I’m the mom of two girls, one in middle school and one in high school. Sadly, we’ve been having the same discussion about modesty and what clothing is, or is not, appropriate since they were about eight. But I finally realized that we’ve been having the wrong conversation.
There’s been much debate over school dress codes, and how clothes are made differently for boys and girls over the last few years. There’s been outcry over girls feeling body shamed, called out in front of peers for a peeping bra strap or wearing leggings, receiving detention, being sent home, or even suspended. There’ve also been parents rising up to call out the clothing manufacturers for the grown-up silhouettes being produced for young girls, and explain to school administrators how difficult it can be to find shorts and skirts that meet dress code lengths.
I’ll admit I’ve been relieved that my kids attend a conservative Christian school with a very clear-cut dress code, making clothing debates in the morning a bit easier by being able to say “that’s against the school dress code”. Sadly, though, I realized the message my girls have gotten from teachers, peers, and even me about the “why” behind the dress code has been inconsistent, at best. A recent conversation with my teen daughter and a friend brought to light their growing frustration over feeling like the sole purpose of the dress code was to make sure their male peers were not tempted by their bodies.
As a mom, I felt sad and a bit convicted that I had not done a better job of explaining the purpose behind modesty. It’s a topic that is not always easy to explain, but hearing these girls honestly share their understanding (or lack thereof) based on things they had heard or read, I finally understood what had been lacking in my explanations, and what, in general, is lacking from the conversation as a whole.
I have two daughters, aged 11 and 8. Still young, tender-hearted little girls who play with My Little Ponies and love going to the playground. Yet, in this world where children — especially young girls — are growing up faster and faster, my husband and I have found ourselves dealing with issues we didn’t expect to address so soon. One of these that has reared its ugly head in the last few weeks is the bikini issue.
Last month we went bathing suit shopping.
Yep, that’s right, because I’m cool-like-that. And because I have found that now that my girls are wearing size 10 clothes, finding age appropriate bathing suits is very difficult. For the last several years I ordered them online, but had to exchange sizes almost every time which is a royal pain. So this year we had the joy of buying a case of granola bars, a lifetime supply of sugar-free gum, a tent, and bathing suits all in the same trip. Don’t you love Costco?
But as we approached the bathing suit table, which had at least 10 one-piece styles and only two bikini-styles, my girls quickly honed in on the bikinis and asked if they could get them. I said no.
“Because you’re too young and it’s not appropriate.”
“But little babies wear bikinis, why can’t we?”
“You’re not a baby and you’re not an adult. When you turn 18 you can make your own decisions about what you wear.” Said in my best “because I’m-the-mommy-and-I-say-so” tone of voice.
OK, so maybe that was the lazy answer or coward’s way out. But truthfully, I didn’t feel like the middle of Costco was the right place or time to have a discussion about modesty and sexuality and all the real reasons I’m not a fan of bikinis for young girls. They finally let it go and chose some cute, practical one-piece suits. I thought the discussion was over. Wrong!
Three weeks ago we headed to the beach for our annual family vacation. Each day we went to the beach my kids sought out other kids their age to play with and almost without exception the little girls they found to play with were wearing bikinis. These new friends ranged in age from 6 to 12. As soon as we got in the car on the first day I was hit with the question: “why can’t I wear a bikini? Everyone else is!” Ah, my very favorite rationale to argue as a parent. If you ask my kids they will tell you they are the ONLY ones who have to adhere to the school dress-code policy, don’t have TVs in their rooms, don’t have their own phones, etc., etc. Such depravity! I’ll include the link to donate to their future psychiatric fund at the end of this post.
So this time I decided I would try and nip this in the bud and address the question head-on. I had recently read a number of articles and blog posts by young women (teens and 20-somethings) who explained why they choose modesty when it comes to clothes and swimwear. I had been hoping to find one I could share with my girls, but they all went to some topics that I felt were a little too grown-up. So I knew I was going to have to suck it up and tackle this one on my own. Deep breath.
“Here’s the thing girls…when a girl dresses in a bikini they are no more covered than they would be in their bra and underpants, right? So when boys, and later men, look at girls dressed like this they are seeing a lot more of her body than they normally would..and um…(palms now sweating)…well…when that happens they are focused more on…um…the girls body than her personality or how smart she is and…(oh I’m losing them, I can feel it)…and well, you don’t want boys to only look at you for your body, do you?”
“But I don’t get it! Little babies wear bikinis!” (oh geez, this argument again?!)
“Yes, that’s true, but you’re not little babies. You’re young ladies; and while you might not care if boys notice you (and let’s face it this was really more for my 8-year-old than my 11-year-old who is already way more interested in boys and very close to getting herself home-schooled if she doesn’t cut-back on her talk of boys), if you dress in a bikini people will notice and they will look at your body, and…and…the Bible teaches us that we should dress modestly!” There, phew! I said it! They can’t argue with the Bible, right? Wrong.
“But why does the Bible say that?” Oh gosh. How do I break this down for an 8- and 11-year-old? And why is my husband just sitting there quietly not saying anything!! Maybe if I glare at him hard enough he will jump in here. Nope, not working. He’s looking straight ahead, pretending he’s all focused on driving the car. Who does he think he’s kidding?!
I can’t tell you exactly what came out of my mouth next, but it was a very painful, PG-rated explanation of guys lusting after girls, and how it might make their girlfriends or wives feel, blah, blah, blah. And it ended with my eight-year-old son saying “yeah, I don’t want to see girls in their underwear!” God bless that boy.
The girls finally stopped asking. That day. But I’m pretty sure it’s because they didn’t want to hear their mom’s uncomfortable explanations any longer, not because they really got it. And I was left wondering, once again, where the heck that damn parenting manual was.
The thing is, I believed every word I told the girls. I was trying to give them honest, real answers, in a way that would make sense to their young minds. I do feel like learning modesty at a young age is important. Both because it’s what the Lord wants for us and because I don’t think a girl’s identity should be tied to what her body looks like. And as much as I want to protect my impressionable young daughters from things like body-image issues, and worrying about what other people think of the way they dress, my 11-year-old has been known to come out of her room, hand-on-hip, saying “Do I look cool in this?”, and my 8-year-old has said the dreaded words “I look fat!” (which has now been deemed as a “bad word” in our house).
So obviously, despite my best efforts, they are already thinking about what they look like and how they are perceived by their peers. To them wearing a bikini is a way to be like “the other girls” and be noticed. And even though my girls are being raised to know the Lord and follow His ways, the importance of modesty is a difficult topic for them to grasp. And me…well, I don’t have the magical answer on how to explain it to them. If you were reading this post hoping it would be one of those “and then I said this and everyone nodded their heads and smiled and we all went out for ice-cream. The End.” kind of posts, sorry to disappoint. But my truth is I’m making this parenting thing up as I go along. I’m pretty sure my sad attempt to explain the no-bikini rule in our house did not fully satisfy my daughters and this will definitely not be the last time I hear the question “but why can’t I wear a bikini?” I can only hope that with time, prayer, and practice I will get a little bit better at explaining the answer, my palms will sweat a little bit less, I’ll stop shooting daggers with my eyes at my husband while he sits there silently, and maybe, one day, they will get it. And by “it” I don’t just mean that “this is the rule, get over it.” I mean that they will understand that modesty represents beauty and confidence. That being noticed for your laugh and kindness is more important than being noticed for your tanned belly. And they will make the choice to dress modestly and appropriately for their age, and be happy with that decision.