My four-year-old daughter is naturally curious. She has asked me before why she, a girl, has to wear a bathing suit that covers her top and bottom, while boys only need to cover their bottom. I've answered with basically "that's the way it is," and it has satisfied her so far, but I am sure that at some point soon a more explanatory answer will be required. My parenting philosophy involves as much truth as possible; so, since the answer as to why she needs to cover her torso at the beach is a bit complex, I decided to start working on my response now. Here’s my imagined conversation with my six year-old daughter:
Daughter: Daddy, why do I have to wear a bathing suit with a top, when boys only have to wear something that covers their bottoms?
Me: Well, it's a bit complicated. You see, it all starts with secondary sexual characteristics.
Daughter: What are those?
Me: Secondary sexual characteristics are anatomical features that distinguish the sexes, apart from the primary sexual characteristics, namely the genitalia (vaginas on females and the penis and testes on males). While girls and boys are born with the primary sexual characteristics, they are otherwise anatomically similar until puberty, when the secondary sexual characteristics begin to appear. These include things like facial hair on boys and breasts on girls.
Daughter: Umm, OK. . .
Me: Hang in there, I told you this was going to be a bit complicated. Now, you see, even though these features are called "sexual characteristics" there is nothing inherently sexual about them. Facial hair on men, for example, is not generally involved in coitus, and a smaller waist-to-hip ratio on women is simply a mathematical measurement.
Daughter: None of this has anything to do with why I have to cover my nipples when I go swimming.
Me: I’m getting there, really. You see, while animals have sexual characteristics that they aren’t ashamed of hiding, and even many human cultures do not see anything wrong with displaying their sexual characteristics, we civilized humans have determined that primary sexual characteristics (genitalia) are inherently unfit for public view, as well as some secondary sexual characteristics.
Daughter: Wait a second, that doesn’t make any sense! Why should I even have to cover my genitals? I mean, the vast majority of the time I’m not doing anything with my vagina - it’s just there. And when I do use it, it’s for peeing. It’s not like I’m using it for sex all the time.
Me: How do you know what sex is?!?
Daughter: (rolling eyes) I had iHead installed last week, Dad. [Editor’s note: I’m assuming that we will all have the internet wired directly into our brains by 2014.]
Me: Oh, well, maybe we should talk about sex, first.
Daughter: Jeez, Dad, I already know everything about it, having the internet in my head and all.
Me: <Grumbling> I told your mother you weren’t old enough yet. But, anyway, where were we?
Daughter: You were trying to explain why we have to cover our genitals in public.
Me: Right, well, you see, genitals are used for sex. So, if anyone in public were to see your genitals, they would think of sex. And obviously that would be bad.
Daughter: Why would thinking about sex be bad?
Me: Because sex is bad, obviously. Unless you’re in a committed, long-term, heterosexual marriage, and you are alone and the lights are off and you never talk about it.
Daughter: Yeah, I’m just going to let that slide. So, why do I have to cover my chest again?
Me: OK, good, we’re making some progress. You see, breasts are a special kind of secondary sexual characteristic. Special because our modern, civilized society has sexualized them. In other words, while many cultures think nothing of women displaying their breasts publicly, modern society has decided that breasts are inextricably linked to sex, and are therefore just as bad as genitals. If anyone were to see breasts in public, they would think of sex. And obviously that would be bad.
Daughter: What the hell? How are breasts inextricably linked to sex? I mean, what about when they are used to nurse babies? That obviously has nothing to do with sex.
Me: Yes, but you see, even though the baby is pure and innocent and has no notion of sexual intercourse, the adult members of society know all too well that breasts are involved in the sexual act, and so any adult that sees a breast, even in the context of nursing, will think of sex. And obviously that would be bad.
Daughter: Wait, wait, wait. I see breasts in public all the time. Women wear bras to accentuate their breasts under their clothes. Women wear bathing suits that only barely cover their breasts. Hell, Sports Illustrated has pictures of women with only their nipples covered, prominently displaying practically the whole breast. How is this hiding breasts so that people won’t think of sex?
Me: Oh, you see, that is a fascinating subject! Over the centuries, society has tested the boundaries of what is and is not appropriate to display in public, and for no body part has there been more rigorous experimentation than for the breast. And, of course, Sports Illustrated has been at the vanguard of this movement. Recently, the good scientists at Sports Illustrated have deduced that the only thing objectionable about breasts is the nipples, specifically the color of the nipples. You see, they discovered that they could essentially dab paint on women’s naked bodies, and, as long as the darker hue of the nipple, compared to the surrounding skin, is not discernible, then the female form is fit for public consumption. Here, I’ve actually put together this handy visual guide for you.
Me: That’s not important.
Daughter: Does Mom know you’ve been carrying around these pictures? <Yelling> Mom! Did you know Dad. . .
Me: Daughter! That’s not the point. Look, I just thought I’d show you what I was talking about. Do you see how all those pictures, save the last one, are acceptable for public display?
Daughter: Yeah, but it’s bullshit. Those are all basically pictures of naked breasts. Body paint doesn’t change much.
Me: Yes it does! While a naked breast would force people to think about sex, which is bad, a painted breast just makes people think of, uh, sports, I guess. Yeah, right, that’s what I think about when I look at the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Sports.
Daughter: Sure, Dad, whatever. One more thing, though: you say that if I were to show my nipples, it would be bad because people would think about sex. But, as you pointed out, my nipples don’t look any different than a boy’s nipples, since I’m ONLY SIX YEARS OLD, and am still years away from puberty. How would the sight of a six-year-old girl’s nipples make people think about sex?
Me: Oh, well, you see, were grown-ups to look at your naked chest, they would imagine the breasts that you will have when you become a woman. And that would make them think about sex, which is bad.
Daughter: Holy crap that’s screwed up. Grown-ups look at a six year old girl and imagine breasts on her? An adult sexualizing me is the adult’s problem, not mine.
Me: Oh, dear [patting her head]. Adults cannot change the way they think, so the only solution is to change your behavior so as not to induce such thoughts in adults. It’s simply being respectful of your elders.
Daughter: That sounds an awful lot like the rationale for why Muslim women have to cover themselves, lest they tempt men.
Me: Are you joking? Those people are crazy!
So, yeah, I think that should pretty much clear everything up for my daughter. It’s simple, really, when you understand it. Of course, maybe it would just be easier to show her this cartoon (NSFW).