Beyond Bikini Madness: Parents, Daughters, and Swimsuits

What do I say when my daughter wants to wear the latest sexy swimsuits?

Posted May 23, 2016

steve crane/flikr
Source: steve crane/flikr

Parents, it's almost summer, so it's time for swimsuit shopping. I have a 10 year-old daughter so I know first-hand the fashions and swimwear that are currently being marketed to younger girls. Row after row of padded string bikini tops, cheeky cut bottoms, small suits in styles not much different from what I see in the adult aisles. And in addition to the bikinis, I see short shorts, bare midriff tanks, suggestive slogans on tiny t-shirts… all deemed as trendy for young girls. So what are parents to do when our daughters want us to buy summer clothes that give us pause? Do we just accept that this is the new norm, say “yes”, and hope for the best? 

First, take a deep breath and reassure yourself that it is okay to follow your instincts and say “no” to your daughter when you don’t want to buy into the latest trends. While hot and sexy girls’ fashions are seemingly everywhere and every other parent in your daughter’s social circle may be saying “yes”, it is still your job as a parent to do what you believe is necessary to protect her and shield her from inappropriate attention. While it takes extra effort, there are many appealing options available. Take the time to search them out. Here are some ideas to help you make your decisions about your daughter’s summer clothes and swimsuit choices:

  • Your decision to say "no" is based on her safety. Focus your comments on her safety, and try to explain in simple terms how you are concerned about the ways older people might view her if she wears a particular outfit. I suggest the following type of response that I have adapted from Greenspan and Deardorff in their highly recommended book The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today’s Girls:

Abby, I am not going to buy that swimsuit for you. We have rules in this family, and saying no to suits that look like they are made for much older girls is one of them. Every family has different rules, so your friends’ parents might see things differently. That’s how life works. I’m sorry if it upsets you, but this is the way we do things in our family. The rules we have in place are to keep you safe. Remember, we love you and want you to stay safe. 

  • Your decision to say “no” is based on her comfort. When she is wearing sexy bikinis, short shorts, or midriff baring tops, she will be thinking about managing the clothes (tugging to keep them in place) rather than being comfortable and having the freedom to run and play. Several years ago I taught a class of kindergartners and took the children outside to play. I recall how a group of the girls sat on a bench because they didn’t want to mess up their shoes. One had semi-high heels and said she couldn’t really walk well in them, so she didn’t want to play. So these 5- year old girls sat and stared at their feet while the rest of the class had a wonderful time laughing and running around the playground. The lesson is this: try to keep her all of your daughter’s clothing --including swimwear--simple and comfortable so that she feels free to play!
  • Your decision to say “no” is based on keeping her free from appearance concerns. When you want to tell your daughter “no” but feel unsure about your decision, another thing you can remember is that you want her to focus on being strong and free from concern about how others might be judging her appearance. When you are wearing hot-and-sexy clothes, you are more likely to think about yourself and how you look to others; research shows that when wearing these types of clothes it’s harder to turn this part of your brain off and to focus on other tasks. One of my favorite things about watching my daughter’s recreational 10-year old girls soccer team was that the girls got dirty and sweaty. They fell down, got dirt on their clothes, and kept running. I loved that her female coach made them run sprints and endurance drills at the end of practice in the 100-degree Louisiana humidity. This not only builds character and endurance, but for a few hours per week, the girls on the team were not at all focused on their appearances. They were not self-conscious; they were not worried about what other people thought about their looks, their bodies, or their hair. They were just running, sweating, kicking, and actually having fun. They were acting like 10 year olds! So for as long as possible, do what you can to keep your daughter’s focus on her own comfort and strength, not for how she thinks she looks in other people’s eyes.

Parents, when you feel uncomfortable with your daughter’s requests for clothes, give yourself permission to say “no” to hot-and-sexy swimwear and summer clothing that seems like it was designed for much older teenagers. This may seem countercultural, and you might be the only parent in your social circle making choices that go against the norm. But in your daughter’s not-so-distant future she will likely experience years of self-consciousness and worries about how others are judging her body…why not delay this for as long as possible? It might be hard at times, but allow your daughter to be a child for as long as she needs to be.

For more parenting strategies for building girls’ resilience, see my latest book, Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture (Oxford University Press, 2015).