Bratz to Burqas – where’s the happy medium?

If you want to be really sexy, girls, don't have a nose!

Remember when Abercrombie & Fitch marketed a push-up bikini to eight year olds?  Or more recently when K-Mart Australia allegedly sold thongs that say “I ♥ rich boys” under their girls’ brand?  A lot of moms and dads are concerned about attire available for girls that sends the message, “I’m sexually available.”

For me, a simple bikini falls close enough to that category that I’m uncomfortable with my 8yo wearing one.  I realize it’s in the gray area and I don’t blame parents who buy them for their kids, but to me, part of the purpose of a bikini is to look sexy.  I understand why bathing suits need to be like this, rather than this, for actual performance reasons, but what does the bare midriff achieve other than “hey, look at this bare midriff?”  I would be totally comfortable with my girls being completely naked at a nude beach, by the way, because in that case the exposure isn’t framed as a sexual display. [Edit: you know, I was thinking about this as I fell asleep last night, and realized that it’s far easier to use the bathroom when you’re wearing a bikini.  And that’s not a trivial consideration when you have little kids at the pool. I might be reassessing my stance this year when we shop.]

You may think my hesitation about bikinis is insane, and I would understand.  But I think we can all recall seeing clothing manufactured for little girls that made us cringe.  Maybe “Juicy” emblazoned on a 9yo’s butt bothers you.  Maybe the tartification of toddlers in beauty pageants is your sticking point.  Whatever it is, I’m curious how people draw their lines, and what the implications are for girls.

Because at some point, wanting not to display prepubescent girls as sex objects can verge into demanding “modesty” because girls bear the moral burden for the irrational and creepy reactions other people have toward them.  “I don’t want my daughter to be seen as a sex object when she’s 5″ is rational, and this is clearly batshit crazy misogyny (and misandry!):

If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it..whose fault is it – the cats or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab (veil), no problem would have occurred.

But aren’t they at the opposite ends of the same spectrum?  And somewhere in between is the neighbor who chastises a 12 year old girl for wearing kind of short shorts with her t-shirt, the mom who puts back the Monster High Halloween costume her daughter picked, the Christian boys feeling lust when a girl wears a snug shirt, and the dad who won’t let his 11 year old wear makeup.  Where’s the right place to come down?

And let’s not forget that we never seem to worry that little boys might be sexualized.  Companies don’t make sexualizing or questionable products for boys, to my knowledge.  And if a boy wears a very small bathing suit, people might be put off or think his family is weird (possibly European?), but we won’t be worried that they’re presenting him as an object of sexual interest, will we?  I suspect that comes from the same place as our cultural tendency to evaluate a picture of a guy doing an activity based on what he’s doing, and a picture of a woman doing an activity at least in part on how (un)attractive she is.

I would like to make sure that “I find this item sexually provocative and don’t want my little kid wearing it” doesn’t become “Having a female body is provocative and you have to cover it up, because you bear all the responsibility for the lust you might unwittingly evoke.”

What do you think?

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About Christine

I'm a full-time mother to two kids, an ex-lawyer, a breastfeeding counselor, a skeptic, and (to steal a phase from Penn & Teller) a "science cheerleader." You can e-mail me at skepticalmothering (at) gmail (dot) com.

Posted on January 4, 2012, in Feminism, Parenting. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I think the meat analogy is a poor choice on the part of that author. There is a huge difference between humans and cats, humans have a conscience and self control. A cat acts on instinct, human males are, or at least should be, expected to have some self control.

    As far as the line between appropriate modesty and overkill is, like a lot of parenting choices, a balancing act. I’m not sure where we are going to draw the line, our daughter is only 16 months old, so this isn’t much of an issue yet. I do know that there are no beauty pageants in our daughter’s future (at least not until she is 18 and can make her own decisions). Two piece bathing suits? Maybe. I wore them as a child and the decision was solely based on what I liked, not because i was trying to be like a grown up. But the world was a little different then.

  2. You don’t need to wear a bikini for easier bathroom visits, though. You can use a two piece that’s not a bikini (what I do). I allow two piece suits; I do not allow bathing suit tops that mimic tops meant for women with breasts. I prefer tankinis, rather than cropped tops, to reduce sun exposure, but I don’t think the cropped ones (not shaped cups or triangles) are sexualized.

  3. Thanks for linking my article ( “this is clearly batshit”), it’s appreciated. Of course the Imam’s notion that the girl would not have attracted the attention of men if she were completely veiled is not only batshit, it is also bullshit, as I pointed out in my article The Myth that Veiling Protects Women from Assault, 75% of all the women in Egypt who reported being sexually harassed were veiled at the time.

    Veiled or not veiled, covered up or not, certain men will attack women or children no matter what they wear. However, it seems that the most dangerous countries for women are those in which they are forced to dress modestly suggesting that perhaps keeping men from releasing their tensions through ogling is not a good thing.

    It is interesting to note that rapes have declined significantly in these past few decades in the US precisely at the time when we have exposed our teens and preteens the most to leering eyes. Perhaps we can discuss this revealing trend?

  4. My daughter is 15 now and she is just coming into her own as a sexual being and a person with a body that can be found attractive. She pays attention to what she wears and enjoys wearing “emo” fashions. She likes to look nice and know that people will judge her if her clothing is considered revealing. She wears shorts that are a bit short, but not revealing of “parts”. A friend of ours is often commenting that she should wear longer shorts. After all, there are boys who might be ogling her! The last time this was brought up, her response was “well, that isn’t my problem–what people think when they look at me.”

    I added, “and this is why she takes kung fu classes”.

    I am not in favor of telling my daughter that she should cover up her body because someone could think that she is “slutty”. We have talked about the idea that certain modes of dress will inspire certain reactions and that we wear certain types of clothes in certain places and situations.

    We have always used two piece swimsuits because of the bathroom issue, but she only just wore a bikini in the last couple of years and of course, she has never worn a thong. My daughter prefers bathing shorts because she feels that a “skinny” swimsuit bottom makes her thighs look heavy. She stated only today that she wears her clothes and makeup for herself, not to impress other people.

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