Boys, Girls, Bathing Suits and Inequality

As I was getting the kids ready for an afternoon of carefree fun at the pool today, my almost 6-year-old surprised me with this question, “Mom, why do girls have to wear bathing suit tops or shirts, but boys don’t?”

I wanted to shout, “Patriarchy!” as I like to blame most things on the patriarchy and I know it would have made Denise proud, but somehow I was pretty sure that response wouldn’t suffice.

It occurs to me now that this may be the first time she’s really had to deal with inequality in the world (or the Puritanical society in which we live). Yes, I know it’s only a shirt (or a bathing suit top), but this may be the first time she’s realized that different rules exist for different people. That’s a pretty big deal.

Back to my story. I can’t recall exactly how I replied (I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t study! I didn’t know there was going to be a test!), but it was something to the effect of blaming “the man” for making “rules” like that. She didn’t think it was fair. I can’t blame her. It’s not.

Later that evening I mentioned her question to Twitter and asked how they would respond. I received an interesting mix of replies.

I think my favorite came from Denise (Eat Play Love) who said, “Tell her breasts make people really really nervous! ;)” I have to agree. That pretty much sums it all up right there!

Emily (Mama Days said, “best answer: men have it easier in basically everything in life ;)” While I tend to agree with this statement, it wasn’t the message I’m quite ready to give to Ava.

Cassie (Cassie Boorn) said, “I totally had a fit about that when I was young. It was my first sign of feminism ;)” I get the feeling many little girls find the notion off-putting.

While Amy (Entertainment Realm) said, “I went shirtless when I didn’t have any boobs i.e. at that age. no biggie.” Interesting. I can recall my little sister toddling around without a shirt when she was 2 or 3, but probably not as old as 6.

InnerWizdom said that personally she wouldn’t enforce that “rule” because she finds it “bogus.” She added that her kids do go topless at the public pool or beach, but not in stores because nobody is supposed to go shirtless there. She also said that she doesn’t know how anyone can explain to a 6-year-old “that adults see their chest as sexual, as something to hide away, even though it looks the same as a boys.” Yeah, I really didn’t want to get into sexuality with her at that point. Also I admire her for not “forcing” her kids to do something just because that’s what society says they should do. I don’t know that I could do that.

So what do you think? What would your response be if your 6-year-old daughter asked you the same question? Would you blame anatomy? Blame the patriarchy? Blame the Puritans? Blame the American prudery (as my friend‘s husband suggested)? Or is the answer: “that’s just how it is?”

Photo credit – Flickr: bunnygoth

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120 thoughts on “Boys, Girls, Bathing Suits and Inequality

  1. I have 3 boys and so I am not sure what I would say to a daughter if she asked me why she had to cover up because I don’t have one. I am sure I would say the same sort of thing to my son if he asked me why he couldn’t wear/do X. Don’t kid yourself ladies, little boys have just as many of the societal rules that little girls do. No sparkles, no “girly” colors, no dresses, skirts, dolls, no long hair etc. And we can all sit here and say, sure my son can wear that too, but the difference is that if a little girl under the age of 7 didnt have a bathing top on not many would comment, but send a boy out in a dress and nail polish at 7 and not only will the parents get comments but the boy will get negative ones as well, (and how is that for his self image?)
    Sometimes I feel that we try to make everything too equal…and yes burn me at the stake for saying it…but as the mother of only boys the inequality that they face right now is incredible…and they shouldn’t have to suffer because of the fight for feminism…they had no part in oppressing women.
    So the reason why little girls wear bikini tops is because their mommy bought it for them. :/

  2. “Sometimes I feel that we try to make everything too equal”

    That appears to confuse “equal” with “same,” although I’d agree that “equal” is a hard concept.

  3. I have to say that for me and my upbringing it was for modesty purposes. but I would not have a problem if boys were made to wear tops. I have 3 girls and all of them wear those wet suit styled swimsuits. I like them cause its easier for potty training and it keeps their shoulders covered (which in our family, we tend to burn there) Plus for me, as I got older and boobs got heavier I like the support of a top.

    So for me, after a certain age I think boys and girls should wear a top. Less chance of sun exposure and developing skin issues later.

  4. Doesn’t saying that both boys and girls should wear tops for skin protection avoid the question? Nonetheless, there are ways to avoid skin damage from sun exposure without clothing (and even without sunscreen).

