Leave Gwyneth Paltrow and Her Bikinis Alone

Why we shouldn't make little girls think there's something dirty about two-piece bathing suits.

I was at a bat mitzvah a few years ago, and when the music started, the eighth-grade boys awkwardly grabbed the girls from behind and started grinding, and the girls were pushing right back as though they expected to feel something (later, girls, later). It seemed very music video-inspired and enormously embarrassing for them—as they’d learn 10 years later when they’d unearth the DVD. Some adults were disturbed by the pretend-adult sexuality in the dancing, but it just made me laugh.

But there was one little girl there, about eight, who got up to dance to the music too, as some little kids do. The adults laughed, but her dance moves became increasingly familiar, and not in a good way—she was thrusting her pelvis, and rotating her hips, and gesturing with her hands, and at some point it dawned on me that she was doing stripper moves—and in particular, a cowgirl stripper routine. By the time the song was over, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she came by to get a dollar. Yet the adults were delighted. At least she wasn’t with a boy, I guess.

Why did one bother me and not the other? These things are highly individual, sort of as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, very unhelpfully, about obscenity: “I’ll know it when I see it.” One thing seemed obscene to me. The other didn’t.

Is that how we account for the difference in opinion over bathing suits for little girls? Individual definition? Subjective perceptions of sexual maturation? I have no idea. I only know that I don’t think Gwyneth Paltrow is doing anything wrong by selling bikinis for girls eight to 11 (below) on her website, goop. If anything, the worst thing she’s ever done is name a website “goop.” It’s all the way up from there.

Paltrow is in the news because of a sort of sick, symbiotic relationship England’s Daily Mail has with the UK anti-bullying charity Kidscape. Right now, there are a handful of online citations about Gwyneth being “in hot water” or the like because of her children’s bikini line. All those quick-hit blog posts link back to the article in the Daily Mail, which only has one comment from Kidscape head Claude Knights that doesn’t even mention Paltrow. But that’s enough for the Mail to use Paltrow’s name and photo for viral effect, thus securing attention for both entities, charitable and un-.

Paltrow is just the latest celeb under attack about children and bikinis, believe it or not. Kidscape brought up the same issue when Elizabeth Hurley debuted bikinis for children designed by Stella McCartney, as well as when Jessica Simpson posted a photo of her baby in a bikini on Twitter.

What’s going on over there in England? Is there something I’m missing? In the U.S., countless retailers and designers—from Ralph Lauren to Old Navy—sell two-piece swimwear for girls. So does the Children’s Place. Is Kidscape going to tell me the Children’s Place is trying to exploit children? Dear god, I hope not. I shop there before every single baby shower.

The truth is, you can buy a little girl a bikini—or a tankini or a malliot or a racerback or any other style of bathing suit—just about anywhere because it’s utterly non-controversial. Little girls have been wearing two-piece bathing suits for decades.
I took a quick spin around the Spikol Family Archives and easily found photos of myself, my sister and my mother in two-piece suits as children. (I also found a photo of me in my preferred swimwear when the hydrant was open on my street: bloomers and bathing cap. You’re welcome.) True, the level of the waistband has moved, but much of our fashion has changed in that way. Hemlines go up and down, shoulder pads come in and out. Should mothers insist little girls wear gloves even though women gave that up in the first season of Mad Men?

Paltrow’s bathing suits are sold in sizes big enough, the site says, for mommy and daughter to match. I think that’s very sweet and adorable. It’s the perfect age for it because after 11, there’s no way in hell a daughter would do anything even vaguely approaching that, so why not? But others see it as the pathway to hell.

Matilda Reid, of the The Telegraph, writes that she’d never let her four-year-old wear a bikini because “her little body just isn’t designed for it, and I don’t want her to draw any inappropriate attention towards herself.” I have news for you, Matilda: My body isn’t designed for a bikini either. It’s not a child-vs-adult distinction. More importantly, though, the kind of person who’d pay that “inappropriate attention” to your four-year-old will do so whether she’s wearing a bikini or a burka. Fortunately, despite what the Law & Order UK version might suggest, England is not crawling with pedophiles who prey on strange girls. That’s not how it works.

I’m sure Matilda Reid isn’t going to explain to her four-year-old why she can’t wear a bikini right now, but I worry about all the alarmism. These attitudes are precisely what foster a culture of separation between the sexes, thus enabling objectification. By buying into these puritanical mores, we’re raising little girls to believe their bodies are like loaded guns, and that men have their fingers on the trigger. It’s pretty disempowering.

Aside from that, it just seems preposterous to see a bikini on a child as sexual. It would never have occurred to me had Kidscape not mentioned it. What seems really perverse is an imagination that travels so easily to prurience at just the suggestion of exposing more of a child’s skin. This last photo is for you, Kidscape: