YMCA pool to mom: Baby girls need to wear swim tops. But, why?

Infant girl and boy at the pool

Angela writes that while visiting her local YMCA yesterday on one of the hottest days of the year, staff in the pool area informed her that her one-year-old daughter needed to wear a swim top. “It was fine for the baby boys not to wear a top,” Angela notes incredulously. “So as long as it’s a blue swim suit, then it’s okay?”

In my opinion, such a policy is problematic. First of all, it sexualizes infant girls. At such an early age, the only physiological way to tell a boy from a girl is from their genitalia. Their chests are undeveloped. Why would any reasonable adult think baby girls’ chests need to be covered?

Secondly, such a policy can only be enforced by relying upon stereotypical expectations regarding a child’s attire. As the campaign Let Clothes Be Clothes continuously reminds us, there is no such thing as “boys’ clothes” or “girls’ clothes”—just clothing with various colors and design elements, some of which fit our stereotypical expectations of what boys like and what girls like. But children (and their parents; and everyone, really) should feel comfortable dressing in whatever they like, without facing cultural pressures to conform to arbitrary gender stereotypes.

In other words, with children so young, unless the YMCA staff plan to implement diaper checks–which, clearly, they would not–they shouldn’t be policing girls’ swim attire. Doing so constitutes discrimination against those wearing stereotypically feminine swim attire, while allowing those of either sex who are wearing blue or gender-neutral attire to swim free of harassment from staff.

As Angela concludes regarding the photo she attached in her message to me: “My baby girl on the left—unacceptable swim attire. Baby boy on the right—acceptable. Really???”

Angela plans to address this further with leadership at her local YMCA, and her local moms’ group is even considering planning a “topless toddlers” day at the pool to press their point.

Readers: Any advice or suggestions? Have you successfully countered a sexist policy like this?

63 Comments on “YMCA pool to mom: Baby girls need to wear swim tops. But, why?

  1. I love your blog so much that I will be buying all your books today 🙂

  2. That’s one noodle-headed employee. It’s cruel to post this as an “issue” when someone made a mistake, is going to get a scold, and then what? Please don’t use the internet to shame individuals. The YMCA is a generally great organization. One can expect they will respond appropriately. If they don’t, then use the power of social media to shame away.

    • I think that multiple people have had issues with the way the y handles this and several have tried to talk to leadership about it. It is similar to the hamfisted way they dealt with young families using the changing rooms when they first opened. I understand that they are probably trying to get out ahead of any potential litigious folks, but they need to take a step back and think about what this policy means in the larger scope of gendered assumptions and the messages we send our kids. If they Y responds in a rational supportive manner this needn’t shame anyone.

    • Really? So, shaming toddler girls and sexualising their body is a “mistake”, but raising the question about it is a no-no. Nice.

  3. My local YMCA camps state in their camp handbook that girls must wear a one-piece or two piece that covers the midriff. There is nothing in the handbook stating what boys can or cannot wear. My 7 year old has asked about this repeatedly and it’s obvious she knows what’s up. She knows the boys can go shirtless because she sees it and she doesn’t understand why she’s being policed and not them. Personally, neither do I.

  4. And they wonder why people are starting to withhold the gender of their child.

  5. Reblogged this on Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker and commented:
    I found this post by Dr. Rebecca Hains on the sexualization of little girls through policing their clothing thought provoking.

    From a psychological perspective, this is a big problem. Through this kind of behavior as adults, we’re teaching little girls that their bodies are sexual objects. And, think out this objectively for a moment, there is absolutely no difference between a girl’s chest and a boy’s at this point. So why could it possibly matter if the little girl wore or didn’t wear a top? Because culturally, we believe a female body is a sexual object for the pleasure of others.

    We have got to stop this nonsense. It’s teaching our girls very harmful messages about where there social power comes from, and about what makes them valuable as a human being.

    • Cosign! (in triplicate) Well said Jennifer, and thank you Rebecca for this ‘ohfercripesakes’ head-shaker of summer sexualization…sheesh.

      Still need (want) to post BOTH of your interviews on Shaping Youth about your books…have had to defer to time sensitive posts but haven’t forgotten the knowledge you both bring to the media literacy/parenting/communications conversation.

    • I totally agree but just like any kid going barefoot all summer then forced into shoes, there will be rebellion when forced to put on a top at, when? Six? Seven? Eight? Right up til they have developing breasts? There’s the”isduw” when could they be “trained” into to covering their breadts? And against all social norm, why should they if it’s a hot day?

        • Ehm, your first comments sounded fine, these two ones, well, a bit… misunderstandable, you don’t mean that and you might consider rewording it.
          To Pat, depends on what they’re comfortable with and the parents, the extent of it, some add the bra as soon as it does, some later I think, but it’s still a kid and shouldn’t be sexualized.

  6. Where did this take place? In most states, there is specific wording that a rule or law that applies to one gender, applies to both, regardless of age. This is the whole basis of the Free the Nipple campaign. Gender inequality is no longer blindly accepted by the masses.

  7. I asked my two sons, 13 and 16, if they agree or disagree. They don’t get it. “No way should a baby girl should be required to wear a swim top-it doesn’t make any sense”. I am glad they are both sensible kids.

  8. If the pool is outdoors, ALL children should be required to wear a sunsafe swim top. If it’s indoors, the requirement should be limited to a swim diaper and appropriate swimwear (eg not loose etc) This is insane.

