My daughter, Bella, went to summer camp for the first time this year, a rustic idle on a lake in Maine where the kids spent almost all day in the water, swimming and boating. Beforehand, I received a letter listing the basic supplies she needed like suntan lotion and bug spray. It also suggested that she wear a one-piece bathing suit. “Bikinis can inadvertently slip aside and expose too much,” the letter said. “Help our girls stay modest!” Modest? I balked. Bella has nothing to hide. She is seven years old.
When the weather is nice in Berlin, where we live, children take off all their clothes and play in fountains at the playground. On lake beaches around the city, bathing suits are optional.
I know that Europeans are famously laid back about nudity. And I know that Americans are particularly prudish. But, American though I am, the notion that a seven year old should already be worried about exposing too much of her body in a bikini astonished me. I understand the impulse to protect young girls, of course, but in this case, what exactly are we protecting them from?
In Africa, women went bare-breasted until Muslim mullahs and Christian missionaries told them to cover themselves up for fear of offending God. My parents say that until the Christians arrived a hundred years ago, the Luo women of Kenya were naked except for a string of beads around the waist while Luo men went completely naked. And even in as late as the 1960s, when my parents were working in Nigeria, you could practically follow the missionaries’ progress upcountry by whether or not village women were covered up.
My father remembers being on a road in a forested area in Eastern Nigeria, near where he met my mother, and running into a man wearing only a penis sheath (A penis sheath!) in 1961. The truth is the so-called banana hammocks worn by men on most French beaches fifty years later aren’t much more than that. Plus almost all the women there are topless. And France is a deeply Catholic country. So religion can’t be all to blame. What do you think it is?
When I was eleven in the summer of 1981, I went to a Quaker overnight camp in Vermont that embraced “The Fifth Freedom,” which was loosely defined as “respect for the human body.” In practice it meant that girls were allowed to take their shirts off, as boys always do, if they felt like it. And no one wore a bathing suit.
Nowadays, most Americans would find this shocking at minimum, and possibly even illegal. (I noticed on my old camp’s website that skinny-dipping there has actually since been fazed out.) At the time, I swear, it was no big deal. Soon afterwards, however, I attended an all-girls Catholic school in Cuernavaca, Mexico where the Mother Superior, who was from California, sent a letter home to my parents instructing them to buy me a bra because, she said, my nipples showed through my uniform shirt. I still remember the embarrassment of trying on AA training bras I did not need at Sanborn’s downtown.
The day before Bella started her camp we bought her two one-piece bathing suits, so that she’d always have a dry one for after lunch. The camp was a fantastic slice of Americana for a girl growing up in Germany and she loved it, from singing rounds, to the yellow school bus, to the to prizes given out to every single camper at the end. My fear going into it was that a place so focused on helping girls to “stay modest” would create premature anxiety; my only wish being that she enjoy her childhood for as long as possible, free of the self-consciousness that plagues most adults. But she never commented on the cultural differences.
Then this past weekend, back home in Berlin, some German friends came over with their three kids. It was a rare hot day and so I got out the wading pool and sprinkler in the garden and our three young visitors, a girl aged eleven and two boys aged seven and three, stripped down and played in the water for the next few hours, stark naked. Not a care in the world. Meanwhile our two year old waddled around in her diaper. And Bella? She went up to her room. Five long minutes later she came back down to the garden, turned out proudly in her American camp one-piece.
They all had fun of course. Why can’t I shake the feeling that something has been lost?
Anna Winger’s first novel, This Must Be the Place, is published by Riverhead. She is also a photographer and the creator of Berlin Stories for NPR . She was raised by Harvard anthropologists Dr. Robert LeVine and Dr. Sarah LeVine in Kenya, Massachusetts and Mexico, and now lives with her German husband and two daughters in Berlin. The Mother Culture is an ongoing series of reflections on her experiences as an American mother abroad and conversations with her parents about mothering around the world.