Thunder in Paradise

Hot Hot Hot

Mr. Smith knows a thing or two about heat. (source)

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.

Screaming Hand

The iconic screaming hand for infants. (source)

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?


  1. Rick Chandler says:

    It’s all fun and games until an e. coli outbreak hits :). There are very practical reasons to not throw 50 naked non potty trained toddlers toddlers into a wading pool. Pre-schools are germ factories enough without doing away with such weapons of puritanism as swim diapers. To avoid sunburn / eventual skin cancer, sun shirts have been increasingly common swimming attire for boys and girls.

    I think privacy rights in general are around the changes in policy around photos in schools. Although reasons may vary, not all families want their kids photos scattered all over the Internet. I think often these reasons have to do with custody / family issues.

    Would you feel right about the having your 18 year old daughter swim topless to avoid sexualizing her body? If not, when is the right age to start? My family’s intuition and general approach to raising our two girls is more or less the same as with our boys–generally dress them as toddlers the way that they’ll dress as they grow older. I’d suspect that it is much less traumatic for a girl wear tops while swimming from the onset than it is to swim topless until puberty and then be asked to “cover up”. That seems to be the perfect recipe for creating a sense in shame around the physical changes with the onset of puberty.

  2. There are very practical reasons to not throw 50 naked non potty trained toddlers toddlers into a wading pool.

    Definitely, which is why I commented in the OP that “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.”

    Would you feel right about the having your 18 year old daughter swim topless to avoid sexualizing her body?

    The sexualization of adult body parts is beside the point of my post, but I’d want my daughter to feel comfortable in her own skin whatever her age. What that means will vary depending on the context. In the US I can’t think of offhand of a public place where a woman could swim topless without causing a commotion, and I certainly wouldn’t force anyone in such an environment to do so just because of some principled position I might hold. But elsewhere there may be times and places where non-sexual nudity is the norm and I wouldn’t bat an eye.

  3. It was not common for toddlers to run around naked in public in the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s, in the US at least, and while I have no direct or personal knowledge of earlier decades, I suspect the same was true. I’m also pretty sure that pedophilia was not on the general radar and so played little to no role in that state of being. There’s some evidence that children were sexualized in, say, advertising, but the daily dress of children then hardly seems sexualizing, at least to the modern eye.

    So when and how did this “greater sensitivity to the evils that may befall children” become the assumed or real reason for dressing toddlers? Has nudity always been normal for European toddlers? Was it acceptable a hundred years ago? If not, why and when did acceptance/preference for nudity arise? I think those are important factors in answering your question, because if a period of social acceptance of public nudity arose relatively recently in Europe, as would have to be acknowledged as the case in the US, and if that period was relatively brief, then a return to older and perhaps much longer-lived norms could turn your wuestion on its head: What accounts for public acceptance of child nudity in the past generation or two? Is Europe following American trends, or merely returning to earlier European standards that Americans never abandoned?

  4. I think there’s room here to argue that, while children are innocent, we are preparing them for the time when they are not. My children take the sacrament before they are baptized, based on the exact same principle. The law does not apply to them in their purity and innocence, so why do we have them take the sacrament? Because they are preparing for the day when the law applies. This would lead me to defend the “particularly American” commenter: babies need not wear tops, but they should start early in childhood, as preparation for the days when the rules of modesty applies.

    On a related note, I have a child who, before baptism, was prone to sit on the pews at church so that her underwear was visible. I told her to “be modest,” meaning to cover her underwear. Should I not correct her, on the pretext that she is not capable of sin, and any sin in the situation is purely in the mind of those watching? I would argue that she needed to start being mindful of such things before they fully applied. Would you say otherwise?

  5. Is Europe following American trends, or merely returning to earlier European standards that Americans never abandoned?

    Excellent point, Ardis, and I feel a little sheepish for not having given more thought to the questions you raise. After fishing around for a minute I found something that may partially answer them, though perhaps not directly with regard to children. At any rate, according to Dagmar Herzog (my translation),

    The prudery of the 1950s was a big exception in the German sexual history of the last 100 years. By the late 19th century Austria already had the highest rate of illegitimate births in the world, and in Switzerland at the turn of the 19th to 20th century there were many back-to-nature experiments. But in fact Germany had at the beginning of the 20th century the most liberal sexual culture in the world. […] At the same time there had always existed an earthy German self-conception that simply found sex and nudity to be just fine. The various nudity movements are at pains to this day to portray their actions as not erotic and to emphasize the aesthetic side of their movement.

