I was seven when my mom broke it to me that I was too old to go outside without a shirt on. It was so unfair. My friends who were boys got to run around the neighborhood shirtless on hot days. I was so teed off, I stormed into my bedroom and sulked until I realized having the freedom to go topless in the isolation of my own room was not nearly as fun as throwing on a t-shirt and going outside to play with my friends. My first feminist defeat, crushed by my desire to play kickball.
I didn't know how to answer Katie's question. She's only six. But then again, she's six already! My gut felt like telling her, "Sure!" She's a child. It's hot. We teach her that boys and girls should be treated equally. But my brain cried out, "No! What will the neighbors think?!"
I told her no, and I felt lame. But then I felt better after we spent the next ten minutes discussing why our culture has different rules for women and men. We talked about how sometimes we have to follow rules we don't agree with, and that if we really think the rules should change we have to work hard to convince other people why the rules should change. We talked about respecting other people's feelings, other people's religious beliefs about modesty. We talked about how in our culture many people think of breasts not just as body parts that deliver milk to babies but as "sexy" private parts. Then I got to try to define what "sexy" means to a six year old. We went on to talk about how some other cultures in the world don't have the same rules as we do about women and girls going topless in public. We talked about how we have to learn to respect other people's beliefs while also working to make sure our beliefs are heard and respected.
Whew! I must have wiped my brow at least twenty times during our conversation. Too bad I couldn't take my shirt off to cool down.
It looks like our conversation would have been different if our family lived in New York. Here's a recent news article about how NYPD officers have been instructed to stop arresting women for exposing their breasts in public.
What do you think? Should girls be allowed to play outside without a shirt on? If the answer is yes when they're young but no when they're older, at what age do you think girls should be restricted from going topless in public? Have your daughters asked to take off their shirts outside, and if you tell them no, do they seem to resent it or to live with this gender rule unquestioningly?