Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sociological Observations about the Swimsuit Season

This is a short pictorial to go with my article in The Natural Mother Magazine. This is not a thorough review, but just a brief introduction to the underpinnings of media images that our children might be quietly internalizing.

My daughter is 5 and starting to move into the next stages of human development. She has also outgrown the toddler department in most stores. We visited Target the other day and I was disappointed in the offerings for children her age.


The girl and boy photos in the children's department at Target

Some quick notes on these photos:

The girl has her knees slightly bent and foot turned inwards, a sign of being subdued, meek, hesitant. Typically, when advertising is directed towards men, the female has her chest forward. When advertising towards other women or in this case, young girls, a non-threatening stance such as slumped shoulders, folded arms or inward feet is taken instead.

This speaks to the underlying message in our culture that girls are not supposed to be strong, staunch, forward moving, leaders. She is looking away, again more passivity. Her arms are behind her, wrapped around a surfboard. Her purpose is to stand there and her worth is in being admired by others.

Meanwhile, we see a doer in the male. It's common in gendered media directed at children to show the boys in active play and the girls in passive play. He is strong. His shoulders are set back, his legs apart and feet forward. He has a bandaid, a sign of his ambition and activity. Even his shirt speaks of his power. Interestingly, as a reader pointed out, he holds a lifeguard device as if to rescue the girl with the surfboard.

I quickly scanned the racks. The boy rack showed long shorts down to the knees and matching rashguards with short or full sleeves. I turned to the girl rack. It was filled with a variety of 1 pieces and 2 pieces, but all of them had lace, frills and straps. If any of the bikinis had bottoms with more coverage, it was only a "butt hugger" short style. The primary rack had no sun coverage options.

Girl and boy rack comparisons

I walked into the actual girl department and saw a smaller, secondary rack of additional swimsuits. On the back of it, down at the bottom, was the one sun coverage option available in her size. It had a black and pink shirt which was cute. But, it still came with underwear bottoms and a strappy bikini top!

One coverage option, on the back of a smaller display (almost sold out, too!)

Whether intended by Target or not, when viewed by children receiving messages from social media and the culture all around them, the message was clear. Girls sacrifice their health in the sun to be looked at by others. Their purpose is to be admired by others, to show off their body for others. Careful discussion with my 5 year old confirmed that she received the message loud and clear. We will definitely be dialoguing more on this so that she is more aware of the subtle messages being sent to her.

Talk to your daughter before the industry does:




  1. yup. this is why i had to order my daughter's clothing from euro retailers. this is just the junior version (not very junior, really!) of the gender-disparate advertising that is used by places like american eagle...so discouraging.

  2. This is why my daughters think shopping online is our only option. :( On a practical level, I love the swim skirts and shirts we got from Coolibar. They come in different colors/prints (even blue... gasp) that my girls liked, have long and short sleeve shirts that actually cover their bellies, and the skirts have enough coverage that the girls can wear them on our walk to the park as their clothes and I don't feel bad about it at all, but they have also worn them for swimming lessons and they're easy to swim in. They also have actually long swim shorts for girls! Everything seems expensive, but ours have lasted two full seasons so far with little sign of wear.

  3. I'd let my daughter swim in her clothes before I put her in a bikini. I cannot stand them. CHILDREN need UV Protection regardless of their gender and they do NOT deserve to feel like they're only as valuable as what someone would PAY for them.

  4. Gymboree has a fairly good mix of options for girls from 2 pc tankini's and 2pc rashguard top short and long sleeve with a typical bottom as well as the usually one piece options. I have always used the rash guards but my daughter is so slim that the bottoms never fit. So while I have a girls rash guard for her. I also picked up some of the boys knee length trunks 2 sizes smaller. She LOVES them. She is almost 3 and goes out to play in the water daily. She doesn't know the difference, and her boy cousins (8 and 7) thought it was pretty cool because they picked out the big kid option of the same print and liked it that they matched her shorts.