When I was four years old, we took a family vacation to a Club Med in Guadeloupe. I suspect this particular Club Med was selected by my mother due to the fact that it had a Kids’ Camp where my mom could dump me every morning for the better part of the day.
Don’t worry. This isn’t me complaining about having to spend hours in an exotic location with other children my age. I loved it.
One of the things we did every day between eating fresh coconuts, body surfing, and exploring the beach was spend some time working on a song and dance we were going to perform on the last night for all of the guests. The song was in French, of course, and the dance involved lots of putting our hands up in the air and waving them around like we just didn’t care before that was even a thing.
Though I was shy around strangers, I was a born performer and I practiced the lyrics and routine until I had them perfected. I was going to shine.
The final night finally arrived and I was so excited to show my family and the other guests what we’d been working on so hard. My counselor ushered us all into a dressing room where we had our makeup done -- little round circles in red face paint on both of our checks -- and then handed us our costume: A pair of overalls.
I accepted my overalls while looking around waiting for him to hand me the rest of my costume -- the shirt that would go beneath. But there was nothing else. The other little kids were all pulling on their overalls without a second thought and so I followed suit, hoping -- praying -- that what I thought was going to happen wouldn’t be the case.
Alas, when I finally snapped my overalls into place, it was clear that there was no escaping it. If I wanted to wear the costume and perform the song and dance, I was going to have to do so with my little four-year-old nipples exposed for all of the world to see.
I’ve thought long and hard about this recently, trying to figure out when it was that I became aware of my body as a child and why it happened so young. I don’t remember anything particularly traumatizing happening, though I do recall being slightly embarrassed when I discovered that my Wonder Woman Underoos were not actually a complete outfit and that I’d been running around the house in just my underwear. After I discovered that, I never wore them again.
My guess is that it had something to do with having two older brothers. And that they, without meaning to, made me grow up faster. I also suspect it had something to do with finding “What’s Happening to Me” on the shelf when I was just about that age and learning what boobs were and that they came in “all different shapes and sizes.”
The sad part, for me, is that I was so young and so naïve and yet I was embarrassed and ashamed for anyone to see my nipples. Barely older than a toddler and yet somehow still incredibly self-aware and, even worse, self-conscious.
When they finally called our group out on the stage to perform our routine, I was no longer filled with happy anticipation. Instead, I was dreading it. I spent the entire song trying to cover my nipples, bending my elbows in weird contorted ways so that I wouldn’t have to raise my arms up exposing everything for the entire world to see.
The next day, they posted pictures of the night’s festivities on a bulletin board outside. There I was, my innocent four-year-old face with the adorable red painted circles, my hair in pig tails, and my arms bent trying to, unsuccessfully I might add, hide my tiny nipples.
I think about this story a lot, for some reason. Mostly I’m curious as to what happened at such a young age to make me so self-conscious. When I asked my mom to send me pictures for this article, she questioned why. When I told her the reason, she responded, “Don’t be silly. You were too young to care about something like that.”
She was too self-absorbed, busy, or just uninterested, I suppose, to see the evidence right in front of her face. It seemed so obvious to me even then what was happening; I’m not sure how she could have missed it. Did she think I just didn’t know the routine? That I was dancing like a chicken on purpose? Couldn’t she tell her own child was mortified?
Mostly, I think it’s sad. Our youthful innocence is the only reason as far as I can tell that childhood is truly and actually a magical thing. Well, that and the fact that you get to play with finger paint as much as you want. Not understanding things like sexuality and hormones and that one day it will “matter” who is pretty and who has money and all of the other bullshit that slowly creeps into our lives and opinions.
Children are amazing because, for the most part, they’re naïve. And with that naivety comes acceptance and joy and a happiness that is impossible to replicate with age.
I write this now because, a few weeks ago, a mother took her four-year-old daughter to a public swimming pool. The little girl was happily swimming around in just her bikini bottoms when she was pulled from the pool by a lifeguard and admonished for not wearing a top.
This alone makes me seethe. I remember getting yelled at once by the lifeguard at the country club for jumping on the low dive too many times (I was five and I was waiting for the boy I liked to climb to the high dive so I could jump off at the exact same time as him), and I will never forget how mortified I was. Even if the lifeguard was totally in the right.
In this case, if there was an issue with a “dress code violation,” the lifeguard should have discussed it privately with the mother, leaving the child out of it. Instead, the mother explained, her daughter was made to feel that there was something sexual about her that she needed to hide. And that the incident left her daughter “confused and ashamed about her body for the first time in her life.”
The director of the Franklin Recreation Center said that the rule that all girls must wear tops is “common sense” for protection against sexual predators. I say that the director of the Franklin Recreation Center should spend some time in the South of France.
Mostly, I suppose, this just made my heart ache that a child’s innocence was chipped away at for seemingly no reason. I know there are child molesters out there. And I know that there are people who create and buy kiddie porn. The world is a scary, awful place at so many times and for so many people.
But does that mean a four-year-old shouldn’t be able to enjoy a day at he pool hanging out with all of the other boys and girls whose bodies from the waist up look exactly the same as hers?
Follow @daisy on Twitter where she never ever posts pictures of her boobs. Sorry. Not sorry.