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It’s such a lovely picture. Wispy tendrils of honey-gold hair dangle at the fringes of her face as she sits perched in profile — bottom to heel, calf to thigh and thigh to chest — pressed into a youthful squat that makes my knees cringe. Our bathtub, her canvas, is a riot of colorful brushstrokes and paint-filled Dixie cups. I love the quintessential toddler-ness in the haphazard but deliberate way she goes about her work. I also love that the image commemorates a rainy-day moment of “entertain my mess-loving toddler with minimal cleanup” mom-genuity.

High on my accomplishment, I posted my 2-year-old daughter’s picture on an anonymous image-sharing website I waste time on. Within seconds my computer pinged with a comment:

A naked kid! What is wrong with you?

*Ping*

You know the kind of people that are out there, right?

*Ping*

You’re gonna get the wrong kind of attention. What’s wrong with you?

As my thoughts ping-ponged between shock and confusion, I debated replying: “What’s wrong with you? Maybe a nipple is visible, but who scandalizes a toddler’s body?” I wanted to brush them off, but the comments were so consistently scathing, I wasn’t sure who — or what — was wrong. I deleted the image, but my uncertainty lingered.

Celebrity news headlines in the following months illustrated that my experience was on-trend. Both Pink and Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson faced backlash after sharing images of their unclothed toddlers. While some comments raised concerns about “sharenting” — parents saddling their children with an indelible online presence — the controversy centered on more salacious concerns: Why would you expose a young child? They make swimsuits for a reason. Please cover her nakedness.

But among the harsh rebukes, another thread emerged: nostalgia for simpler times when people didn’t “freak out” over naked children or worry about how much skin kids showed. I understand the frustration. In the past, children’s bodies probably were viewed differently, but then again, so were women’s.

***

Growing up I wasn’t religious, but in my little notch of the Bible Belt, Wednesday-night youth church was a compulsory social activity and a rare parent-sanctioned opportunity for co-ed mingling. I went for fun, not the pastor’s sermons, but I definitely got the message that the Devil was all around us. He seemed to be all over young girls’ bodies, in particular — in our bra straps, midriffs, upper thighs — areas our public-school dress code demanded we cover, lest we send the boys into carnal convulsions.

To be fair, my community was so entrenched in its old-fashioned ways, we had our own cultural time zone. When I hit my tweens, it might have been 1989 on the coasts, but my world was easily a decade behind. I’m still catching up.

For years I never challenged the idea that dressing “provocatively” was, well, a provocation — an invitation for a certain kind of attention. When I saw a teenager in cutoffs so high-cut the pockets showed, I clicked my tongue and clucked to myself. What was she thinking? What were her parents thinking?

My thinking has changed over the past decade as my old views are rightly unraveled by a new awareness of rape culture, victim shaming and the wrongness of measuring a woman’s innocence in inches above the knee. I’m determined to do better, especially for my children. But as I twist my thoughts around new understandings, I often end up in a tangle. Is the young pop star’s overt sexuality wrongful exploitation by the music industry, or is it sex-positive female empowerment? When I see a red-lipped teen with perfectly winged eyeliner, I see self-expression (and skills that elude me), but I also see societal beauty standards.

Tangles abound, but I didn’t expect to find one on a sunscreen bottle. The Coppertone Water Babies bottle is iconic. A pigtailed toddler turns as a mischievous dog pulls at her bikini bottom, exposing a tan line and little butt crack. Still stinging from those online comments, I looked to the bottle’s bottom for validation. See, there’s nothing sexual about baby butts — but the butt was gone! Her expression, the dog, the pigtails, were identical; only now she wears a one-piece, and the dog’s tug exposes nothing.

Coppertone gradually rolled out their revamped logo over the past decade, citing increased sun protection as their one-piece suit rationale. But in one article, an industry analyst speculated Coppertone was actually covering its own butt in response to pressure from women’s groups. One quote in particular caught my eye: A National Organization for Women leader said that “images like this hurt and degrade women and children by objectifying them.”

I bristled, feeling a little hurt and degraded myself. The photo I shared, the photos Pink and the Rock shared, garnered comments that turned innocent moments of incidental nakedness into invitations for the wrong kind of attention. They turned a child’s nakedness into nudity:

Don’t you know the kind of people that are out there?

You’re gonna get the wrong kind of attention, what’s wrong with you?

Aren’t these the same problematic questions I was taught to ask, and expect, as a woman — questions I’m still trying to unlearn?

***

My older daughter thinks nakedness is hysterical, especially if butts are featured. That’s peak humor for 6-year-olds. “Actually, six and three-quarters,” she’ll tell you. Firmly. This girl cares about the finer points; I can’t get away with rounding down to the nearest easy explanation. Sometimes I need reminding.

Last week she grabbed her PJs and stood on her bed getting dressed — a quirk I hadn’t considered days beforehand when she asked to move her bed against the window. But now, as she stood bare-bottomed — framed by the window and the curtains she never closes — I felt uneasy.

“Sweetie, please close your curtains.”

“I want to look outside.”

“Okay, but at night maybe just —”

“No thanks.”

As she threaded a foot through her underwear, nearly pressing her butt to the glass, I closed the curtains.

“Mama!” She grumbled, falling into bed.

“At night with your lights on, the whole street can see you.”

“Why?”

I tried to sound casual, afraid of adding another boogeyman to the collection that already haunt the dark corners of her room. Feeling guilty, I compromised. “Maybe open them after you change?”

“Why can’t they see me?”

“Because your underwear areas are private.”

“What does that mean?”

“Private: not for other people to see.”

“Why not?”

Checkmate. Because I’m afraid someone will see your body in the window as an invitation, even though that’s rarely how it happens. Because it’s hard to explain privacy without implying there’s something to fear — either in your body or in those who see it — and I don’t want to steal one moment of your innocence. But I don’t want to let someone else steal it, either.

“Just because” was my answer.

***

I don’t want to treat my children’s bodies as provocations, but I feel increasing societal pressure to do exactly that. Rightly so, perhaps. The relentless stream of headlines featuring abuse and assault accusations leaves me desperate to protect my children. I want to cover their bodies, hoping clothes will shield them from the predatory gaze. But I suspect, like other forms of sexual aggression, changing clothes won’t change the problem or reduce the risk.

I could parent to the lowest common denominator of human decency, sending the message that they’re safer with their bodies covered. But as they grow, how can I expect them to believe they aren’t inviting harm, no matter what they’re wearing?

I don’t know the right answer, but it’s not “just because.” I need to let them ask me the hard questions because these are complicated issues that will probably never round down to easy explanations, and I want them to keep asking.

Katherine Revelle is a freelance writer based in New England. You can find her on Twitter @katervelle.

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