach, the sun can do some serious damage to delicate kid skin. It's probably for the best to ask yourself if you are prepared to spend a little more time reapplying sunscreen to more places.
"Are You Making Assumptions About Who Does/Should/Shouldn't Wear Bikinis?"
For a myriad reasons already listed above, I think it's important to examine and re-examine our own biases, prejudices, and presumptions, while simultaneously questioning if what we take for granted is, in fact, a fact. Do we harbor subconscious ideas that certain body types shouldn't wear bikinis and that's influencing our response to our daughters? Are we unknowingly slut shaming our kids? Is worrying about how their body will be sexualized by others actually buying into the idea that their bodies, even as children, are sexual objects?
Again, seriously guys: I don't know.
(The first bag of Doritos is gone. I've moved on to Oreos. Oreos will take the pain away.)
"Are You Being Naive In Thinking Of It Exclusively As A Neutral Garment?"
Yes, ultimately, all clothes are just pieces of fabric with no thoughts or feelings and could hypothetically be worn by anyone reflecting nothing but the wearer's character, culture, politics, or ideas. However, while this assessment can often be true, so too can the assessment that any garment has cultural baggage and that some garments (almost always garments traditionally worn by women, might I add) are more prone to this sort of thing than most. So, is recognizing that a bikini is just something you put on your body, pushing past the made up crap that people have projected onto them, willfully ignoring some pretty basic concepts of what clothing is and does?
"Is This Whole Conversation A Scary Realization That Navigating The World With A Female Body Is A Horrifying And Never-Ending Hellscape Of Contradiction And Confusion?"
*chugs down five of those ridiculously fancy milkshakes that were all over social media a couple months ago*
"What Is The Best Way To Stick It To The Patriarchy?"
Repeat after me: I. Don't. Know. I just, you know, don't.
Then again, I guess I should rephrase that. I do know what feels right for me and my daughter, I just don't know what completely logical, sound, feminist conclusion you will reach for your family. I honestly don't think there is really a right or wrong way to look at this. There are any number of completely reasonable, thoughtful, body positive, non-slut shaming, appropriate responses to whether a girl should have parental approval on the subject of wearing a bikini. The important thing is that we consider them.