Earlier this spring, Gwyneth Paltrow got much flack for posting bikinis for little girls on her you-wish-you-could-be-me website, Goop. While there is a burgeoning online industry dedicated to roundly mocking every single thing Gwyneth Paltrow does- an industry of which I am an avid consumer- I am also basically totally very very close with Gwyneth, as this parking lot encounter from 2008 will attest. (My son Connor stalked Apple with knock-knock jokes. One of my favorite blog posts ever. Go ahead, I’ll wait here.)
But while I enjoy a good Paltrow-da-fé as much as the next gal, I thought this particular criticism- that two-piece bathing suits for little girls represent “a dangerous sexualization of children”– was a little silly. Little girls don’t look sexy in two-piece suits, they look…the opposite of sexy. They look cute. Like little girls. (Unless they’re wearing the padded triangle top Abercrombie & Fitch was peddling to seven-year-olds a few years back, which approximately one hundred percent of those surveyed agreed: totally gross.)
I had never bought my five-year-old daughter a two-piece bathing suit, because her pale Irish skin needs more protection than that. But when she received a few bikinis as hand-me-downs from a very well-dressed friend, I let her wear them, and thought she looked adorable, and that was that.
Until last night, after bathtime, when I laid out what Maggie would wear to camp the next day. T-shirt, shorts, and a two-piece bathing suit for underneath. Maggie regarded my choice warily.
MAGGIE: Mom. I like two-piece bathing suits? But I don’t like to wear them in, you know. Public places.
ME: What did you say?
MAGGIE: Public places. That’s places that a lot of people go. I’ll wear them, like, at home, but not where anyone can see me.
ME: Why, honey?
Maggie patted her stomach. Her perfect, round, little girl belly.
MAGGIE: Right here.
My daughter doesn’t want people to see her in two-piece bathing suits because she doesn’t like the way her body looks in them. Although her body looks EXACTLY THE WAY IT SHOULD.
I thought it was silly to suggest that bikinis for little girls made them look sexy. Now I understand that it’s a little bit more complicated: bikinis for little girls might suggest to them that they are supposed to look sexy, and do not. Why wait till puberty to start hating your body when you can get started in kindergarten?
I told Maggie her body was perfect the way it was. That someday she would have a stomach that looked like a grownup’s, but that wouldn’t happen for a long time. And that she could wear whatever she wanted.
But I’m left with a small pit in my stomach that won’t go away. My daughter is getting messages about her body image already, and they suck, and they’re wrong, and they will mess with her head from now on.
And she’s beautiful.
And she’s five.