    • At an outdoor pool weather and location/shade cover dependant babies probably should wear tops, but it doesn’t seem the kind of thing requiring rules. Swim diapers are for hygiene, beyond that let’s trust parents to judge the situation for their children.

    • That was my thought too, just make it a rule based on sunburn prevention or whatever… #thinksmarternotharder

  9. I’d like to see the “topless toddlers” event take place, lots of babies in swim nappies in a variety of colours, including boys in pink and girls in blue, and then challenge the staff to pick out the girls!

  10. Take the picture used to illustrate this article.
    Now swap the swimsuits over – blue one on the girl, pink one on the boy.
    Anyone spot the difference? No, me neither.
    But, I bet that if that experiment took place at the Y, their employee would be asking for the boy to be covered up…..

  11. Anyone who sees a 1 year old a sexual object should go get treatment immediately, it’s a horrible disease

  12. Pingback: The Body Positivity Podcast: “We are MORE than the size of our thighs!” |

  13. My sisters think it is crazy that I do not put a top on my 3 yo girl.

  14. I think boy or girl, put a top on. There are pedophiles everywhere. I don’t like sexualizing children. I have a boy- he goes with a swim top and long swim shorts on. And, as a mother, I don;t wear skimpy clothes either. My privates are for me and whoever I want to share it with- not to the whole world. My husband wears a swim short as well. Hey, at least we have good sun protection 😀

  15. I recently took care of two girls, 5 yrs and 3 yrs old. Neither one wanted to wear the top part of their swimsuits. Okay fine. You are with me in the changing rooms where I can keep you safe, I hold your towel around you when you change bottoms so nobody sees. Neither one has any chest development, so who cares.. Let them be free while they can.

    Oh and since I DESPISE the color pink, if I have any children of my own, I’d like to see someone tell if I have a girl or a boy when they are little…

  16. Thanks for pointing out that requiring pre-pubertal girls to wear swim tops sexualizes them. It’s so true and our society is disgusting for doing that. I would never require my daughter to wear a swim top (at any age actually because I am opposed to the ridiculous sexualization of mammary glands–udders, to put it bluntly–that we women must endure), but certainly before puberty there is no way I am turning her into some sexualized version of an adult woman!

  17. I would live to know of more information about what has happened since you brought it up to the Y. At our local Y yesterday had the same thing come up with my 5 year old girl who decided she wanted to wear just swim shorts. I got asked, boy or girl. I stayed perplexed…..girl. I mean why are you asking me this. And was told policy was she had to cover up being a girl. That this time would be ok, but in the future that would have to be followed.

      • Ok, you’re probably a puritanical troll to drive their point home about the need for girl to cover based on their gender (:

  18. Our Puritan-based country is boob-obsessed. I remember marveling in Germany about topless women lying in the English Gardens, and the topless billboards and postcards everywhere (yes, those were sexual but clearly not considered a big deal). On international beaches topless females are completely normal.

    A co-worker of mine whose family is from France took her toddler girl to a beach in New England with just swim pants. She said she got flack for it (can’t remember what kind; whether it was comments or just dirty looks). I thought that was totally crazy! I remember as a kid in hot Florida always being extremely envious of, and confused by, the boys whose upper half looked exactly like mine being able to run around topless but not me.But of course very early on our daughters learn to not let anyone see them topless! 😦

  19. Oh, and then let’s not forget all the flack/harassment/discrimination breastfeeding women get.

    The whole boob-shaming/over-sexualizing thing is another misogyny tool, if you ask me.

  20. I totaly agree. Its ridiculous. Our visit to disney last year and my 2.5 yo was topless and a little girl pointed and said, “Look, she’s naked.” Lets see what happens when we are on the beach in NY and my soon to be 4 year old is again with just her bottoms. (we are in Italy for some of the year and it is normal and expected that the little girls are without a too-usually until they start to show-age 10??). My sister complains that my dd ahould be covered up top. Why???

  21. I have twin daughters age 8. If we go out to a public lake or location. I make them wear tops. But, if we are home where we have our on private lake. I let then go topless or even nude. It no one business but ours. They like to suntan nude. So I let then in private. Sometimes I join them.

    • I think it’s a good thing that their mom let’s them outside nude in their private property but I disagree with their mom (not) letting them nude at a public beach and if anyone says anything about them being nude that I don’t like outside their private property I would scream at them, beat them up, and call them names or even start a weapon fight.

  22. No names were mentioned of the employee. Shedding light on matter only helps educate and make the public aware of something they normally wouldn’t encounter/think about. Clearly the Y is going to publicaly apologize no matter how they feel to save the companies respect, but this was posted 4 years ago and the topic is still being debated. Are they sexualizing female babies, or are they trying to prevent others from doing that. When do girls become required to wear a top? What if the girl doesn’t have breast but is heavier set and appears to have breasts at a young age? What if my son is heavier and appears to have breasts too? I see no issue in wearing a form of one piece for all genders. Or we could figure out how to stop sexualizing breasts outside the bedroom. That would help the breast feeding and swimsuit debate. And honestly, 2 pieces for baby girls has always made me feel uncomfortable. We put so much pressure on how hot and sexy a girl looks in bikinis, why put your toddler in one just cause she looks “so cute”.

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