The Kiddy Pool: Taking "Sexy" Back

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.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

  • Alan Noble

    So troubling. I agree completely. Needless to say (and yet I will), I will not be buying my little Nora a Baylor Bear’s cheerleading outfit this Fall.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    I’m inclined to agree with most of the sentiment here, but I am curious about some terms. Sexualization, for one. What exactly are we meaning by that?

    In its general sense, any bathing suit that has a top is sexualizing in that it (intentionally or otherwise) emphasizes 1) that the person wearing the suit is not male and 2) the wearer has something sexual to cover up. Female bathing suits, by their nature, are inherently sexual—in the sense that they make a cultural note as to the sex of the wearer. Hairstyles, on this count, can generally be seen as sexualizing as well.

    In this sense, I don’t have any problem with sexualization. I don’t find anything abhorent in people emphasizing their sexual identity (another variously used term) in this way.

    The difference between sexualizing and sexifying seems built around intent. Sexualization may include sexification but is probably most properly the emphasis of sex (wehter male or female) without regard to intent. Sexification (or the making of a person to become sexy) seems directed at modifying a person’s demeanor in such a way that they might be seen as more sexually enticing than would otherwise be the case. The end of sexification then, at least abstractly, is sexual allurement.

    This is why I’m less concerned with fabric-lean swimsuits for my two-year-old than I am with padded tops for eight-year-olds. There doesn’t seem to be any issue either culturally or biblically with sexualization apart from sexification. And since I don’t really see much sexification in skin-generous bathing suits for toddlers, I can’t really be motivated to see it as a bad thing. Just like I’m fine with two-year-old boys running around at the beach in only shorts.

  • Rich

    I have read and re-read this article and I have to admit I am lost. I get the objection to the padded bikini-tops. Adding faux secondary sexual characteristics to an 8 year old strikes me, for lack of a better word, as ooky. (And I’m leaving out entirely the discussion of skin cancer as I think it just confuses the modesty issue (and also vitamin D deficiencies are a real issue.))

    But why do you see an 2 year old girl in a regular bikini as sexy? That seems kinda weird too. Is it also sexy when an 2 year old boy runs around on the beach in just shorts? I think at age 2 my kids probably spent more time running around the beach naked than clothed, and seemed to have a lot of fun doing it.

    I hope I teach my children (male and female) to be modest, and for my daughters I have a particular hope. That they grow up confident and comfortable within their own skin, neither obsessively trying attract attention (sexual or otherwise), nor worrying obsessively about repulsing attention, but happy and comfortable in who they are.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Rich asks the same question my wife did: Why do you see an 2 year old girl in a regular bikini as sexy? She couldn’t actually imagine how you could dress a two-year-old in a manner that would be sexy. It’s a good point. At that age, children are so little developed that they remain nearly sexless, nearly androgynous little creatures.

  • Alan noble

    You’re both wrong but I’m making coffee so I can’t esplain why. Just trust me.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    I mean, if the key is that they’re underdeveloped, I feel like the main problem is that the bras are padded. There’s some false development going on there.

  • http://goodokbad.com Seth T. Hahne

    No, I won’t. Until you deal with this coffee issue of yours, I will not imagine that I am wrong.

    I mean, apart from weird fetishizations (which by their nature are sort of beyond the scope of the average protective interaction from parents), two-year-olds are not sexy* and cannot be made sexy. Even in the strange ritual dolling that goes on in the pageant circuit, the issue is not sexification but some weird kind of objectification.

    In the meantime, I anxiously await some sort of evidence from either you (post-coffee)or the OP that the two-year-olds in bikinis thing isn’t just tilting at windmills.

    *note: no offense to Nora intended.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    That was the worst footnote ever.

  • Alan Noble

    Shoot, now imma about to eat pizza, so it’ll have to wait, but when I reply, oh man, y’all a be like, “oh snap, crackle, and pops! I got told!”

  • Rich

    The suspense is killing me.


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