“Why do you want a bikini?” Carrie asked. They were not ready for this request.
“I just…want to know what it feels like.”
Carrie travels often for work. Occasionally, their company has them drive rather than fly, due to red tape and cost. One of the places they drive to is a coastal tourist town two hours away. I couldn’t go, but Carrie decided to take the kids. Youngest, our 8-year-old, needed a new swimsuit, because, well, children need a new size of clothing every 6 months.
Far be it for us to tell her what to wear on her body. They agreed she could pick the swimsuit she liked best and try on bikinis if she wanted to, when I woke up.
Off we went to Old Navy. At first, she didn’t want me in the changing room. I had to explain she’d need help putting them on, and promised to turn around. Straps and tops and bottoms were more complicated than she’d planned. Eventually, she quit caring if I turned around.
I’ve heard moms of toddlers talk about how baby bikinis are such a blessing. They make swim diaper changing a snap and are easier to remove for potty training kids. I hadn’t ever thought of that when my daughter was little. I had always associated bikinis with “the bikini body” – a sexualized image with just enough fabric to cover what can’t be shown on television. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, when comically ballooned “jugs” were all the rage, where bottoms scooped well below the belly button and legs were elongated with almost waist-high side straps. I remember being my daughter’s age and thinking, next year I’ll lose enough weight to wear a bikini. I thought that every year until my 30’s. Now, I don’t care.
I hadn’t thought my parents wouldn’t want me to wear one. I don’t think my parents even knew. But I was keenly aware of my imperfections – my bulging “lower” and “upper” tummies that split at my belly button from where elastic bands would cut me in two. My height was short, but my weight was heavy in the days of high-waisted jeans. I also have permanently disfigured toes from being too afraid to admit my shoes were too small. Unlike other kids, I tried my best not to wear them out. I knew I wasn’t perfect – but I tried so hard to be. Maybe, if I could be a little perfect, I could make up for the imperfect. If I did what I was told, if I didn’t complain, if I complied, maybe I could land somewhere just above not good enough.
Youngest has been home schooled for the last year. She’s not around other kids who can pick on her. She doesn’t have to have the nicest clothes or a perfect body or well-off parents. She can just be herself. We like it that way. But she does watch some children’s programming on Netflix and Hulu. She did look at her own tummy, free of a fold at the navel, and recognized it hung over the bikini bottoms. She felt exposed. I refused to let shame win.
“That looks cute!” I gushed. She smiled. “It has a lot of straps, though. Will it be okay if Daddy helps?”
“No, I want to try another one. I want to do it myself.”
Finally she tried on a tankini, which she liked, but which was also almost $15 per piece. $30 for a tankini vs. $15 for a bikini. It didn’t seem fair – she’ll only fit into it this summer. We decided to try Target and if we couldn’t find one we liked come back.
Target’s selection was better. I let her choose – pink skirts, bikinis, tankinis. As we headed for the changing room, something rainbow caught my eye. I snagged a one-piece with a scene of a unicorn galloping through the waves, a rainbow in the backdrop. She has a thing for rainbows and unicorns.
Again we fought straps and skirts and criss-cross backs. Finally, she tries the unicorn on. It’s nothing special, just your typical tank suit. She fell in love immediately, and the price was reasonable.
I have to admit, I didn’t want her to wear a bikini to the beach. It’s not that I don’t want her to have agency over her body or clothing choices. It’s that I know our culture, and I know what kind of awful people there are out there. I occasionally run into their awfulness on the Internet. It’s also that I know my kid. It wasn’t just a bikini she asked for:
“Can I get a tan when we’re at the beach?”
“Why do you want a tan?”
“Boys like girls with tans!”
And there it is. My 8 year old, already keenly aware that she’s supposed to be for the male gaze, and is not currently good enough for it. It’s funny how our kids learn things without us telling them, even when we try to shield them from it or teach them otherwise. We need to read between the lines, the way they do.
I’m not a perfect mom. I’m not a perfect feminist. I’m not even all that great of a person a lot of the time. But I do know that I love my children, and I want them to have as much personal agency and freedom as they want, provided they want it for the right reasons. In this case, guiding my daughter to discover what she really wanted, as opposed to what she thought she wanted, was the right call. How do I know?
“I don’t think I want a bikini, Momma.”
“Because the unicorn can’t fit on one.”
Of course, it rained the whole time they were out there. Such is life.