A few weeks ago, two mom friends and I took our five collective daughters swimsuit shopping. Shopko was having a big sale, and the girls — ranging in age from 10 to 17 — had outgrown their suits since last season.
Our girls all have what I would consider healthy, positive body images. They also have a fierce disdain for “girly” things being pushed on them, as well as a passionate annoyance with their bodies being treated as objects to ogle.
As my daughters’ parent and primary female role model, I have tried to instill in them the message that they are far more than their bodies. I’ve taught them that their bodies are tools that should be kept strong and healthy, but that they don’t need to look a certain way. And we’ve talked together about the messages that we send, purposefully or not, with our bodies and the clothing we choose to adorn them with.
As opposed to an oppressive and sexist push for covering up in case boys can’t control themselves, I’ve encouraged my girls to think about how they want to express themselves, how comfortable they want to be, and then let them choose their clothing accordingly. We’ve treated clothing as a judgment-free choice, but also prepared them for the inevitable societal responses to various choices.
So there we were in the Shopko swimsuit department, looking through girls’ and juniors’ swimsuits that were almost exclusively pink or sparkly and cut to look like women’s suits. Our girls scoffed, annoyed that their options didn’t reflect what they were looking for.
They wanted two-piece suits so that they could easily use the bathroom, but they also wanted something that would cover a good amount of skin so they wouldn’t have to slather on copious amounts of sunscreen. (My daughter recalled horribly sunburned butt cheeks where her suit rode up a bit while she was tubing on her stomach last year.) They wanted suits they could run and jump and play in without worrying about material slipping or shifting or body parts flying out. And they wanted colors besides pink and sparkly.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with pink and sparkly girls’ swimsuits. It’s just not what our girls wanted — at all. Finally, one of them said, “Why can’t we just wear board shorts and sun shirts like the boys do?”
It was a light bulb moment. Um, yeah. Why not?
So off they scampered like bunnies to the boys’ department. The three young animal lovers found matching rash guards and swim shorts with sharks on them. The older two found turquoise and lime green patterns that perfectly suited their preferred color schemes. They were happy.
And we moms were impressed with their willingness both to think outside the box and to go against the marketing machine that had been created for them.
There was one hiccup with their choice that they recognized fairly quickly — the boob issue. A sun shirt without a swim top underneath would likely result in some unintended flashing when jumping into a pool. But they figured a sports bra could take care of that. I knew that other stores sold sun shirts and swim shorts for girls that weren’t all pink and sparkly, but the girls were perfectly happy. They liked what they found in the boys’ section, so why mess with it?
All in all, it was a fascinating example of preference and practicality clashing with patriarchal expectations and societal norms in the fashion world. Many of us have been there before, staring into a dressing room mirror, wondering who decided ultra low-rise jeans that barely cover your pubic hair and don’t let you bend over without bearing your butt crack to the world was a good idea. (Some women might love them, but I found them totally impractical.)
I firmly believe women should wear what they want, but I also believe we need to be aware of what and who influences those choices. Whether we wear a bikini, a one-piece, or a boys’ swim ensemble, the choice should be ours and ours alone.
The girls didn’t recognize the statement they made with their purchases that day, but I did. These young women fearlessly made the choice that was right for them, no matter what marketers, society, or their peers might think of it. As a mother and as a woman, it did my heart proud.