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While parenthood is undeniably rewarding, it also requires accepting that you’ll be judged for nearly everything you do: what you feed your kids, how you discipline them, the list goes on. Now imagine being a public figure who’s also a mother, and you can expect the scrutiny to be magnified tenfold. Enter Kim Kardashian West, who was criticized for sharing a topless selfie on Instagram that was taken by her 4-year-old daughter, North.
In the photo, Kardashian West is seen from behind in front of a mirror, wearing only black workout leggings and an undone bra. North can be seen in the reflection, and the camera flash disguises her face.
Much of the controversy had to do with how people interpreted the photo to be highly sexualized; some Instagram commenters even accused Kardashian of setting a poor example in allowing her daughter to snap the nearly nude photo. Because we’ll never know the full context of how the photo came to be, perhaps our attention would be better focused on the debate surrounding the image: Is it harmful to be naked in front of your kids?
To be clear, we're talking about non-sexual displays of nudity, like taking a bath with your children or simply deciding not to be modest while walking around the house.
When it comes to bare skin, I'm of the camp that believes offense is taken in the eye of the beholder. Take the sexualization of breastfeeding in public, for example: As a parent of two, I don't see the vulgarity in a mother feeding her baby simply because bare breasts are involved. In my eyes, it's no different than if the mom was spooning solid food into her child’s mouth. How a mother or father chooses to teach their children about how to be comfortable in their own bodies—including about sexuality and consent—is up to them, and no parent should feel the need to justify themselves to anyone else. Of course, that’s much easier said than done.
To find out how seeing parents au naturel really affects children, I asked everyone from a family therapist to other moms (including a French parent) to weigh in on the topic. Read on below to see what experts, studies, and mothers have to say.
What the Expert Says
Licensed family therapist and relationship expert, Gayle Peterson, PhD, explains it's natural for parents to be relaxed about nudity at home up until their children are about 3 years old. "It's very common for parents to take baths with them and so forth, assuming it's a healthy environment where nothing is super sexualized," she tells MyDomaine. The Making Healthy Families founder (and author of the book with the same name) explains that when parents and young kids feel comfortable being naked around each other, it can help encourage children to develop self-esteem and positive body image.
Meet the Expert
Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist who specializes in family development and prenatal counseling.
"It's good for children to feel like they can ask questions about their bodies at that age and [receive age-appropriate] educational answers," says Peterson. While outside factors like seeing sexualized imagery in the media or being teased by classmates about their bodies can still have an effect on kids, "If they grow up with a basic liking of their body, then they're going to feel better about themselves at the core," she says.
"The parents are obviously the captains of the ship; they’re going to determine [the family's comfort level]" when it comes to nudity, Peterson says. For instance, if a father is uncomfortable with his wife being naked around their kids, their children are going to pick up on his discomfort. "Then the interpretation of the body and its naturalness becomes tainted with the tension of [one parent's] experience," she explains.
Parents also need to observe their children’s personal boundaries and respect their wishes for privacy, which often start in pre-puberty, often around 9 or 10 years old. "That’s a matter of being empathetic and attuned to their child’s responses [to nudity]," she explains. And because American children tend to be exposed to sexualization in the media at that age, Peterson says they're "probably better off with some sense of privacy, but obviously that may change depending on the family and the children involved."
What the Studies Say
Although recent research is lacking, one long-term study published in 1998 conducted by UCLA over a span of 18 years found that "pervasive beliefs in the harmfulness of [parental nudity and sexuality] are exaggerated." The findings concluded that there were no negative effects among adolescents who observed their parents naked regularly when they were between the ages of 3 to 6.
A 1988 study conducted by Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, examined the childhood experiences of 200 college students and found that boys and girls who saw their parents nude between 0 to 5 tended to be more comfortable with physical affection and contact and have a positive attitude toward sexuality. "The results suggest that childhood experiences with exposure to nudity and sleeping in the parental bed are not adversely related to adult sexual functioning and adjustment," write the authors. "In fact, there is modest support that these childhood experiences are positively related to indices of adjustment."
What Other Moms Say
When I reached out to members of the private MyDomaine Moms Facebook group to find out what other parents thought about the subject of parental nudity in front of children, the message across the board was loud and clear: Let's put an end to shaming.
"There's no right or wrong here. It is wrong to imply one way of behaving is right for every family though," says group member Megan Blanchard. "That line of thinking teaches body shaming and mom-shaming. Everyone is in control of their own body. In the home, if you want to be naked, be naked, if you want to be clothed, be clothed. We should be focused on teaching our children to love their bodies and feel empowered to set boundaries."
