Being a very young kid in Southern California in the 1970s meant lots of beach time. It also meant minimal bathing suit wearing until around the age of 4 or so.
No one made anything of it. Maybe my grandparents had seen everything during the many summers spent in the crush of humanity on Coney Island, and a couple of naked small kids was par for the course. My parents have family photos of one particular beach excursion with visiting relatives, our smartly solar-phobic Great Aunt Lil completely covered up while my sister and I rocked our birthday suits. I love those faded, orange-hued pictures. (A teenager would probably ask which Instagram filter we used.)
That was then. This is now. Americans historically don’t have a laid back attitude when it comes to public nudity compared to say, Europe. But based on a couple recent experiences I had trying to quickly change my kids at public parks, I think our puritanical ways have hit new levels of intensity.
A couple summers ago when we were visiting New York, we took our kids to Brooklyn Bridge Park. It was a hot, sticky day, complete with some playground drama. A girl had a fairly nasty accident in the water feature, which effectively had a centrifugal effect on the other kids, and for which her mother was completely unequipped to handle. We donated our stash of wipes to the cause, thinking that maybe we earned a couple good karma points there. That would not be the case.
While my husband was changing our older son, who was 5 at the time, I was off somewhere with our 2-year-old. When I came back, he was agitated and giving me a “we gotta get out of here” look.
Apparently a dad next to him wasn’t pleased that our son’s privates were briefly flashed on the playground while he was changing from his swimsuit back into his street clothes. “I have daughters,” the man sternly said to my husband, and the anger and tension were palpable. When I helped gather our things, I noticed the mom shaking her head at us, and muttering something about “no respect” under her breath. We left the park shaken, with my husband convinced he’d come the closest to a playground brawl he’d ever been.
So much for what I had assumed was idyllic, progressive Brooklyn. All we were doing was changing him, not instructing him to unleash “Oh! Calcutta!”-inspired antics. Meanwhile, all of the New York friends and relatives we informally polled about the situation assured us it’s not unusual to see very young kids getting changed in parks. We weren’t just being libertine California freaks, after all. That said, we clearly crossed a boundary with these folks, and even if we thought their response was disproportionate to the situation, it was an important reminder of different cultural norms.
Just this past month back in L.A. when I was doing a quick wardrobe switch on my 4-year-old son after a birthday party at Grand Park, one of the rare parks with a water play feature, a private security guard asked that this task be done in the bathroom. We were already mid-change so any offenses were already committed. I took an oversized towel and improvised a dressing room, which is my usual strategy, and one that my boys request since they’re past the phase of zero self-consciousness and the word “privacy” has more frequently entered into the family vocabulary.
Now that beach, swim, and water play season is upon us, I’d love to hear what the hive mind has to say about this issue. Regardless, my children won’t have naked childhood beach pictures to laugh about when they’re all grown up.