A video featuring moms in swimsuits talking about moms in swimsuits has gone viral. While its message that mothers should feel good about their bodies is important, the implication that bathing suits are the path is problematic at best.
The video is the most recent—and perhaps most comic–example of this argument, but pieces have circulated in recent years calling on moms to suit up at the beach. The popular blog Scary Mommy published a post titled “Put On That Damn Swimsuit.”
I’m here to call baloney on the whole enterprise. First and foremost: It is not individual women’s decisions to avoid bathing suits that’s the problem, but the culture of shame around women’s bodies that underlies it. The shame is the problem.
Yes, for some, donning a bathing suit in public may be a radically transformative act in itself. But why should women wear bathing suits to the beach?
Mothers are saddled with the expectation that autonomy is limited, that our bodies and lives are never our own. For mothers who have carried and birthed children, the body has been overtaken. That is the price of the ticket, as they say.
Many mothers (yes, I’m painting with a broad brush) engage in a near-constant, and certainly disproportionate, stream of body labor: rocking and feeding children in the night, changing diapers, carrying and holding and bringing comfort. And there is joy in that, at times, and responsibility and a low-lying, constant exhaustion, built upon years of fatigue. But it is needs are constant, its demands unending.
There is a point at which one must say “enough,” and make boundaries. Setting boundaries involves making decisions about parenting, work, life, balance, and the body. And yes, some of these decisions are sartorial.
For some, the sartorial boundary means highly conservative attire, and this is a legitimate choice, whether for religious or cultural or personal reasons. To whom is one owed the sight of one’s unmasked skin? For others, that assertion could mean wearing pasties and a thong, to which I say: “Yes, you do you.”
Now, I do wear bathing suits, sometimes—a racerback swimsuit sometimes, when I’m called upon to enter the community pool with my child, an eager if struggling swimmer. I wear bikinis when I’m feeling particularly good about my body and am interested, for whatever reason, in showcasing its flawed beauty to a wider audience.
These are my decisions. They have nothing to do with my child. So I’m troubled by the expectation that I should suit up in the service of the boychik. In 2014, in a widely-circulated Huffington Post piece, Jessica N. Turner laments the phenomenon of mothers remaining on the sidelines at the beach owing to bodily shame. At “…the end of the day, it is not just about me,” Turner argues, “It is about my kids.”
Here is where I draw the line. I’ll be damned if I wear a bathing suit because of some imagined trauma my failure to do so will inflict upon my child. I have oriented my life, my work, my sleep schedule (or lack thereof) in service of an inherently ungrateful child. Now, I love my child as I love my own life, but there is not one more thing I will be called upon to do for his sake.
I bear two distinct responsibilities at the beach: to ensure safety and provide for fun. I can do this as easily in a dress, caftan or pair of overalls (if I wore overalls) as I can in a bathing costume. I have no obligation to wear Lycra.
And if the notion that all mothers should wear bathing suits in the service of their children’s psychological health is preposterous, the idea that we must do so as a means of relinquishing bodily shame is patently absurd.
The shame that many women feel about their bodies in a misogynistic culture is real and I decry it, but is wearing a swimsuit going to make women safe to walk down the street at night? Is a swimsuit going to insulate against sexual and gender violence, all the gross indignities that they and non-binary people experience every day? No, it is not.
Every time I dress, I make a silent calculation, measuring the question: How will this article of clothing play into my sense of safety?
To be sure, some mothers cover up at the beach because of shame, and I could, I’d wave a magic wand and strike every ounce of shame that any woman ever felt about her body from the earth.
But it wasn’t the mother who created the culture of shame, it wasn’t the mother who built systems that oppressed and excluded and compromised and violated the safety of the majority in the service of the entitled few. It wasn’t the swimsuit that instilled the shame, and it isn’t the swimsuit that’s going to undo it. And there are forces at work deeper than shame. The shame never acts alone.
Some mothers cover at the beach to protect their body from the sun or the male gaze, or both. Maybe it’s rooted in shame or maybe it’s rooted in modesty. But to my mind, the decision to wear or not wear a swimsuit belongs to the wearer, and we should respect her demand for bodily autonomy. This is the what we should be teaching our children, the very thing we should be striving for.
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.