Aside from streaking on a dare at sixteen, and attending an “underwear” party a number of years back, I can’t claim to have had a lot of experience with public nudity. My two-year-old daughter, Clementine, on the other hand, is already making quite an impression in the parks we frequent by doffing her clothes at every opportunity.
The first time I got a comment about this, I was more startled than anything. We were in a local playground. Clem was one. The place was practically deserted, and she was naked, playing in a sprinkler.
I noticed a cop stroll in and talk to an older couple sitting at the opposite side of the park. A few minutes later he strolled over to me. “Do you speak Polish?” he asked.
“No. Sorry,” I told him.
“I’m trying to tell them they can’t be in here without a child, but they don’t understand.” He paused for a second. “You know, you really should put some clothes on your baby. People like that, you can’t always trust them.”
At first I was a little surprised. The old folks – who seemed simply to be having lunch – were potential pedophiles? I would never have guessed. Good thing I’m not a cop, I thought.
It seemed more likely that the couple simply rather hadn’t understood the sign that read “All adults must be accompanied by a child.” I mumbled something about how it was fine with me if they stayed, and that I would keep an eye on Clem.
“They’re lucky,” he told me. “You saved them a ticket. But you really should put something on your daughter.”
I didn’t, and as a result I spent the rest of the time we were there worried that the cop would come back and haul me away.
Other incidents have been less amicable, and now that I have a two-year-old, they have also become more common. That’s because the two-year-old in question could pass for three and sees no need to stay dressed when it’s hot. Or when she’s bored. Or if there’s water anywhere in sight. Or just because.
That just because was the catalyst for a recent comment we got as we walked into our building. To me a toddler in a onesie is fully dressed, but a woman in the foyer disagreed. “Looks like someone forgot her pants today,” she said. I couldn’t quite read her tone, yet I felt defensive. “She had a skirt,” I said too quickly. “But she took it off.”
It’s funny; despite hearing tongue-clucking and getting vaguely accusatory questions from other parents (“Don’t you worry about people looking at her when she’s not wearing anything?” “Did you see there are boys here, too?”), I have yet to hear the most obvious and legitimate argument for clothing a baby: accidents.
That’s the one I really worry about (Next in line: sunburns. We are of pasty stock). Clementine has been on the cusp of being toilet trained for longer than I would like. We have good days and bad. The possibility of her pooping in a playground seems a lot more dangerous than the possibility that she will incite someone to child molestation.
Of course, I know for some parents the issue is decorum. I overheard one mom telling her three-year-old that she needed to wear a bathing suit “because of modesty.” And I do respect that in many cultures, nudity is just not seen as acceptable at any age. This thing is: in mine, it is.
It’s not that I’m a radical when it comes to parenting. Clem’s been vaccinated, nursed for only six months and drinks from sippy cups that I am sure leach BPA. But I am all for allowing her to drop her drawers whenever she likes.
I have this idea that the more I let her be naked now, the more accepting of her body she will be later. I don’t know that any studies would back me up. At this point, it’s just a hunch. And it’s a hope, grown out of a decade spent working with teenage girls who hate their bodies, that somehow my kid will be an exception.
But I’m not about to get into this when I am told by a stranger to dress her.
The most recent incident was at another Brooklyn park. We were returning from a doctor’s appointment and spied the enticing combination of kids, swings and spurting fountains. So we detoured. Everyone else seemed to have the proper gear: swim diapers, water shoes and buckets. The fact that we didn’t wasn’t about to stop Clem, who promptly raced into the fray. Realizing she was soaked, she began to strip down. I helped pull her out of a tangled tank top, collected her sodden diaper and stepped back to observe.
I have this idea that the more I let her be naked now, the more accepting of her body and she will be later. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one watching, and within seconds I heard a sharp admonishment. “That’s your daughter? You have to put clothes on her!” It was the keeper of the park, a man who was identified by a sign hanging over the bathrooms as Louis. By this time, I had done a little research – if you call trolling neighborhood parenting listserves, and clicking through the Parks Board website “research.” The Parks Board info wasn’t helpful. But if my fellow parents – the ones also let their kids go nude and who claimed to have actually called the park’s manager about this issue – were to be believed, then there were no specific rules on the subject of baby nakedness.
Even so, I told Louis, “Okay, I’ll put a diaper on her in a sec.”
I received a stern reply. “She can’t just wear a diaper. You have to dress her.”
In a city where adult women have legally been able to walk around topless since 1992, this seemed a little odd.
“Actually, I don’t. That’s not in the rules,” I answered, feeling defiant. But because I have a weird respect for even the lowest forms of authority, I only let Clem splash for another minute before collecting our stuff, wrangling her into half an outfit and walking out.
Because really, if my motivation for letting her run around with a bare butt is that I don’t want to make a big deal of her nudity, then it would be kind of counterproductive to cause a scene by using her as a naked pawn in my body-acceptance crusade.
For now, Clem can run free. Until we get called out. Then I guess I’ll put a diaper on her. And soon: underwear. That will be an exciting day. Almost as exciting as the day my daughter becomes a teenage girl who actually feels okay about her body.