It’s been really hot here in Vienna. Like hottest-month-ever-recorded hot. By the end of this week, Vienna will have seen more “desert days” (temperatures above 35°C/95°F) in 2015 (15) than in the previous ten years together (14). Despite all this record breaking, however, air conditioning is still rare (back in the good (and not so) old days you didn’t really need it, plus it’s widely believed to be unhealthy). So once the thick brick walls of your fin de siècle apartment heat up–even sooner for those inhabiting less substantial modern structures–the only escape from the heat is to one of many outdoor swimming pools or more rustic bathing areas along the Danube.
For the last couple of months, we’ve taken our toddler swimming just about every day. Whether the kiddy pool in the nearby park, the bigger complexes with capacities of up tens of thousands of persons or out in the wild, the experience is basically the same—kids under school age mostly bathe topless and many that are older do too. And since bottoms are only required in the pools due to concerns about hygiene, many babies and toddlers wear nothing at all while playing out of the water.
Earlier this summer we went shopping for new swimwear for our growing daughter and all we could find in her size was a bikini (note to self: when it’s hot it’s already too late to buy a swimming suit). Good grief, I thought, who markets this stuff to toddlers? And who demands it? Maybe nobody since it was still hanging around, so we asked the salesperson to separate the top from the bottom before trying the latter on and later disposed of the top altogether, hoping to delay the day when our daughter might think she ought to wear one.
So when someone on a popular social media platform shared this article about a one-year-old girl being required to put on a top at a YMCA pool, I made like Little Bo-Peep and heaved a sigh and wiped an eye at the state of a world in which adults believe that babies need to cover up. At least, I reckoned, my wife and I have the good fortune of raising our daughter in an environment where kids are allowed to run around a little longer without having to dress for the adult gaze 24/7.
But the very next day I happened across this article by the Die Zeit journalist Annabel Wahba titled “Nudity: Paradise is Being Abolished” in which she explores shifting attitudes in Germany about how children ought to appear out-of-doors. Wahba relates a conversation with a neighbor about a video the neighbor had found of her son as a preschooler: the film showed a game the 3- to-5-year olds were playing–naked–and how what once seemed normal would be unthinkable today (my own translation):
My neighbor’s son was born 15 years ago, her daughter seven years ago–during the eight years between them, at least it seemed to us on that evening, something had changed in once liberal Germany. Why don’t we see our children as simply what they are–children–instead of potential sexual objects of pedophiles? Why do we let ourselves become so unsettled, and why are we well on the way to becoming a society of worry-warts and killjoys?
In another anecdote, children of a friend who attend a kindergarten in Berlin are no longer allowed play naked within the facility’s fenced-in playground, which had been the case since the kindergarten’s founding in 1989: since somebody might photograph the children from one of the surrounding balconies it was no longer appropriate. In the author’s own preschool, photography of any kind was becoming taboo, with the parents now required to sign a release form allowing their children to be photographed at all, and certainly not in various states of undress.
If such developments sound like par for the course to an American audience, it’s probably because they are. At least the author identifies the United States as the source of such growing concerns in Germany about how children appear in public:
German society is different from America, but the trends that are manifest there can also be observed a while later here.
What tendencies might these be? With reference to work by British sociologist Frank Furedi, Wahba identifies two–the Anglo-American taboo against naked children and a new Puritanism precipitated by oversexualization. I can’t tell if he’s right just by sticking a finger in the air from afar, but in my experience Americans do get pretty fired up in odd ways about kids. For example, one response to the YMCA article referenced above struck me as being particularly American: in sharing the view that tops on babies are ridiculous, the poster noted that her daughter went topless until she was 3- or 4-years-old. That someone could agree that sexualizing babies is bad, only to wait a year or two and start insisting that toddlers wear tops, is amazing to me.
Whether that is a typical American response is beyond the scope of this shot from the hip, though I hope you’ll chime in with your insights. But the (dis)comfort parents and adults feel about children and their state of dress is clearly a function of socialization.
So I wonder: when it comes to Mormons and the way they dress their offspring for seasonal activities, is there a unique Mormon approach or does Mormon practice simply track the wider culture of wherever members happen to reside?
My experience as a member growing up on one continent and living on another suggests the latter, with stark differences observed in the reactions between American and European members discussing the same situations involving children in church councils. A related possibility is that the Mormon approach is more or less an American approach, a possibility that looms large with the majority of general authorities sharing a similar cultural background and frequent emphasis of standards of dress and appearance, often under the banner of modesty, that seem to me to reflect conservative practices in the United States.
I suppose I’ve answered my own question, though not to my satisfaction. And I don’t want to rule out the possibility of a Mormon approach distinct from where its members live just yet. Mormon scripture, for example, (see here and here) highlights the incapacity for sin of children below the age of accountability, which would seem to militate against the projection of adult notions of modesty and sexuality onto children. If the baptism of little children is an evil abomination, how much more so the perversion of their bodies into sexual objects that require covering up? Thus a(n admittedly pie-in-the-sky) Mormon approach might be to view children as blank slates à la Adam and Eve and try to resist the urge to treat them as pint-sized adults for the duration of their sojourn in the garden.
What would speak against staking out such a paradise where children could grow and develop free of coats of skins and hairshirts? The inexorable process of socialization that begins as soon as infants become aware of their surroundings, I suppose. Also, I’m sure that most, if not all, parents do not feel they are projecting adult notions of modesty and sexuality onto children in dressing their infants and toddlers; rather, I suspect they may be inspired by the fun of dressing their kids in adult fashions (see left) and, more significantly, by protective instincts arising from fears of pedophilia and child abuse. On this point Wahba writes that
The revulsion against pedophiles and child molesters is something that unites almost all of us. It is something like the last common denominator of a pluralistic society. Because it has become so easy at the same time to share pictures on the Internet, we have become overly sensitive.
Greater sensitivity to the evils that may befall children seems like it would be a good thing–is there such as things as being too sensitive? Have attempts to protect our children resulted in their effective removal from the garden? Is there any going back? Were such freedoms ever desirable in the first place? Should Euro holdouts get a clue and cover up? How do you determine appropriate attire for children (your own or just in general)? Have you identified any particular motivations for your choices?