At the Clarke Swim Center in Walnut Creek, children splash and belly-flop away a Friday afternoon under the sun. The girls in this 10-and-under crowd are wading in the pool wearing all the ruffles, sequins and neon colors currently trending in swimwear. Some wear one-pieces. Some, bikinis.
And every parent has an opinion about it.
“I don’t let my little girl wear a bikini,” says Pleasant Hill mom Katie Sunter, 29, as her 7-year-old somersaults in a striped, rainbow one-piece she picked out at Old Navy. “She’s too young. What’s the point in showing all that skin?”
Girls have been wearing bikinis for decades, but a recent wave of skimpy swimsuits made for 4- to 8-year-olds by Zara, Dolce & Gabbana and Melissa Odabash (for Gwyneth Paltrow’s e-commerce site, Goop) has reignited a cultural argument.
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In a society where women are sexualized at younger and younger ages, are two-piece bathing suits inappropriate for youngsters, or are we making a big deal out of nothing? Some people argue that the very conversation is the problem: That by talking about it, we are teaching girls that what they wear can lead to sexual victimization. Parents and child advocates say it really depends on the suit.
To promote a healthy body image, Santa Cruz clinical psychologist and mother Lucie Hemmen says girls should wear swimsuits that feel good, look good and function well.
“If your booty cheek is hanging out, it probably doesn’t function well,” says Hemmen, who has two teenage daughters and specializes in the psychology and well-being of girls.
In response to the tot modeling Goop.com’s black string bikini, with its plunging neck line and low slung bottoms, Hemmen says, “What the hell? When I see people making unnecessarily sexualized clothes for little girls, it makes me disappointed. I think most little girls would rather be in something pink with ruffles, sparkles and a mermaid on it.”
Selecting a swimsuit that you feel is appropriate is not enough, Hemmen says. You also need to learn the appropriate way to talk to girls about clothing and their bodies.
“You absolutely can’t talk about your weight or how scandalous or revealing clothes are,” Hemmen says. “It can stimulate anxiety, insecurity or shame in a girl that doesn’t have any of that.”
Instead, talk about bodies in terms of health, good eating and exercise.
“Talk about how good it feels when you treat it well,” Hemmen says. “Talk about the powerful things it lets you do, like hike and dance. If you want to talk about skimpy clothes, do it in terms of function, like, ‘Hmm, that skirt is really short. What do you think will happen when you bend down?’”