It’s like she knew she was putting me completely on the spot. I’m driving. My guard is down. I never saw it coming.
That’s when our kids know to ask for the things you dread the most, right? Sleepovers, piercings, extended curfew. What I would do when the “big ones” came up had always crossed my mind. I just wasn’t expecting to get popped with my first experience in the hot seat when she was only four years old.
“Mom, this summer, may I please have a swimsuit that’s a top and a bottom?”
A two-piece swimsuit. Jesus please, literally, take the wheel - because we’re still 15 minutes away from home.
Where I live, children’s swimwear is smocked, seersuckered and monogrammed. We’re already practically rebel rousers showing up to the pool with none of these societal stamps of approval in tow. Letting a little girl sashay around in a two-piece bathing suit at the public pool in the South is just “something that isn’t done.” From this vantage point, what’s the rush in maturing your daughter too quickly?
So with that upbringing imprinted on me, my first impulse answer is no. But recently, as I’ve unpacked and re-examined the way I was raised to view myself and the world, I realize that I have choices in how I raise my daughter beyond how it’s been done before and what is standard protocol. I’ve tried to begin exploring pathways to her desires after that first reaction. I needed to stall for time.
I inhaled and went with my new-ish standard response, “Hm, that’s interesting. Can you tell me more?”
“Well, that’s what you wear and I like it. And I like to feel the sun on my skin in the summer. So I want a bathing suit where I can feel the sun on my belly too when I swim. Like you.”
No desire to flaunt herself, impress anyone else or enter a bikini contest. Just a little girl looking forward to her favorite time of year and thinking about what she wanted to wear to enjoy it the most.
Was I maturing her too quickly by letting her have a different style of bathing suit? To me it felt like my choices were (1) allow her to wear something outside of my personal comfort zone but completely modest and safe to her, or (2) deny her the two-piece and give her an explanation that cites traditional modesty rules.
It sounded to me like if I went with option two and said no, that I was maturing her too quickly by implying that her body doesn’t fully belong to her and that her dress and style choices carry a responsibility in how other people respect her. The worst thought in this lineup was a concept in my head that what she wore today somehow started an idea of what her value would be as a wife and mother down the road. “A good girl that marries a good man” in my neighborhood is a girl/woman who practices modesty and feminine behaviors, meaning that the girls who dress and act how they want are somehow less worthy.
Sheesh, what she wears to the pool at age four somehow starts a presentation of the type of person she is and her external value as a future wife and mother? Was I trying to raise a woman who thinks for herself independently or a commodity that’s more precious the less it’s exhibited or enjoyed before its prime?
I couldn’t think of a reason to say no where the root of my answer was not based on patriarchal principles or a notion that my daughter’s string-bean, four-year-old body needed to be tucked away for the future benefit of someone else.
And if I said no now, where do we go from here? Is she allowed to start wearing a two-piece once she’s at an age where the attraction of others is more acceptable? What message does that send to her then?
This internal monologue was getting as long and awkward as you can imagine, so I (finally) exhaled and went with, “Sure.”
We would practice fashion and function. Swim lessons, splash parties with friends and active pursuits do and would require a one-piece bathing suit. Lounging, sunning and wading with Mom on our more leisurely pool days together would be an appropriate space for a two-piece.
I shopped for both bathing suit options alone, finally deciding on a full coverage but fully two-piece bathing suit. (I don’t wear tankinis so I felt like I needed to leave those off the table for her request as well.) We walked into the pool with my jaw a little tight but our heads high, my daughter beaming from ear to ear. She dressed herself and smiled proudly in the mirror with her hands on her hips. She slathered sunscreen on every inch of her back and belly. She triumphantly took herself to pee without the reverse origami theatrics of a clingy, wet one-piece. She basked in the sun on the chaise next to me, her eyes closed and arms behind her head.
By the end of the summer, we had so many fond memories, tan lines and one very pilled size 4 bikini bottom. I had a greater sense that my daughter trusted me to listen to her requests and take them seriously. I’ve always told her she can make her own choices in life, and I’m glad I took the pause to consider this one and rule in her favor. The little two-piece never fully got on my good side, and I challenged myself not to go into an explanation that belittled her choice when I saw other children in swimwear I found to be more traditional. My girl seemed no more grown-up to me in her two-piece, but instead truly more young, free, blissful and uninhibited.
This week, we got a promotional catalog for a beauty store in the mail. As I went to pitch it in recycling, my now five-year-old said in an attempt to sound casual, “Oh that’s for me. I’m keeping that in case I ever decide to get some makeup.” First reaction: Lord please, take this cup from me. But, I know why she loves makeup. She loves fashion, where exciting and artistic makeup is often riding shotgun. She sees me at my vanity, not every day but before my special evenings out, putting some on. It’s expressive, exciting and exotic - not something she’s been told she needs to be pretty or even her best self. Just to play different versions of herself.
Makeup and bikinis by age five. I feel like I need to make my own scarlet letter, and there’s still a good part of me that wants to shun myself. I’m not quite sure where this is headed, how I’ll adapt to the future or where I’ll draw some lines. I know right now that I’m hell bent on deconstructing any rule or advice that suggests she should look, dress, act or exist for anyone other than herself. I am not raising her to be groomed for the expectations of a traditional, patriarchal marriage or to put me in high esteem with my conservative-slated community. The only thing I am focused on is making her trust her instincts and desires so she feels empowered to respond, challenge and change our world for the better. If she wants to do that in a two-piece with shimmer eyeshadow on, I’m keeping myself out of her way.
Read more from Lilly at her family website, OpenHeartedHome.com