Bikinis and Bodily Autonomy


A few months ago, my daughter said she wanted to get her ears pierced. She mentioned it very casually, in the same way you might say ‘my favorite color is blue.’ This is, I assume, a normal and age appropriate request for a 6-year-old.

I responded with a series of stuttering sounds after a few seconds of stunned silence. And then I said ‘no.’ And she said ‘why?’ And I said ‘you’re not old enough’ and changed the subject. This is, I assume, a normal and age appropriate reply for a 36-year-old.

On the first beach day of the summer, she eyed her peers closely and upon inspection of the general trends announced to me that she wants a bikini. She didn’t even bother to ask. She seemed to feel it was a foregone conclusion.

And I said no. And she said why. And I said we can talk about it later. And she said, well YOU wear one. And I pretended to be enthralled by a seagull flying overhead. She knows I hate seagulls.

On the second beach day of the summer, I wore a one-piece instead of a bikini. And when she again declared her desire for a new suit, I said no.

And she said why. And I said because it’s not practical what with the sand and sunscreen and such. And she said well YOU wear one. And I said…DO I THOUGH?! and I did a Vanna White gesture over my bathing suit. And then pretended to be enthralled by a seagull flying overhead.

Like everyone, even those who won’t admit it, I am bumbling blindly through parenting. I am doing my best, with a lot of help from Dave and from my sisterhood and from my critical thinking skills, but I always feel like I’m one freak-out away from my kids needing intensive therapy for the rest of their lives. I live for and live in the gray area. The moderation zone.

In all that gray moderating, though, I’ve taken a hard line on bodily autonomy.

My children do not have to hug anyone if they don’t want to. Not me, not my mother, certainly not a stranger or distant relative. They don’t have to give a kiss to appease the egos of adults.

I don’t choose my children’s clothes. Beyond what is weather appropriate, it’s up to them.  They choose things that don’t match and aren’t cute and that I don’t actually like. It’s not about me.

My children don’t have to eat ‘two more bites’ if they say they are full. They can have a snack right after lunch if they say they are hungry. They determine what their body needs.

I don’t teach my children that they have to mind the words of adults. They have to respect adults, and kids and the elderly and dogs. But being an adult in and of itself is not something to be deferred to. Obedience with out discernment teaches them to distrust their instincts.

I want my girls to feel empowered and entrusted and unencumbered. I want to be the first in line to tell them that I trust them to make their own choices about their body and the way they present themselves to the world.

Except…the earrings. And the bikini. In other words, my stance on their bodily autonomy is grayer than I had thought. Less clear than I had hoped. As I said, bumbling blindly.

As I said, bumbling blindly.

To a 6-year-old girl, a bikini is just a fun, new kind of bathing suit. With different straps and belly button freedom and a grown up feeling.

To a 6-year-old girl, earrings are an adventure, a rite of passage. They are sparkly and decorative and feminine.

To her 36-year-old mother, the earrings and the bikini are examples of the way our culture sexualizes girls and asks them to grow up fast while somehow remaining young forever and positions them under the male gaze before they could ever understand the consequences of what that means.

And the problem is that neither one of us is wrong. Some things are fun and pretty and whimsical and exciting. And the same things can be complex and damaging and nefarious.

I lay in bed at night with ghost of her as an infant sleeping on my chest, weighing the virtues of fully relinquishing my perspective on her choices and surrendering to trust while simultaneously contemplating the dark external forces that influence her preferences and mold her impressions in a world that isn’t set up to let women live in peace and safety.

On a related note, I don’t sleep much.

On Amazon they sell sheets of stick-on earrings like we used to wear in the 80’s. They’re sparkly and come in heart shapes and star shapes. You can choose the one that matches your mood or your outfit and enjoy them until they inevitably get caught up in your hair and fall out, which usually happens right around the same time you forgot you were wearing them.

As it turns out, a tankini gives some of the same satisfaction of a bikini. The two pieces, the fun straps, the more grown up feeling. But it’s child like and covers places you don’t want a sunburn, so there’s that.

She lays in bed at night thinking about the games she played that day, laying in a nest she made of stuffed animals, wondering if she can convince me to buy Lucky Charms, with her knobby knees and bruised shins curling up under her.

She sleeps just fine.

3 thoughts on “Bikinis and Bodily Autonomy

  1. Bumbling blindly right along with you sister!
    Bikini – check, ear piercing – check, neon orange top with sequins (a hand-down from someone who obviously hated me) – check. Lots of “you are not old enough”s, “trust me on this”s and the rest of it. Totally frustrating on both sides, hers because “is that the best explanation you’ve got?” and mine because “it’s not but my heart weeps to break your innocence this young” and on and on we go.
    What I did notice though, raising my daughter in NL, the parents of her friends seem to have a much more lax approach to all of this, in a sense that they let the bikini and earrings be what they are to her (as you nicely put it) and fight the good fights on interactions and behaviour rather than objects. I had many a conversation where they told me, in those words, that it is all going to be OK and I should read American sources less :). And I guess since Dutch kids come out year after year as the happiest in the world (cheese and chocolate on bread people!), and have the lowest teen pregnancy rates and the rest of it, they must be doing something right.
    And they sure seem to sleep a lot more than I do :).

  2. I was DYING for pierced ears throughout my childhood.. and my mom said, “when you are 18” which KILLED me. Then, I turned 18, and, to this day, I am secretly proud to be one of the only people I know withOUT pierced ears (well.. along with my sisters who were in the same boat at me).

    Clearly, V has a great role-model who she wants to be just like.. earrings, bikini, and all! 😉


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