Let’s talk about girls wearing bikinis.
I work in the leisure industry and in my workplace we hand out swimming packs: cheap nylon swimming bags with our logo vinyl-printed on them and a leaflet inside about running on poolside, wearing jewellery, and what constitutes appropriate swimwear. Boys should wear trunks or swim shorts and girls should wear one-piece swimsuits; “No bikinis”.
Every time I see this, I roll my eyes inwardly.
There’s a seasonal moral panic in the popular media about young girls being sold “sexualised items” like nail polish, high heels, moulded bras and bikinis – things that many women wear but a lot are squeamish about seeing our daughters in.
When David Cameron was Prime Minister, he pledged to clamp down on these items, playing the ‘traditional family values’ card. Mumsnet even started its ‘Let Girls Be Girls’ campaign, which was endorsed by then-education secretary, Michael Gove.
I admire aspects of the Mumsnet campaign. They rail not only against clothing which is seen as sexualised, but also items that feature objectionable slogans such as ‘Future WAG’. I applaud parents who aim to inspire and equip their daughters to achieve things in their own right, rather than simply hanging off the arm of a rich man. That’s great. But when the campaign wants to stop the retail of articles of clothing because of a supposed implication of sexual availability, their aims and mine diverge.
I spoke to a number of parents while researching this article. Views were mixed, but I found that amongst the more vocal feminist parents, there was a trend to allow their children to wear bikinis if that was what they wanted to wear. Most spoke of encouraging expression and bodily autonomy.
The other parents I spoke to were concerned about maintaining their children’s innocence and keeping them free from adult influences. ‘S’, who has two young girls, wrote: “Although I don’t see a bikini myself as a sexualised thing, society does…and that’s where the problem lies. I wouldn’t want my children in bikinis… at such a young age. It worries me and I do think that it brings girls into the idea of sexualisation too early.”
What is it about girls’ middles, or even girls’ torsos, which is so inappropriate and unacceptable? We’re talking about an age where no secondary sexual characteristics are visible. Genitals aside, they are indistinguishable from boys at this stage of their lives, and yet we treat them so differently. Boys’ swimsuits (and other outfits) are rarely scrutinised to determine if they’re too small, or show too much leg or midriff, despite boys being just as much a target for predators as girls.
Some swimming lessons providers stipulate that girls must wear one-piece swimsuits, despite the children in question being well below the age of puberty. When pressed, they cite vague child protection concerns. The general rule from my experience in the leisure industry is that boys must wear trunks, which must not extend below the knee (so as to avoid impeding the child’s swimming ability, providers claim) and girls must wear a one-piece.
From a practical perspective, I find that two-piece swimsuits (tankinis, bikinis, sunsuits, or burkinis with leggings and a tunic) are a great tool for encouraging children to be more independent about getting themselves dressed and undressed for swimming. They need less assistance getting ready, and are able to use the toilet and put their swimwear back on without adult help. As a swimming teacher, I’ve lost count of the number of times a little girl has come back from the toilet with her costume in disarray – tangled around her legs or slung over the wrong shoulder – and needed help to make herself comfortable again.
My discomfort with having to offer this help is mitigated because I’m a cisgender woman, and therefore perceived as more trustworthy and less suspicious than a male counterpart, but it is still palpable. Often I’m torn between hustling the girl into a corner to protect her privacy, or following the golden rule of child protection: “Everything you do, do openly”.
Both of these choices are problematic. Do I change the child in the open, regardless of her desire for privacy? What about her parents’ wishes, or religious or cultural needs? By shielding her from view, am I inadvertently teaching her that her body is shameful and in need of covering?
I had a bikini aged six or seven, won after much nagging, and I was thrilled. I remember it distinctly. The top was cropped and unpadded. It was elasticated to help it cling to my lack of curves and the bottoms were full enough to cover my buttocks. It was bright blue, with brown leopard spots. The Spice Girls were rocking a lot of leopard print back then and they were my idols. It was very 1990s and in hindsight, revolting, but I loved it. I forget which parent caved and bought it for me.
The only downside to my Mel B wonder costume was that after a full day boogie-boarding at the beach, I had excruciating sunburn on my back. I didn’t worry about my back being on display, with its dense black Mediterranean hair, or about my podgy tummy or chubby thighs. This was pre-hangup me, in a time before I surveilled my appearance prior to going out in public.
I don’t cite myself as an example of how things were “in the good old days,” but rather to show that children’s choices about clothing are not the same as adults’ choices about clothing. They wear their clothes for them. They pick clothes that have their favourite character on them, that they like or strike a chord for them. Most self-identified women lose that art as we grow older and have to re-learn it. For many of us, that loss starts when we are told that our bodies are inappropriate, distracting, or too sexual. In other words, when we begin to be policed ‘for our own good’, we start to police ourselves.
Generally, when an adult person comments on another adult’s clothing choices and asserts that the wearer is making themselves a target for sexual harassment or exploitation, we quickly identify this as victim blaming. We need to identify that element of benevolent victim blaming in our approach to children’s choices as well.
I understand parents and teachers have an understandable urge to protect children from becoming victims of sexual abuse and exploitation in any way we know how. We feel impotent in the face of an unseen enemy, but we can better arm children against this threat by teaching them about consent and bodily autonomy rather thanshrouding them and denying their agency.
A lot of parents, educators and carers are already hitting the mark on preemptive protection by using resources like the Pants Rule, worry boxes, and other measures to help children remember that they own their bodies and have avenues to turn to when their autonomy is threatened. Better to reinforce that by allowing them to choose their own swimwear from the broad range available, than to police their bodies in the hope of keeping prying eyes off them.
Let me put it another way: if you look at a little girl in swimming trunks or a bikini and see something tantalising or lascivious, her swimwear is not the problem, and a one-piece isn’t going to fix it.
Sophie Merrick is a a swimming and lifesaving instructor, with a keen interest in health promotion, based in the Midlands. Sophie is also moderator of the Facebook group, The Positive Feminist. You can find her on Twitter @MerrickSophie or Instagram @sophymerrie.