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Little girls in bikinis: Inappropriate or much ado about nothing?

  • Contra Costa Times
  • Published Monday, July 15, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Five steps to a healthy body image

Here are five tips from Santa Cruz, Calif., psychologist Lucie Hemmen to help prevent young girls from developing a negative body image. Hemmen is the author of “Parenting a Teen Girl: A Crash Course on Conflict, Communication and Connection with Your Teen Daughter” (New Harbinger; 2012).

1. Model a healthy attitude toward your own body. Take care of it. Avoid talks about weight and attractiveness. Instead, talk about your body in terms of health, vitality and an active lifestyle to counteract the media’s message that your body is for attracting attention (namely, from men).

2. Talk about clothes the right way. Describe how they look (“I like that color, strap, ruffle”), how they feel on your body (kind of tight) and function (“It’s pretty darn short. What do you think will happen when you bend down?”).

3. Talk about food the right way. Use terms of how nutritious and fresh and alive it is, instead of calories or “good” and “bad” foods.

4. Encourage healthy activities as a family. Take swim lessons and bike rides, and limit screen time and media exposure. The more media your daughter consumes, the more she develops unrealistic expectations about her body and overall negative body image.

5. Be aware of what you say. Don’t make appearance-related comments about other people too often. Instead, talk about people in terms of their other qualities, like what they’re interested in, what activities they do and what personality characteristics you admire.

— At the Clarke Swim Center in Walnut Creek, children splash and belly-flop away a Friday afternoon under the sun. The girls in this 10-and-under crowd are wading in the pool wearing all the ruffles, sequins and neon colors currently trending in swimwear. Some wear one-pieces. Some wear bikinis.

And every parent has an opinion about it.

“I don’t let my little girl wear a bikini,” said 29-year-old Pleasant Hill mom Katie Sunter as her 7-year-old somersaults in a striped, rainbow one-piece she picked out at Old Navy. “She’s too young. What’s the point in showing all that skin?”

Girls have been wearing bikinis for decades, but a recent wave of skimpy swimsuits made for 4- to 8-year-olds by Zara, Dolce & Gabbana and Melissa Odabash (for Gwyneth Paltrow’s e-commerce site, Goop) has reignited a cultural argument: In a society where women are sexualized at younger and younger ages, are two-piece bathing suits inappropriate for youngsters, or are we making a big deal out of nothing? Some people argue that the very conversation is the problem, that by talking about it, we are teaching girls that what they wear can lead to sexual victimization. Parents and child advocates say it really depends on the suit.

To promote a healthy body image, Santa Cruz clinical psychologist and mother Lucie Hemmen says girls should wear swimsuits that feel good, look good and function well.

“If your booty cheek is hanging out, it probably doesn’t function well,” said Hemmen, who has two teenage daughters and specializes in the psychology and well-being of girls.

In response to the tot modeling Goop.com’s black string bikini, with its plunging neckline and low-slung bottoms, Hemmen said, “When I see people making unnecessarily sexualized clothes for little girls, it makes me disappointed. I think most little girls would rather be in something pink with ruffles, sparkles and a mermaid on it.”

Or maybe a suit like the one 4-year-old Parmida Vehdat wears as she plunges in and out of the kiddie pool at the Clarke Swim Center. It’s blue and pink with Hello Kitty faces covering the top and bottom. The bikini fits and conceals, staying in place no matter how many twirls and dunks she does.

Appropriate? Of course, said her mother, Sanaz Vehdat, 36. “Why not? They look so cute in bikinis.” A few moments later, she adds, “Even if you cover the body, the sick people are still going to think their thoughts.”

Selecting a swimsuit that you feel is appropriate is not enough, Hemmen said. You also need to learn the appropriate way to talk to girls about clothing and their bodies.

“You absolutely can’t talk about your weight or how scandalous or revealing clothes are,” Hemmen said. “It can stimulate anxiety, insecurity or shame in a girl that doesn’t have any of that.”

Instead, talk about bodies in terms of health, good eating and exercise.

“Talk about how good it feels when you treat it well,” Hemmen said. “Talk about the powerful things it lets you do, like hike and dance. If you want to talk about skimpy clothes, do it in terms of function, like, ‘Hmm, that skirt is really short. What do you think will happen when you bend down?’”

Shannon Dorsey of Concord, Calif., engages her 4-year-old daughter in body talk often.

“We talk about how our bodies feel and who is allowed or not allowed to touch us,” said Dorsey, 42. “If I see another girl in a provocative swimsuit or clothing, I might say, ‘She doesn’t have nice manners.’”

Still, Dorsey is pro-bikini because two pieces are the most efficient option when her daughter takes two potty breaks during a 30-minute swim lesson, she says. The top her daughter wears provides full coverage, and so does the ruffled, skirt-style bottom.

However, the majority of girls’ bikinis she’s seen at stores this summer? Totally off-putting.

“The tops are really tiny triangles or halter with a one-shoulder strap, which isn’t even practical,” Dorsey said. “It just looks like they took an adult woman’s swimsuit and shrank it.”

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