Yesterday I took my almost-five-year-old shopping for a new swimsuit. We took six pairs into the Target change rooms: a colourful assortment of one- and two-piece numbers, adorned with stripes, ruffles and images of kittens, diamonds and hummingbirds. At the back of my mind was the expectation that shopping for bathers (as we call them here) is inevitably an emotionally fraught occasion. Who, but the genetically gifted or gym addicted amongst us truly enjoy the experience? I think of myself a month or so ago: sucking in my belly, examining my flabbiest bits with a critical eye. Even though, post children, I actually spend far less time obsessing over my body’s perceived faults than I used to, bathers shopping is hardly my idea of a fun activity. As we stepped into the Target change rooms, I braced myself for difficult times. But I was about to be surprised.
With help, my daughter wiggled and wormed her way through the maze of Lycra, criss-cross spaghetti straps and security tags into the first suit. It was a sunshiny blue and yellow stripy one-piece. My daughter has lost most of her baby fat but she’s still in possession of the most delicious little pot belly. Now she stood in front of the mirror, shoulders back, little round belly – further emphasised by the clingy fabric – sticking out. Immediately, her face lit up with the brightest and most delighted smile. “I LOVE it!” she announced with fervour. She tried on each of the remaining suits with the same sparkling confidence: utterly at ease in her skin, lacking even the smallest speck of self-consciousness. Each time she looked in the mirror, her face registered cheerful satisfaction with what she saw, and every suit elicited the same enthusiastic, “I LOVE it!” and “This one is going on the Yes Pile!”
Although I shouldn’t have expected anything different, I was still struck by my daughter’s complete and uncomplicated acceptance of her body. And, more than that, I was uncomfortable about the fact that her response should seem so at odds with the way girls and women are expected to respond to their bodies. My daughter has not yet mastered the fundamental feminine lesson of casting a critical eye over her body: the capable, efficient, increasingly skilled little body God has given her. She has not learnt to be ashamed of her body. It’s a confronting and challenging truth when I realise that’s one lesson I really, really don’t want to be responsible for teaching her.