Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
Back in March, the ever-popular and over-priced retailer Abercrombie and Fitch released padded bikini tops for girls as young as 7 or 8. The tops, typical triangle-style, sold separately from the bottoms for $24.50 (bottoms cost an additional $19.50). I guess I missed the big reveal because I wait until it’s actually swimsuit season and everything is on sale. But this release triggered parental outcries that reverberate into the summer months; some folks argue that the bathing suit’s padding pushes the boundaries of childhood sexuality too far, while others dismiss that warning with the claims that girls like to play “sexy” and parents aren’t obligated to buy the products.
Set aside for a moment the implications of sun protection and cancer prevention; I don’t agree that this product is in any way appropriate for a little girl (and yes, that’s how I still consider 7-8 year olds), but it’s not terribly different from the equally immodest, if more ruffled, options marketed to me for my toddler. I’m not obligated to buy those teeny-weeny, sometimes polka-dotted bikinis either, but they still limit my choices and condition my not-yet-two-year-old daughter about her expected cultural role. Girls like to play “sexy” because they are bombarded with images and messages that align female cultural capital with sex appeal. “Sexy,” like sex itself in this culture, often neglects intimacy, maturity, wisdom, and even safety.
A few days after its release, Abercrombie backtracked (a little)—claiming the suits were not appropriate for girls under 12, and at this point, I can’t find the padded tops on their website at all. I’m just unconvinced that the padding, more than any of the other itty-bitty options out there, really transgresses some standard of childhood innocence to which our culture pays lip service. Let’s face it: there are lots of opportunities for immodesty and sunburn for females of all ages. This summer, my little one will be rocking the beach in long sleeves and boy’s trunks with turtles. The suit provides comfort, convenience (hey, diaper changes), and, yes, coverage. Because turtles are super cool, but skin cancer and sexy toddlers are not.