Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie: Papa and the Small Bikini

Filed under: Gay Parenting, Fashion, Opinions

When did I become such a prude? This was the question when Diva and I opened the box of summer clothes sent by a relative -- and I saw the teenie weenie bikini. A napkin's worth of hot pink and orange fabric, its arrival sent my 6-year-old into paroxysms of delight. She squealed; I reeled.

It was just a bathing suit and not even her first two-piece, but this was the real deal -- not a tankini, not a shorts-and-top set, but a bikini with a low rise and a string tie bandeau. She immediately declared that this was a "big kid" suit, unwittingly putting her finger on the very reason her dads were not over the moon about this outfit.

As she wriggled into it, her long and lean build presented a challenge: The suit might scream "big kid" but it sure didn't say "tall girl." The top was a few inches wide at best, which meant it just barely covered her nipples. The bottom had such a narrow rise that you could see the top of her hip sockets.

According to the label, this tiny ensemble was actually a size too big for her. I had to wonder: What exactly did the smaller versions look like? Color-coordinated Band-Aids and dental floss?

The timing couldn't have been more perfect for Diva: This was was the first day hot enough to use our new blow-up pool. Not surprisingly, she wanted to wear her new bikini, and I told her she could, but I only said yes because we were staying at home.

As she splashed around in the water, the picture of exuberant near nakedness, I couldn't help but be glad that we weren't at a beach with crowds of strangers seeing, well, so much Diva.

My visceral response to the bikini prompted a little soul-searching. If I was visiting a country in Scandinavia or Europe where women swim topless, or pausing by a pond in Germany where skinny-dipping was all the rage, I wouldn't find anything particularly scandalous about nudity. And there is nothing inherently provocative about Diva's body, which is that of a child, just a long rubber band in motion. So it wasn't the flesh that bothered me -- it was the bikini itself. And what sense did that make?

When I was in eighth grade, a special meeting was called for the parents of students at the church school I attended. The subject was the dress code, which already prohibited blue jeans and miniskirts. But a new trend had caught on among the girls: sheer tops made of floral-printed gauze, worn with a camisole underneath for modesty.

Some of the men in the church found this look upsetting enough to complain to the principal. At the resulting community meeting, one burly contractor barked, "You can see right through to the bra!" Another man groused, "They're advertising something whether they know it or not."

But my friends -- and my friends were all girls -- didn't take this lying down. A pair of bold sisters turned the tables, one rebuking the adult men for revealing their dirty minds. Her sibling added sharply, "I see flowers here. You see what you want." I cheered them on from my pew, in perhaps the first "You go, girl" moment of my life.

Now, I am the one in the hot seat, the dad who can't appreciate the flowers for the flesh underneath. (Apparently the answer to my original question is that I became a prude when I became a parent.) But it's not a dirty mind that has landed me here. It's that I know too much about our culture and, specifically, the way many men see girls and women, especially ones they don't actually know. And bikinis are part of the equation.

A girl in a bikini is the media's default appeal to straight men, a come-on accepted by manufacturers and consumers alike for decades. From hot rods to razors, if a product can help a dude define his manliness, it is likely to be advertised with the aid of a bikini-clad babe. There's no better proof of this association than the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, which brings in more than $35 million a year. (And, trust me, no one buys that issue for the NHL standings.)

I try to remind myself that these associations don't have to hold. For instance, the bikinis worn by the U.S. women's beach volleyball team will never diminish the players' strengths and skills. But then you see a 5-year-old model dolled up like Jon Benet, standing in a pageant swimsuit pose -- on a parenting website, no less -- while wearing a bikini the site describes as exuding "pin-up girl glam." Talking about a kindergartner as a pin-up? Creepy.

That's the problem. Too many bikinis don't just say "big girl" -- they say "adult woman." They're designed for a woman's curves, emphasizing body parts a child doesn't yet have. Little triangles where breasts would be, deep curves outlining a booty that doesn't exist, packaging for a product meant for adults.

Not every bikini says "va-va-voom," of course, but the basic design tells a whole story about a bias in our culture: Society tells a girl that, to be modest, she must cover up certain body parts, and then steers her toward options small enough to remind guys exactly what they're missing.

Diva will own plenty of bikinis in her lifetime, and it won't be that long before she gets final say for herself. But, for now, she's only 6 and a 6-year-old girl shouldn't have to be thinking about the way grown men will respond to the placement of a few ounces of fabric. But her dads are, and we're not alone in this concern. We went to the beach yesterday, joining thousands of strangers on sun-warmed sand, and, in the span of four hours, I saw exactly two bikinis on girls younger than 12.

Actually, it was the same bikini, twice: a pink polka-dotted affair worn by twin babies not old enough to walk. They looked innocent, adorable and untroubled -- just as girls at the beach should be.

Veronica Rhodes and David Valdes Greenwood alternate weeks writing the Family Gaytriarchs. Look for them on ParentDish every Wednesday.

David Valdes Greenwood has written about marriage and parenting for the Boston Globe and in his first book "Homo Domesticus: Notes from a Same-Sex Marriage." The author of three nonfiction books and the creator of the blog "Diva Has Two Daddies," he also finds time to be a kindergarten room parent and Barbie pretend play expert. Read his blog on Red Room.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.