WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — 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 29-year-old Pleasant Hill mom Katie Sunter, 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:
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,” said Hemmen, who specializes in the psychology and well-being of girls. She’s the author of ” Parenting a teen Girl: A Crash Course on Conflict, communication ans Conection With Your Teen Daughter.”
In response to the tot modeling Goop.com’s black string bikini, with its plunging neckline and low slung bottoms, Hemmen said, “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.”
Or maybe a suit like the one 4-year-old Parmida Vehdat wears as she plunges in and out of the kiddie pool. It’s blue and pink with Hello Kitty faces covering the top and bottom.
The bikini fits and conceals, staying in place no matter how many twirls and dunks she does.
Appropriate? Of course, said her mother, Sanaz Vehdat, 36, of Walnut Creek. “Why not? They look so cute in bikinis.” A few moments later, she said, “Even if you cover the body, the sick people are still going to think their thoughts.”
You also need to learn the appropriate way to talk to girls about clothing and their bodies, Hemmen said.
“You absolutely can’t talk about your weight or how scandalous or revealing clothes are,” Hemmen said. “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 said. “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?’”
Shannon Dorsey, of Concord, Calif., engages her 4-year-old daughter in body talk often.
“We talk about how our bodies feel and who is allowed or not allowed to touch us,” said Dorsey, 42. “If I see another girl in a provocative swimsuit or clothing I might say, ‘She doesn’t have nice manners.’”
Still, Dorsey is pro-bikini because two pieces are the most efficient option when her daughter takes two potty breaks during a 30-minute swim lesson, she said. The top her daughter wears provides full coverage, and so does the ruffled, skirt-style bottom.
Karen Witham, of Oakland, Calif., was “repelled” by some of the bikinis she saw online while looking for a two-piece tankini and rash guard for her 5-year-old.
“I think the bottom line is that they emphasize breasts or create the idea of breasts,” said Witham, 42. “Tiny little tops slipping around on an active little girl is akin to putting her in mini heels like Suri Cruise.”
Healthy body image
Here are five tips from psychologist Lucie Hemmen.
Model a healthy attitude toward your own body. Avoid talks about weight and attractiveness. Instead, talk in terms of health, vitality and an active lifestyle.
Talk about clothes by describing how they look (“I like that color, strap, ruffle”), how they feel (kind of tight) and function (“What do you think will happen when you bend down?”).
Talk about food by using terms of how nutritious and fresh and alive it is, instead of calories or “good” and “bad” foods.
Encourage healthy activities as a family: swim lessons and bike rides. Limit screen time and media exposure. The more media your daughter consumes, the more she develops unrealistic expectations about her body and overall negative body image.
Don’t make appearance-related comments about other people too often. Instead, talk about their other qualities, like what they’re interested in, their activities and what personality characteristics you admire.