Recently, social media icon Perez Hilton was called everything from a bad father to a child abuser after posting a photo of himself and his son bathing together. The photo appeared on Instagram and showed Hilton from the waist up and his son’s head poking over his shoulder. The boy was completely covered below the neck.
The negative backlash spurred debates about whether it’s okay for a parent to be naked in the shower with their toddler in the first place, and if so, what images of children are appropriate to share on social media. One mother claimed that Hilton’s image of his son’s naked body, even when obscured, could trigger victims of sexual abuse and even elicit attention from pedophiles.
I think it’s time we stop and consider the message that statements like these are sending to our children.
I am the mother of three children: two boys, ages 5 and 2; and a little girl, eight months. I bathe with all three of them every day. What started out as the only way to keep my first born son from screaming while I tried to wipe the poop smears off his infant body turned into a cherished family ritual that has brought us all closer together. It has also taught my children some important lessons about life. Contrary to the opinions of many, human beings arecapable of distinguishing between anatomical nudity and sexually explicit nudity.
Sexuality is something that everyone eventually discovers, but the world would be a better place if people understood that it is supposed to have a context. Breasts exist to nourish and comfort babies. There is nothing sexual about a mom exposing part of her breast while feeding her child. Yet when that same woman straps on an industrial-strength push-up bra and a low-cut dress in an attempt to distract her husband from Monday Night Football, he might become aroused. Otherwise, doctor’s offices, nude beaches, art studios and lactation consultants would be very uncomfortable environments. Children will never learn to make these distinctions if we do not give them the tools and experiences to do so.
There have been protests and arguments on social media sites about the increasingly limiting dress codes being implemented in schools across the United States. Girls are being told that their bodies are too distracting to their male counterparts so they must cover up or face suspension. Why are we blaming the girls for the boys’ inability to contextualize their sexuality? Where does the slut-shaming end? If it’s the girl’s fault that the boy next to her failed chemistry because he was too busy staring at her exposed collarbone, then is it also her fault when he drugs and rapes her at a party because she was wearing a short skirt?
No matter the evolutionary implications of mankind’s obsessive need to spread his seed at every opportunity, humans have developed a wonderful adaptation called a frontal lobe in their brain which allows them to keep their primal urges in check. When the captain of the football team forfeits his starting position to a more talented rookie, we do not condone him urinating all over the new kid’s locker in an evolutionarily-relevant display of territorial showboating. We expect him to conduct himself with poise and restraint, and we should expect the same of him when his female lab partner leans across the table and flashes a hint of cleavage.
It’s a slippery slope to teach children that it is their responsibility to cover their bodies in order to protect themselves from predators. If photos of children in the bath, obscured from the camera below the shoulders, are too sexually explicit to post on the internet, then perhaps we should also require them to wear long pants or floor-length skirts at all times. Of course, we should also force them to cover their arms, shoulders, and necks. Maybe even their hair and faces as well, just in case anyone extrapolates from the tiniest patch of exposed skin that they are (gasp!) naked underneath their clothes, and begins to fantasize. In other cultures, we call this female oppression, but here in the U.S., we are coming dangerously close to returning to our puritanical roots.
I’m as disgusted as the the next person at the idea of people sexualizing young children, but the fact is, people are aroused by all sorts of weird things. It could be an image of your child’s foot, their left eyeball, or a stuffed unicorn that sparks a stranger’s fancy. If the idea that someone, somewhere, might look at your child in an inappropriate way, do not post photos of them on the internet AT ALL. That is your choice. However, it is not a form of child abuse or irresponsible parenting to choose not to think about what goes on in the privacy of some wacko’s mind.
Rather than concentrate on shaming our children for their bodies in a desperate attempt to shield them from the sins of the internet, it would be healthier to teach our children that their bodies are natural, beautiful, and universal: that the sight of another human being’s thigh, hip, neck, or breasts is not cause for remark or leering. They are simply appendages like a hand or a foot, and the sooner our kids get used to seeing them, the better. Otherwise, we might as well lock our children away in a gilded tower until they come of age and can be revealed to the dirty world.
Modern psychology recognizes that making something taboo or forbidden often leads to a fixation called the forbidden fruit effect. By hiding our bodies from our children as if they are something shameful and elicit reinforces for them that all bodies are dirty and thus subject to dirty thoughts. Instead, we should use bath time as an opportunity to show our children that bodies come in different shapes and sizes, some wrinklier and saggier than others, and that there is nothing strange about noticing some obvious differences in the genders.
My boys are drawn to my breasts and will compulsively poke them while in the tub. However, instead of panicking, covering my body, and turning away in shame, I use the opportunity to have an open dialogue with them about respecting other people’s bodies and space. I explain that everyone’s body is their own property and that it is not okay to touch any part of it until they give you permission. Because we live in a society that does not look kindly on exposing one’s privates in a public place, I also explain to them that certain body parts are considered private and should stay covered unless they are at home.
There will come a time when my boys will choose to shower alone rather than splash around in the bath tub with me and their baby sister, and I will respect their decision. No matter how comfortable they are around me and my body, they will still start to see other women differently as they go through puberty and adolescence, and they will need space to explore that side of themselves.
My hope is that the contrast between the two types of nudity and their experiences with them will guide them as they start distinguishing for themselves between what is sexy and what is functional. I hope they never feel compelled to shame a celebrity for sharing a happy, healthy moment with his son just because they are scared of the bodies off camera. I hope they never say they failed a test because a girl wears a short skirt. I hope they never blame a victim of sexual violence for dressing evocatively and “asking for it.” I hope they grow up feeling confident about their bodies and respectful of those around them, no matter what the context.
*This post originally appeared on The Washington Post