Gwyneth Paltrow’s goofily named e-commerce website and blog, Goop, recently featured bikinis for girls 4 to 8 years old. Paltrow collaborated with designer Melissa Odabash to design a mini-version of Odabash’s adult swimwear. It’s a simple navy two-piece with ruffles on the top and bottom. The British charity Kidscape, whose mission is to prevent bullying and child sexual abuse, took one look at the dour blonde child model donning the Odabash bikini on Goop and cried outrage.
“We remain very opposed to the sexualisation of children and of childhood,” says Kidscape red Claude Knight. “The dangers have been discussed at length, so it is a great pity that such trends continue and that they carry celebrity endorsement.” This isn’t the first time Kidscape has criticized a celebrity mom for her pro-bikini stance: They dissed Jessica Simpson back in September for putting her baby girl, Maxwell, in a yellow two-piece and showing pictures of the 4-month-old on Katie Couric’s show. And they’re not the only ones to take umbrage with little girls in bikinis. A commenter on Jezebel sums up the upset: “I think it's the child bikinis that really over-sexualize by echoing adult designs to an extended degree that weird me out. Bikini top and ruffled bottom, okay. Bikini top with plunging neckline and ruffles to emphasize the boobs she doesn't have? Eeeeeeeh.”
Though historically, I’ve not been Goop’s biggest fan, this particular criticism is borderline absurd, and if you unpack the logic behind it, it’s damaging for women and girls. Talking about the Odabash swimsuit specifically, there’s nothing especially adult about it: It covers the kid’s erogenous zones, the top is unpadded and girlish, and is a dark color. If you think there’s anything sexual about that child model’s presentation, you’re probably the kind of person who’s outraged by the retro Coppertone toddler. All that exposed cartoon flesh! The horror!
But, more seriously, there’s a direct line between the message Kidscape is sending about young girls and the message their older sisters may be getting from the world: that what you wear can lead to your sexual victimization. Which is to say, it’s your fault if perverts are ogling you, because you’re not covered up. Listen to what Linda Cameron, a mom queried by the Today show, has to say about bikinis, and think about how it puts the onus on girls:
“I think bikinis ask for eyes (attention) to go to exposed areas. And I think young girls should be more modest about the parts they are exposing,” says Cameron, adding that it’s “creepy” to have older guys look at her 12-year-old’s body in a sexual way. “I definitely think bikinis are more sexy so draw that attention.”
Beyond the misplaced fears of early sexualization, the other concern among the anti-bikini set is that girls who are put in bikinis at a young age will be more worried about their weight. The Daily Mail writer Tanith Carey goes so far as to say putting young girls in bikinis is psychologically damaging. But as Dr. Robyn Silverman tells the Today show, a mom’s attitude about body image is much more important for her daughter’s well-being than how much fabric her swimsuit has.
For her part, Gwyneth has wisely dismissed her critics over at Kidscape. A spokeswoman for Paltrow has said, “Two-piece bathing suits have been worn by young girls for decades.” In fact my biggest problem with the photograph on her website is how bummed out the little girl model looks. Maybe she’s so sad because she knows she’s going to be used as a pawn in a very, very silly cultural argument.