A few weeks ago, my preschooler daughter wore her blue, green, and yellow bathing suit all day long, the one with the bunches of bananas print. Mind you, this was in New England, during one of those frigidly freezing spells, and note, too, that she didn’t wear the entire bathing suit–just the ruffle-banded bikini top. “This,” she explained as she put it on, “is my bra.”
She paraded around the house in just her “bra” for an hour or so–until she got cold. Then, she pulled her shirt over that and continued onward. She wore the getup to the co-op and she made sure to show our 20-something housemates the strap peeking out from beneath her shirt.
I will be honest with you: I didn’t even say anything like little girls don’t need bras. I knew that and I knew she knew that. Also, much to the surprise of the mother I was however many years ago when having a daughter was theoretical, or even five years ago when she was an infant, I actually bought this bikini with the ruffle-banded top and the silly banana print. I let her enjoy her undergarment and later, I coaxed her into pajamas and put the bathing suit back in the basket where bathing suits go.
My cursor hovered over the add-to-cart button for a few minutes last summer before I bought the bikini. This wasn’t our first one. The most recent–buried in a box of hand-me-downs–and seized, as her go-to bathing suit for the summer was getting snug enough that she kind of had to shimmy and dance and will it onto her body. I wanted to get rid of it. My moments’ hesitation went something like this: if she had another two-piece bathing suit, letting go of the outgrown one would be easier, and the fact that I preferred her in a one-piece suit really mattered not at all. At 4 (or 5, or eventually, perhaps I will think at any age–not sure) a bikini really wasn’t a grabber of sexualized or objectifying attention–most especially not to her.
To say that’s not where I started is a giant understatement.
My original position was a firm NO BIKINIS for my daughter. That was in theory. In practice the first one arrived in one of the first boxes of hand-me-down clothing, a green and pink one, size 3 months. I separated the suit–the bottom went into the drawer for summer and the top remained in the don’t-use pile (along with the Daddy’s Little Girl onesie and the frilly diaper covers). As she moved from crawling to walking to picking out her clothing, things shifted. She saw that bikini in the hand-me-down pile and she grabbed it. Because I hadn’t edited her choices, we’d moved from NO bikinis to bikinis first and favorite and best.
I didn’t hesitate over that cursor for all that long. The line in the sand (or sometimes, given where we live, snow) wasn’t the one I thought it would be going into this raising a daughter enterprise. Because I’ve been a parent now for a long time (my oldest son is 17), I know that lines in sand and snow can shift, so this decision isn’t necessarily the last one I’ll make on the subject of bathing suits. I know that I don’t go for the asymmetrical or the plunging triangles that cover… nothing, nor do I go for Disney Princess suits. And perhaps to assure myself (or you) that I am a little more controlling than I might appear to be, I don’t take her shopping. I choose the suits, generally. That is, unless, like 90 percent of her clothing, her suits come down the worn-by-older-larger-friends transom.
Whether she is in a dress-up gown or frilly dress or jeans or striped tights and a differently striped dress as she was yesterday, there are things I might read into her clothing that she does not see. And there is, entirely at the same time, the truth that she has a much keener eye on fashion and beauty and perception of beauty developing in her than I want to see. She loves pop music and she applies sparkly lip gloss (a birthday gift) onto her eyelids and she practices makeshift bra wearing (and not, let’s just note, bra-burning).
Last week, we met up with two eighth grade girls–their bikini tops peeking from beneath their tank tops, the rest of their suits underneath shorts–during our Florida vacation week. One was the daughter of a friend and my girl asked all day long when the hour they were scheduled to come babysit would finally arrive. She absolutely knew their cool could–eventually–become hers.
I am sure their mothers see their innocence and their more sophisticated (or aiming to be so) awareness, too. In this culture that so pervasively overvalues female appearance, all girls dance this dance or must go to great lengths to avoid dancing. Adolescent girls’ self-consciousness stirs something visceral in me: memories that don’t have words or even images, but more so sensations–a sense of failure and hope and wonderment and unearned, incomprehensible power. I am re-seeing the dance as a mother focused now upon how what I wish and what my daughter wishes are not necessarily the same and how there’s so much to navigate–from the playful fun of the preschool “bra” to the stuff I would like to shield her from and better still eradicate from society.
What’s easy, and almost unavoidable, is to flash forward and to worry. It’s hard to hold to the present–sometimes a banana print bikini is just a banana print bikini if you let it be–and still remember that it isn’t. The banana print bikini on a rack filled with other bikinis carries a cute message that morphs into another message over time, and the shift is practically invisible, like lines in the sand (or snow).