  6. eponymous says:

    I think you want the mothers’ opinions here more than anything. My wife would say that the clothing is to protect against splinters, sunburns, abrasions, hygiene (from rolling around in dirt and grass) and mosquito bites. We’re certainly not prudes and do not force sleeves on our young girls nor worry about them running around shirtless. And dressing the girls up in cute clothes is more driven by Pinterest and Mommy Blogs than anything else these days. There is less than subtle pressure for your children to look like they walked out of a magazine.

  7. eponymous says:

    bt109 you might consider putting what we call biker shorts on your daughter – think yoga pant like tights that end mid thigh and do not stick out below her dress. Then who cares how she sits while she’s a young girl? She’ll learn the social norms quick enough when she’s old enough for it to matter.

  8. I would argue that she needed to start being mindful of such things before they fully applied. Would you say otherwise?

    As I mentioned to Rick Chandler above, I wouldn’t want my kids to become pariahs on my account, and of course I would want them to be prepared to successfully navigate the world of expectations they live in. Though that’s just because I fear social shaming, not because toddler underpants pose a threat to the congregation in any objective sense. But, yeah, lines and where to draw them–that’s tricky.

  9. “Should I not correct her, on the pretext that she is not capable of sin, and any sin in the situation is purely in the mind of those watching?”

    Exactly. Kids get appropriately embarrassed about their underwear showing when they are old enough; there’s no need for parents to introduce shame earlier than the world does. It’s Satan who introduces self-consciousness about nudity in our temple liturgy…

  10. There is less than subtle pressure for your children to look like they walked out of a magazine.


  11. I’m not sure where Ardis gets the perfect knowledge that no toddlers ran around naked in the 1950’s – ’70’s. I”m certainly aware of it happening. We had neighbors who moved from Kansas and at their community pool children didn’t wear swimsuits until school age. We had invited them to come swimming with us and the mom asked what people wore where we lived so her kids would be prepared with suits if needed. So I’m sure it happened in other communities too. Hard for anything to be quite so consistent across an entire country :-)

    I was reading an interesting book review about the McMartin pre-school abuse cases in the 1980’s and how that greatly changed how parents raise their children even though all the claims of abuse turned out to be false. Interesting how we hear things, change our behavior and justify it to ourselves.

    It’s amazing to me how much the modesty chant at church has changed since I was a teen in the late 1970’s – early 1980’s. The YW now have a much stricter standard than we did.

  12. I’m quite sure that Ardis didn’t say it never happened, just that it wasn’t common. In my experience that was true. I remember seeing a couple of young children naked at the beach in the mid to late 70’s and finding it quite scandalous to my pre-pubescent (non-LDS) self. Even your example shows that it wasn’t “common” in your neighborhood either.

  13. Good stuff. One of Peter’s points is that the idea that a baby or small child needs to cover up in the interest of sexual modesty — thus meaning that the baby or child is a sex object to the adult gaze — is a conservative (puritanical) American standard whereas the traditional German and Austrian approach of letting children play naked because they are children and not sexual objects or beings is the conservative, traditional, time-honored standard in those countries (and much of the rest of Europe). Letting children play naked is not “liberal” in Germany or Austria. It is manifestly “conservative”, and it probably taps into much more ancient conservative tendencies in the history of the world about babies and children going about naked.

    We puritanical Americans are the side of the equation that has changed things from the traditional, time-honored way of doing things. So what’s a Burkean conservative supposed to do?

  14. J. Stapley says:

    My experience with primary sources from nineteenth century Utah leads me to believe that same-sex nudity at pools, streams, lakes, and baths was extremely common for all ages. Not sure about mixed sex gatherings.

  15. I believe that holds true through the ages, J., and certainly since the dawn of humanity for children. Twentieth century Americans are the aberration, not the rule.

  16. Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of scouting, is reputed to have admired the sight of boys swimming naked in the rivers of England and to have taken umbrage when anyone would try to run them off. It is only our corrupt culture that reads anything sexual into that.

