Wednesday, August 7, 2019

“Mom, why does my stomach have to stay covered?”

“Mom, why does my stomach have to stay covered?”

I hate the question and I hate the fact that she’s having to ask it. I avoid it, busying myself by reading aloud the rest of the packing list. I don’t have a good answer for her and I’m buying time, hoping one will materialize.

We are sitting on the floor in my daughter’s bedroom, selecting a swimsuit from her drawer for her first ever week away at camp. It’s a small Christian camp, almost cookie cutter in feel to the one I attended as a kid, and I’ve only just realized there is a dress code. Why this comes as a surprise to me, I’m really not sure. I guess I’d hoped we were past this, that somehow all the personal work I’ve been doing surrounding body image and body shame had somehow bled out and infused itself into changing the minds and trends of Christian culture as a whole. Sadly, it’s just not this easy. There is still so much work yet to do. 

My nine-year-old is puzzled by the swimwear rules, and to be honest, I am a bit too. They are by no means new to me. In fact, they are exactly the same as those in existence during my camp and church youth group days as a kid - one piece swimsuits or tankinis where the top meets the bottom. Basically, no bellies, and also no spaghetti strap tank tops. Nothing about these rules are at all foreign, yet they leave me with a giant tangled knot in the pit of my stomach. I feel unsettled and scared, acutely and personally aware of the silent message that is being sent to these young girls in attendance as they abide by the dress code: there is something wrong with your stomach. It needs to remain covered. And your shoulders? I don’t even know where to go with that one. 

Our summer has been full and, though it has been on my list to shop for another swimsuit for each of my girls, between hosting family and being out of town, it just hasn’t happened. A few days earlier, I was running errands with a friend and we made a random stop at Nordstrom Rack. I happen upon a tankini swimsuit in the kids section and I buy it, hoping it will fit my daughter so she can have two options to rotate while at camp, because no one ever likes donning a wet swimsuit. It isn’t until after this spontaneous purchase that I encounter the dress code rules. 

I stare down her drawer, knowing there is a high likelihood none of its contents are  camp-dress-code-compliant options. She has a long torso like I do, and finding one piece swimsuits that don’t result in a permanent wedgie has proven tricky. We’ve resorted to buying mostly tankinis. They are friendlier on the budget since they grow with her and allow us to squeeze at least a couple of summer seasons out of the same swimsuit, the gap between top and bottom increasing slightly with each passing year. Additionally, I find tankinis are just earlier. Anyone who has ever attempted to pull up a wet one piece after using the bathroom can attest that there are few things less enjoyable than the tangle of twisted straps that inevitably results. 

My daughter does have one hand-me-down one piece, and I pull it out of her drawer first. A quick glance reminds me that just last week, I banned her from wearing it because it had grown so stretched out that she was having the opposite of a wedgie problem. The suit was so misshapen from overwear that she was sporting two inches of excess fabric between her legs, blowing in the breeze and offering generous views of her crotch area to onlookers. 

The second swimsuit I come across is a Speedo tankini from last year, navy blue with criss-crossing pink racer back straps that form an “X” over her shoulder blades. It fits her well and covers where it should, but since she’s grown this year, it shows a couple inches of her tummy so I toss it aside. 

I dig around in her drawer, looking for the other suit I know should be in there. It’s a thrifting purchase I made a few months back, when I was trying to be on top of things and avoid this we-need-a-swimsuit-now problem I currently find myself in the middle of. It’s also a tankini, with a black and pink paisley pattern and three layers of soft ruffling down the front. Up until five minutes ago when I printed off the camp-supplied packing list and saw the dress code policy, this was the swimsuit I thought she would take with her to camp. She obviously did too because when I realize it’s nowhere to be found in her dresser, I ask her for its whereabouts, and she pulls it out of her half-packed camp bag. 

“Let’s see how it fits,” I prompt her, and I inwardly wince when she dons it and I spy a small gap between the top and bottom. It still had the tags attached, never worn by the previous owner or by my daughter, who had a tendency to choose one favorite item of attire and wear it to its death (case in point: stretched out one piece with all the excess crotch). 

I still feel ill prepared as to how to explain to her that she won’t be permitted to wear it at camp, so I distract her by pulling out the last option, the new neon pink tankini I grabbed on a whim at The Rack. I urge her to try it on, all the while, doing my best to camouflage the mounting stress I am starting to experience. We don’t have time to shop for another swimsuit. If this one doesn’t meet the dress code criteria, I’m not sure what we were going to do. As she shimmies herself into the suit pieces and flattens them into place, I silently hold my breath, willing top to meet bottom. Hallelujah! It does, but just barely. I exhale with relief and inwardly celebrate the good fit. 

