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Yay Or Nay: Bikinis For Your Young Daughter

Written by Kate MacLean

Photography by Photo Via Goop

There are historical art references to bikinis dating back as far as Ancient Rome, but for our modern purposes, the controversial bathing suit was invented in 1946 in Paris (of course). The designer, Louis Réard, said of them, “Like the [atom] bomb, the bikini is small and devastating.” He reportedly bragged, too, that a bikini was not a true bikini “unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring.” The inventor clearly thought of his creation as an apex of sex appeal through fashion.

But, the 1940s were a different time. This was a world when women were still encouraged to exclusively wear long and modest dresses and skirts. Pants were daring, or worse “unfeminine”. The bikini had so scandalized the world that many towns and beaches banned them. It wasn’t until movie stars like Brigitte Bardot started wearing them with such public visibility that they eventually worked their way into the mainstream.

Today, most cultures have moved past the shock of the bikini, and it is now an $800 million industry in the U.S. With an item that has become so ubiquitous at beaches and pools, it is no wonder that eventually this trend would shift to our offspring. And yet, just as women faced criticism a half century ago for sporting the two-piece, now the public wants to critique their daughters and granddaughters for following suit. When Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop launched a kid swimsuit line in 2013 in collaboration with Melissa Odabash, she came under tireless criticism, accused of sexualizing young girls with provocative clothing.

The clothing—the bikini—was originally intended to be provocative (or “devastating” in the words of its inventor). It accentuates the breasts in a way that the one piece isn’t able. With kids who haven’t yet hit puberty the question lies: Is this morally okay? Is it okay to draw attention to a young girl’s body? Or, more pointedly, is it okay for her to “allow” this attention? Is it okay to sexualize her by showing more skin? If we allow them to dress like grown women, do we (or more fearfully, others) expect them to act like grown women, too?

Many people are deeply upset with the kid bikini, and parents often have a gut response of “no” to the garment. One such parent wrote an op-ed for PBS describing the moment her daughter got her first bikini. The mother was adamant that it was inappropriate—that she was too young. She was given pause, however, when her friend wrote her this: “I think giving her the power to choose what she feels good in is a great gift. Do you want her in a string bikini top? Probably not. But, if you harshly restrict a wardrobe choice such as this, which is probably just an inkling from a little girl who wants to wear cute swimsuits like her friends (or her mother), she’ll ask why. And, in the answer, even from an awesome, feminist parent like you, lies a smidgen of shaming. And, we only do this to girls.”

Both arguments hold water. Do we want to perpetuate the tradition of body-shaming women by not allowing girls to wear what they want? By insisting to them that their chosen dress is inappropriate or provocative? On the other side, do we want to encourage young girls to dress like grown women? Where does one draw the line between bikinis on a four year old and make-up on the same young girl? And, why? We are torn and we want to hear from you. Bikinis for your young daughter: Yay or Nay?

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