    To this day it is not uncommon in Finland for Mormons to sauna together in the buff, gender segregated of course. Like for a High Priests Group activity. No one catches the gay from it. Families sauna together, segregating only once the children begin to develop sexually, which is when they start noticing and getting uncomfortable about it anyway.

    I own two swimsuits, one for the US and one for Europe, where baggy trunks are often restricted at public swimming pools because of the hazard of them getting snagged on things, tangled in legs when they slip off accidentally, etc.

    Making children dress from an early age as if they are endowed and wearing garments doesn’t pass the Scientology test for me. It seems more cult than religion. In our family we begin enforcing more “modesty” standards as our girls age, with baptism and entering Young Women’s being important milestones. What we are most strict about is styles or behaviors that demean (sexualize) or incapacitate (ie high heels) the wearer.

  17. That might be the most sensible comment I’ve read on this topic, Owen. Thank you!

  18. I think by the time a child enters kindergarten, which is mostly mandatory in the states, he/she should not swim naked in public. In kindergarten they are in a structured environment, following rules and quasi-social norms. They don’t run around naked to play at school, why would they run around naked to play elsewhere? Now, that doesn’t mean they can’t run around naked in the most private of situations — a close family gathering at the creek out in the woods; an impromptu swim on a camping trip with Dad and/or Mom. Nor does it mean they have to dress as if they’re wearing garments. But generally, at the point where children begin to have expectations of them (sitting in a desk, doing light homework, walking in line to the cafeteria) then perhaps it’s time to start acting like part of society, and that society, for the most part, is not naked. I would feel better about the progressive nature of Europeans and their acceptance of public nudity if there wasn’t a high rate of teenage sex. Although studies tout Europe’s overall lower birth rates among teens, they acknowledge that in fact, European youth are having more sex outside of marriage than their US counterparts, but they are just more prone to use birth control. “Inoculation” by encouraging teens to see other teens and adults naked at beaches is not an antibiotic for a male 16 year old’s hormone surges.

  19. Yeah, kindergarten sounds about right for the end of public nudity.

  20. tmiller76 says:

    I am the mother of 3 boys (10, 8, and 4) and there seems to be a lot of nakedness going on around my house. Even my oldest could care less to shower and dress in front of me. And as we have a pool out back, someone always seems to be jumping in naked or in underwear. But my boys know that out in public you try to be modest and appropriately dressed. It isn’t about shame–it’s about context.

  21. I’m basically with all of you on the context thing–swimming at the lake and going to Sunbeams, for example, are two totally different activities, and I’m sure even 3-year-olds intuitively grasp this as well as the sense that appropriate dress for each is different.

    But let’s leave the church in the village: I’m not advocating wholesale disregard of social conventions or promoting teenage promiscuity. The point isn’t that toddlers should feel free to attend church naked. I do wonder, however, where the strong sense that girls of that age ought to cover their breasts while swimming at the lake comes from. I suspect it’s not an eternal principle, and I think scripture backs me up on that point, but nevertheless it’s out there, so what do we make of it?

  22. “what do we make of it?” — maybe that we’re trending toward the full Burka as a culture?

  23. And speaking of context, Owen and John F. make important points about what is considered normal, non-sexual nudity in certain parts of the world. The idea isn’t to force Americans to become a mixed-sauna-loving people, but to consider such examples as a means of reflecting on the innateness of convention.

  24. John, I guess we’ll have to if a male 16 year old’s hormone surges are our chief concern.

  25. Our society (biology?) is hyper sexualized when we don’t construct borders and social norms for behavior. We can’t blame Mormons or puritans for it.

    Many places in the world have severe pornography problems that aren’t remotely close to western in their cultural attitude. Blaming puritans is nonsense.

    It’s naïve to ignore the sex drive, especially when societies tear down social boundaries of appropriate behavior (ie. Monogamy, Chastity).

    Our bodies are designed with urges that we ought to have to collective civil courage to say, stop and control yourself; while obviously being aware that such control is impossible all the time. We shouldn’t tear down the standard because we all fall short though.

    All that being said… Kids are kids and we clearly need balance, but when degradation of sexual boundaries is considered, you can’t expect to have consensual adult porn-behavior without experiencing more pedophiles at the margin. It’s all on a sliding scale of “deviant” behavior, which at one time psychologists would not be afraid to single out.