  5. I find this whole discussion absolutely rediculous – if for no other reason at all, we should want to chothe our children in water or out in public to protect them…from what you ask? All of the predators that are out there watching your children at the public pool/beach/other public arenas. We live near the beach so are there a lot and I have presonally 2 times recently witnessed individuals (adults) photographing children, not their own, at the beach. No matter what your feelings about clothes are, the safety and protecting of our children should come first, and not some feminist agenda.

  6. I think that the bikini tops that they make for small girls only serve to sexualize soemthing that is not there, and would only serve to make pedophiles more aroused.
    When our daughter was small we did not make her wear tops on the beach, because her chest was no different than a boy’s. The best way to protect your kids from all the sickos out there is to never leave them unattended in public places like parks, beaches and swimming pools.

  7. Clothing optional. 2 year old boy already knows that boys have pee pee’s and girls don’t and that older girls get boobs. He loves to be naked and that’s fine by me, same when my little girl is old enough to run around. When she starts getting boobs and asks the question of why those boobs need covering I’ll tell her that a bunch of cooky old fools decided it a long time ago and it’s ridiculous and that covering up the boobs is something we really only do here and that we haven’t done it for that long, that the actual history of humans has women topless and using their boobs for what they are meant for, kids to eat (ever see a bull playing with a cow’s teets? Not likely).

  8. We only have one child, and he’s a 2 year old boy, so I haven’t ever had to get into this yet. But thanks to my fair skin that burns easily, he’s not going to be swimming in just trunks for a very long time. I have a long sleeved swim shirt that he wears along with his trunks. If we every have a little girl, she’ll wear the same thing… so as far as beach wear goes, there won’t be any differences (although I doubt I’ll be able to convince a 15 year old to put on a swim shirt, but I can hope, right? ;).
    On a similar subject, I was at Babies R Us last week, shopping for a shower gift, and I saw a sequined halter top in a 0 – 3 month size. Gotta cover up those boobies, but hey, let’s make em look sexy while we’re at it. Sigh. And we wonder why this country has such issues with public breastfeeding.

  9. Huh. My 6yo girl hasn’t noticed. Or hasn’t said anything. And I only put her in one piece suits anyway. But I’m totally going to start blaming the patriarchy, for everything, from now on. :)

  10. I am a 42 year old man in the Great Lakes Region in the United States. I personally believe, and always have felt this way, that neither males nor females should be topless in public. I believe a truly modest man would not walk around the beach without some sort of top on. I usually wear either a short-cut tee-shirt or a tank-top shirt. I will not allow my sons to be topless anywhere in public. Nor will I allow my daughters to be. I prefer to teach children that even though the rest of the world has become less modest does not mean that it is right & proper. I trully believe that it is not proper for neither a man nor a woman to be topless in public.

  11. Well maybe a good answer might be that one time boys and men did wear tops when they went swimming. In fact often their bathing costumes were one piece covering from their knees to their shoulders.
    Maybe we should come up with a boys bathinng costume that covers move especially for boys and men who might be shy about just swimming in trunks. Simply use masculine colours and men might find the option inviting. They often swim with caps so why not?

  12. Pingback: Crunchy Domestic Goddess » Boys, Girls, Bathing Suits and Inequality : a recycled post

  13. Pingback: Crunchy Domestic Goddess » Boys, Girls, Bathing Suits and Inequality : a recycled post

  14. Somewhat one-sided reaction.
    Look at the picture – which I presume you provided.
    She covers up a bit of her chest which he doesn’t; he has to cover up all of his thighs which she doesn’t.
    Neither rule makes sense but, taken together, they are not sexist.

  15. Call me old fashioned, or what not. (please know I am also an attachment parent here)

    Why are you putting a top like that on your daughter? It’s almost sexualising her? I feel uncomfortable seeing little girls run around in bikinis. I feel uncomfortable due to the sexualised nature, pushing them to look grown up and the lack of sun protection.

    Both my son and daughter swim with rash vests on. And on a few odd later occasions have swum with just their underwear on.

  16. Hi Samantha,
    Thanks for your feedback.
    That is just a picture I found on Flickr. It is NOT of my kids. My daughter generally wears a one-piece bathing suit, although now that she’s 9, she’s been considering a 2-piece.
    –Amy

  17. Hi Amy,

    I didn’t mean it as an attack towards anyone in general, more rhetorical.
    I find it really frustrating when I see little 3 year old girls (even younger) wearing things such as leopard print ruffled bikinis. I think it’s not appropriate on many levels. So I was venting that issue on top of societal pressures on how children, both male and female are ‘suppose’ to behave/dress.

    Sam :)

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