“Perfect!” I say. “That’s the one you should pack for camp.” 

Though I really don’t want to, I will answer her question about why her tummy “can’t” show. I need to, but I’m still wrestling with how I want to say it. What’s particularly bewildering is the fact that the week at camp is for girls-only.

The rest of the weekend passes in a whirlwind. With neon tankini in bag, we depart for camp, which requires a ferry ride across the Puget Sound. At the ferry dock, we meet up with two of my daughter’s friends from school who will be joining her. Each of them have attended before and are eager to fill us in on the details. They tell us what to expect upon our arrival; there will be cabin assignments and a swim test and then an all-camp gathering where they will go over some nuts and bolts for the week ahead. There are a handful of rules to be reviewed, most of them some unique rendition of “have fun,” but I freeze when they bring up the one about the dress code. I ask them to expand and they tell me that swimwear has to pass a specific test. 

“You have to raise your hand high in the air and if your stomach stays covered, your swimsuit is fine. Then you turn around and bend over to make sure your bottom doesn’t show.”

I have to blink hard to keep my eyes from shooting out of their sockets in disbelief. “This can’t be real,” I think to myself. “Isn’t this 2019? Are we really still here? Are these still the hoops we are making our girls jump through? Are these still the kinds of things we are saying? Do we have ANY idea the message we are sending?” 

I swallow my thoughts before I say anything aloud. 

“What happens if your swimsuit doesn’t pass?” I ask, terrified of what they will answer, knowing full well that my daughter’s tummy will bare when she raises her arms.

“Well, then they call your parents and have them drive you a new swimsuit,” she tells me. 

“I see,” I gulp, feeling increasingly queasy with each new tidbit of information.

“Or,” she continued, “they have a box of old clothes there that you can choose from. But they are all pretty ugly.” 

“Got it,” I say, not feeling in the least bit reassured, but trying my best to hide my mounting stress from my daughter, who was listening intently. 

Prior to this moment, the pre-camp mom worries that had been running through my head felt important. They consisted of thoughts like:

Who are the counselors and how old are they? Will they be responsible and trustworthy? What about the lifeguards? Are they well-trained and diligent and will they keep my kid from drowning? What if my daughter gets homesick? How will they handle it? 

Now these worries felt like child’s play. My rising concern was much weightier. Will my daughter be asked to stand before an authority and raise her arm in the air or turn around and bend over as they observe her attire? Will someone say something, anything at all that makes her feel ashamed of her body and her clothing? Will she be made to feel “wrong” or worse, like something is wrong with her, the beautiful, image-of-God creation that she is? Will she feel insecure about her tummy and her bared shoulders, be told that they need to be kept covered? What reason will she be given? Will these confusing messages send her on a trajectory of body-loathing and self-hatred and shame that will affect her ability to see herself as intricately and perfectly designed by God? 

What began as just a small ripple of discomfort was gaining speed and momentum, taking the shape of a tidal wave with each passing second. I was being triggered. Flashbacks of body shame experiences from my own childhood were starting to eat away at me. I was experiencing a deep and intense desire to shield and protect my daughter from all subtle yet potentially crucially damaging messages that I knew conservative Christian culture has historically been so capable of dishing out. As one so traumatically wounded by the words and rules intended for good, I desperately wanted to spare my child from my own painful path.

Back in our separate cars, we drive aboard the ferry and I whisper quietly to my husband in the front seat. “What do we tell her?” I plead through my teeth. “How do we prepare her for what might be said? If they even say one thing that shames her…” I start to threaten.

I didn’t even want to tell our daughter about the dress code. Though she’d raised the question about why her tummy couldn’t show while we were packing, it had been dropped and I’d hoped sending her with a compliant swimsuit would allow me to skirt around the issue without her even knowing it was there. I wanted to plug my ears and bury my head in the sand and hope that if I ignored the whole thing, it would just go away. But if the last decade has taught me one thing, it’s that usually the topics we most desperately want to avoid, the ones we fear because they are awkward or scary or involve conflict, these are the ones we most need to bring out into the light. We need to speak them aloud, address and face them head on. The most important parenting move I could make right now was to talk to her about this hard and uncomfortable and confusing situation. I needed her to hear the words from us, to allow opportunity for us to inject the situation with our beliefs and convictions, to bathe her in the truth we believed her Creator would most want her to know.