    Interestingly, the old pioneer swim with your clothes off (you think kids were in swim suits?) also occurred in a time of stricter sexual boundaries. The golden years cited by you and this article was more “traditional” sexually speaking.

    Now people just say they are born this way, or it feels good do it, etc without realizing that sexuality is more complex and evolving.

    It should not surprise us that when the biological tools for societal reproduction are used ignorantly, immaturely, and unwisely, then society will become worse off.

    There is also a large component here of not knowing, and hence not trusting and being suspicious of your neighbor. So the breakdown in community that necessarily comes with large cities must play a role.

  26. “Interestingly, the old pioneer swim with your clothes off (you think kids were in swim suits?) also occurred in a time of stricter sexual boundaries.” Um, I’m not sure sexual boundaries were stricter then, at least for my pioneer polygamous male ancestors…

  27. marcella: I’m not sure where Ardis gets the perfect knowledge that no toddlers ran around naked in the 1950’s – ’70’s.

    It’s deliberate and provocative misrepresentation that makes it so hard to have a rational conversation online anymore. marcella’s perversion is not, of course, what I wrote: It was not common for toddlers to run around naked in public in the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s.

  28. Tim, if you can’t discern the difference between a porn obsessed, increasingly promiscuous society and one where people are committing to marriage and family there is no common ground for dialogue.

    The fact that you think so ill of your ancestors reveals more about you than them.

  29. Our bodies are designed with urges that we ought to have to collective civil courage to say, stop and control yourself;

    Sure, adolescents and adults ought to get a grip on their sex drives if they want to live happy, fulfilling lives. But how does that apply to infants and toddlers? In fact, part of adults getting a grip might include forgoing the apparently irresistible temptation to view, say, infant breasts as sexual objects. Finally, I’m not blaming Mormons and Puritans for the state of 21st century America–I’m hoping Mormonism provides a third way out of what seems like an at times counterproductive approach to sexualizing the innocent among us.

  30. I’m suggesting the hyper sexualization of society (it’s always there as a fact of biology, but society keeps it in check at the margins, remove norms, and marginal decay becomes widespread) is causing people to view all nudity differently.
    It doesn’t mean you or I think sex when we see a toddler without clothes but the thought might cross out minds that someone else out there might.

    When more people are sexually deviant, it’s natural to want to protect our children from potential sexualization.

    So rather than suggest it’s conservative attitudes about sex that’s the issue, it seems likely the culprit is the conservative response in many of us to the more liberal ones.

  31. Ardis, it wasn’t deliberate – I mis-read your statement focusing on the “not” and I’m sorry. I read the line and was stunned someone was commenting with such a definite statement about 3 decades and a huge country. Apologies for the too quick typing after reading.

    However, Fiona, I only used one example. I have many if we have pages for me to type them all out. How boring to read though. I’m not sure where “common” might begin but as one who has always lived in the western US I often have seen (and continue to see) young children playing at public beaches and pools wearing only bottoms or nothing at all. From my perspective it still wouldn’t be uncommon behavior unless it was at an lds gathering.

  32. Growing up in Germany as an American, I frequently event to the public Schwimbad with my friend when we were 10 and 11 years old. Alone. There were often kids as old as seven or eight who were playing and swimming totally naked. I was surprised at first, but I quickly got used to it. I wasn’t allowed to, nor did I feel comfortable (note my age, was getting quickly shy about stuff) for myself, but it did not bother me at all.

    As my kids have grown up, we started wearing a top, swim shirt or rash guard, and in the girl cases very cute swim tops with “bike short” style shorts, which I make. Our main goal, with five kids who burn like a redhead is avoiding using quite as much sunscreen. We got the idea 15 years ago from Australian cousins. Biggest challenge is that inadvertently, that became the definition of “modest” when we weren’t looking. We have talked them down off that cliff to not be judgy. It is still better for sun exposure with their complexions to be safe.

  33. At the Church-owned Deseret Gym (rip) next to the SL Temple same sex nude swimming was the standard practice until the 1960’s. The pool was indoors.

    I remember a comment by my mother about accidentally walking into the pool area during a male-only swim session.

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