When my daughter was in second grade, a major heat wave hit Southern California. Most of the schools near the beach don’t have air conditioning, so when temperatures climb above 90 degrees, coastal San Diego schools shut down at noon. And when that happens, the only reasonable thing to do is head to the beach.
I packed up our beach chairs and towels and headed to the ocean. When we got there, my daughter saw some girls from her grade playing at the water’s edge. As she ran off to her friends I set my beach chair next to the mothers—women I recognized, but didn’t know well.
As our seven-and eight-year-old children dug in the sand and dragged seaweed out of the ocean, a group of young teenage girls set up next to us. The girls, all about 14 or 15 years old, spread out their towels. Then, carrying with them the cloud of drama that surrounds girls that age, they walked in front of us and into the ocean.
Like me, and many of the moms next to me, the girls all wore bikinis, but theirs were slightly different. They were sporting a bikini bottom style that was just becoming popular—the cheeky, or Brazilian cut, which exposes a few more inches of buttocks than the standard cut. This sent off a wave of whispered conversation among the mothers.
“Now that is just inappropriate,” one woman said.
“They’re too young—half their butts are showing!” said another.
The conversation escalated until one of the women proposed approaching these girls—all of whom were strangers—to tell them the reasons why their bikini bottoms were unacceptable.
I kept quiet the entire time because I was surprised to find I disagreed with everything they were saying. My daughter was so young I hadn’t really given much thought to what teenage girls should or shouldn’t be wearing. But I didn’t see what the big deal was. They were at the beach, running around, hanging out with friends—not in front of a screen or wandering around a mall or, worse, drinking or doing drugs. If they felt comfortable and if this was the style of the moment, why should I care what some neighbourhood girls wear?
Then a thought occurred to me. “What about when my daughter is that age? How will I feel then?”
My daughter is 12 now—so that time is here.
Last summer, I was helping her pack for a week at a camp, and the packing list included “shorts—fingertip length or longer.” She tried on every pair of the shorts she wanted to bring, and they all stopped before her fingertips.
“Maybe you just have long arms, like me,” I told her. “I don’t think I have any shorts that long either.” We picked the longest of the bunch and sent her off. When she came home she said it wasn’t an issue. Nobody cared, and she mostly wore jeans anyway, because she spent the day riding horses and taking care of farm animals.
My daughter has her own sense of style—to my delight she takes after me in her love of jeans and flannel shirts—but her two priorities when getting dressed are comfort and T-shirts with references to Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. In the summer, she feels comfortable in shorter-than-fingertip-length shorts.
She likes to wear one pieces and tankinis to the beach, but if her tastes changed to cheeky bikini bottoms, would I tell her not wear them?
If I did, I’d have to be prepared to tell her why.
If I told her there’s something wrong with showing too much of her body, I’d send the message her body is something to hide. By age 13, one survey found that 53 percent of girls are unhappy with their bodies; by age 17 it jumps to 78 percent. I want her to feel joy in her body, to love how it feels to dance and swim and play with her friends, not to focus on hiding and covering.
The other reason I’d tell her not to wear a skimpy bikini bottom is even darker.
The Harvey Weinstein scandal that sparked a long-overdue national conversation on sexual harassment laid bare what most of us already knew: that to be a woman in the world is to be vulnerable, and to see a young girl turning into a woman is to see the beginning of sexual harassment.
The reason those girls on the beach made the women next to me so uncomfortable was because of their own #metoo memories, of overly affectionate PE coaches, of after-school meetings with leering English teachers, of boys who’d never been taught the true meaning of consent.
Teenage girls walk a razor-thin line when it comes to their bodies. Our culture tells them to be thin and beautiful, but not show too much of that beauty. Girls learn that exposed skin is an invitation, a mistake that invites danger, and whatever happens next, the blame lies squarely at the feet of the girl who wore too little.
I wonder how that conversation on the beach would go now that we are finally having a national discussion about consent, about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and the need to change a culture that allows men and boys power over women and girls.
I also have a nine-year-old son. It’s as important to talk to him about sexual harassment and consent as it is with my daughter. It’s a discussion about how to ask for consent, the idea that consent can be taken away at any moment, and the importance of “no”—not a discussion about wardrobe choices.
When thinking about what my daughter wears, it comes to this: I care about my daughter’s behavior, her sense of confidence, and her belief in her body as her own, not where her shorts fall or the size of her bikini bottoms.
This article was originally published online in May 2018.