“God made you and your body is beautiful and amazing and there is nothing wrong with any part of it. That is the bottom line. Some people have stricter rules about things like clothing. And at this camp, they made some rules about tummies being covered because it’s what they think is best. We disagree - we don’t think there is anything wrong with showing your tummy - but we don’t always agree with what other people think and that’s ok. We wanted you to know about these rules ahead of time so they don’t come as a surprise to you if you hear them being talked about. That’s why we had you pack the swimsuit that you did. Do you have any questions?”

The moment of silence that enveloped the car as she pondered what we said felt like an eternity. 

“That seems kind of weird,” she told us. Then she shrugged, entirely unfazed, and asked if we could restart the audiobook we had been listening to. 

I felt ill at ease the entire week that she was away. The release of control felt debilitating. I spent a lot of time wondering what might be said by camp staff from the front, worrying about whether anyone would comment about her swimsuit that I knew would not meet dress code if she were asked to raise her arms. I hoped I was blowing the situation out of proportion, that perhaps this arm-lifting business was an old protocol, no longer in place, and that all of this would be a nonissue in the end. And mostly it was.

The staff never mentioned the dress code (thankfully). There was no arms-in-the-air swimsuit test to pass (hallelujah). The only cringe-worthy incident occurred when a younger camper yelled out “swimsuit check” when my daughter’s tankini top got pushed up a little and her tummy was bared. Whether the camp had updated its approach this year or had simply done things differently during the week that my daughter was there, it was apparent that at some point in weeks or years prior, campers had been indoctrinated with practices that caused the hairs on my arms to raise.

I don’t know how this story will sit with you; I’ve ridden a huge roller coaster of emotion over the past few weeks. Please hear me when I say my intent in sharing all this is NOT AT ALL to throw this camp under the bus. It was an amazing place, the highlight of our daughter’s summer, and we plan to send her back next year. I do have a number of concerns with their dress code (and the ways I’ve been told secondhand that they have gone about presenting and implementing it), and I will be bringing these to the camp director. However, the primary reason I write all this is out of a sense of obligation.

I am more aware than ever that we need to ask hard questions, to ponder deeply the messages we are sending to our kids when we talk about their dress. While I fully support the idea of having guidelines for the way we cloth ourselves, I think it is important that we examine and reexamine what we hope to accomplish by establishing dress codes. And then we need to take it one step further to assess how our message is being delivered and whether these dress codes are accomplishing their desired purposes. Are they in place to allow kids to enjoy water sports without concern that they will lose their bathing suit bottoms while they are inner tubing? Or are they in place because “that’s what we’ve always done” or because “girls need to cover themselves, so they don't cause boys to stumble”? Are we promoting a healthy view of our bodies with our swimwear rules? Or are we raising up the next generation of modesty police, equipped with a keen judging eye, ready to quietly shame the girls whose bellies are showing, as if donning a one-piece automatically makes one “holier than thou.”

As much as I would have preferred to skip over all the discomfort in the events of the past few weeks, processing and examining all that the camp dress code triggered in me has been healthy. I have had to pinpoint what exactly unsettled me about the dress code. I have been forced to stare down my past and current beliefs on modesty, knowing that I need to answer to my kids and advise them on my values when it comes to the subject of attire. I have found myself for longing to live in the “gray zone” while simultaneously hating the fact that the topic of dress isn’t more black and white. I’ve had to dig deep and ponder all sorts of different scenarios such as whether I am being hypocritical by wanting my daughter to feel confident baring her tummy in a bathing suit while at the same time not loving the fact that the current trend in younger crowds is to show off one’s belly in crop tops. I have wrestled to figure out what guidelines I would like our family to live by and how I will present them to my kids.

It is still a work in progress, but here is the verbiage I have created for our family so far:

We are created by God, the master artist.
Our bodies are amazing.
There is no part, NO PART, of our body to be ashamed of.
Our body in its entirety is GOOD.
When it comes to clothing our bodies, we dress with respect.
We reserve our private parts for private settings.
We consider the situation and dress accordingly (i.e. professional versus casual, what’s most comfortable/practical for the activity at hand).
We are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I don’t claim to have all the answers; I don’t believe any of us ever will. But I can tell you with guaranteed certainty, our kids are listening. They are reading between the lines. They need to hear from us that their bodies are beautiful and amazing, they need not be ashamed. There is subtle messaging saturated in dress codes that tell them to stay covered. Unless you are one of the walking wounded, you won't ever be able to fully comprehend the potential devastation for body shame. 

So, ask the hard questions. Reexamine the rules. Push back and fight to change them if there is need. Have uncomfortable conversations. Wrestle. And in everything we do and say, may we be bathed in the knowledge that our bodies are good, designed by God, and that we are made in His image.

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posted by kelsie