Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What the Gwyneth Paltrow Debacle Tells Us About Modesty Culture

Apparently Gwyneth Paltrow is selling child bikinis on her Goop site. Classic Paltrow. The first thought that came to my mind was, "How ridiculous!" rather than "How scandalous!" I think a child bikini is as superfluous as it gets. Children do not have breasts to support or hide. Before one even gets into the debate over whether women should feel pressured to wear tops at all on a beach, I will tackle the debate over whether female children should feel pressured to cover their chests.

I won't try to minimize concern over pedophiles, but I think the way we're debating child bikinis has something to do with how we talk about women preventing their own rapes. Child rapists will not stop before molesting or raping a child and think, "No, this girl is too modest. She clearly isn't asking for it, like 'black bikini' over there." If you are a rapist of children or women, cloth will not deter you. One pieces will not deter you.

Others are concerned with telling children that they should be sexy. But bikinis are not inherently sexy. The revealing of skin and nudity overall isn't inherently about sex. The problem with our culture is that we equate nude or partially nude bodies with sex, even if they are children. We still worry that it must have something to do with sex. And it's sad that young girls should be worried about their dress being interpreted as sexual before they even grow breasts. At some point prevention of sexualization becomes the vehicle for sexualization and placing importance on modesty at the same time.

In my past writing, I have talked about how teachers at school occasionally thought I dressed inappropriately. I wore a baggy flannel shirt but the buttons weren't high enough. In fourth grade, I attended a 1950s-themed school dance. My mom, a conservative dresser herself, picked out a shirt that tied up above the waist. I had to change or I couldn't dance. My best friend once wore a Geisha-like outfit for Halloween and was made to change out of it, because Geishas are prostitutes. (Actually, the history of the Geisha is a lot more complicated than that.)

The twist-tie shirt looked almost exactly like this, except Elizabeth Taylor wasn't filling it out. That should make a difference, right?

My point is that all of the concern over modesty is misplaced and hurtful, not helpful. We were made to feel like we did something wrong. It's bad enough for women to be slut-shamed, but slut-shaming children is despicable. Instead of protecting female children from the big bad world where their worth is tied up with what clothes they're wearing, a world that often reduces them to sex objects, they are giving children a taste of it early. Before they even grow breasts, they know that their bodies are something to be ashamed of. They are taught the exposure of the body, for women, is connected with what level of class they belong to.

Yes, Goop's bikinis are silly. But they're silly because they have a top half. Girls and boys shouldn't have to cover up their chests on the beach because their chests really aren't any different from one another. If one is sexualized, the other must be. The argument that many modesty advocates use on adult women (That because women's breasts are different than men's, and seen as sexual objects by men, they are inherently sexual) doesn't apply to this scenario.

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