Lexie T. agreed: "This is a such a sensitive topic for so many Americans. I believe if a parent chooses, they can share neutral moments of nudity with their young child. These moments can instill memories of body positivity for when they're older and more aware of their own bodies and begin making comparisons. Memories, such as skinny dipping or breastfeeding a sibling, can also reinforce that nudity is not exclusively associated with sexuality. The body isn't something to be ashamed of and however, parents address nudity they should take care to not invite or instill shame."
It's true that Americans are notoriously puritanical when it comes attitudes toward nudity and sex. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2001 found that American college students "judged promiscuous women more harshly than British students did," the New York Times points out.
I also asked my fellow members in Fashion Mamas to see where they stand on the topic, and several mothers there also agreed that showing skin around children is acceptable and natural when not done in a sexualized way.
"I think it's natural and appropriate," says Christine C., who also calls out the fact that other cultures approach familial nudity differently than Americans. "In many Asian and perhaps Italian cultures, we often go as a family to bath houses, so it's normal to see each other naked all the time no matter what age."
Mother of two Elizabeth Kennedy, also a Fashion Mamas member, says that she feels "100% comfortable bathing naked with [my sons] and in general being naked in front of them. We use anatomically correct names for our body parts and it works for us. We’re playing by ear and until I feel differently, we’ll continue doing the same."
"Family at home is one of the few times children can see nude human bodies that aren't being marketed or sexualized. It is no longer appropriate if it makes the children uncomfortable in any way," says Natasha (who preferred not to use her last name). She shares her unique experience growing up in a family that was very comfortable with nudity: "My parents were always naked around the house. My dad still is, and it's a little over the top. He isn't sensitive to when people have seen enough, he's still living in his 1960s fantasy of body positivity. And that's cool for him, but I really believe you need to read the room with these things."
"I think it's so important to portray body love and body confidence to kids. I would feel unnatural or weird hiding my body when I change or get in and out of bathing," continues Natasha. "You can't tell a kid to love their body, you have to live that in order to instill that in them. I see a gigantic difference between my lack of self-consciousness and that of my friends who were raised with more conservative parents. I think this is in part because they equate nudity with the nudity they [have seen in] advertising and porn, versus me seeing so many naked hippies and life drawing models as a kid."
What the French Say
If Yankees are known for being prudish about bare skin, then Europeans are equally known for shrugging their shoulders around nudity—which is why, as someone who's intrigued by French people's seemingly effortless approach to parenting, I wondered What would a Parisian do?
That's why I asked Florence Mars, a Paris-bred mother living in New York and author of the book Say Bonjour to the Lady, how the French view of nudity differs from the American view. In general, most French people tend to be more relaxed about nudity, she tells MyDomaine. "Exposed nudity is not something shocking if it is not in a sexual context. On a body lotion advertisement, you will see a topless lady in a French magazine. Culturally, [nudity is] completely accepted in France."
"My kids can walk in my bathroom when I am taking a shower and neither they or I would mind," Mars continues. "We are not walking naked around the house though! I think making it a big deal to see each other naked is very strange, as if our bodies were something to be ashamed of or something primarily of sexual nature. On the contrary, it's simply natural to us."
She explains that it’s also normal for women to be topless on the beach in France. From grandmothers to young women, "the body is not demonized—at least not children's bodies or women's breasts. Very often you will even see little kids [around] 2 to 3 years old completely naked."
Mars points out that it’s her children who have begun to set boundaries. Her teenage son, for instance, has "made it very clear I should not enter is bathroom at any cost and he would rather wait one hour in front of the door then come in if I am taking a bath."
When I asked her about the Kardashian photo in question, Mars admits that she hadn't heard of the scandal and had to google the picture. "In my humble French opinion, there is absolutely nothing to be shocked about," she says. "The kid is fooling around, the mother is half-naked; [it's] kind of cute and funny. My little one would definitely do the same. The only difference is that I would not post the picture," she says.
Overall, every single mother I spoke to was on the same page when it came to household nudity. Members of Fashion Mamas and the MyDomaine Moms Facebook group agreed that the practice can help promote body positivity, and all were in favor of being in the buff around their own kids. So long as everyone is comfortable and children are given privacy when they request it, each parent voiced resounding support for the practice.
Up next, learn about how one common habit can influence girls' self-image—and what to do instead to empower them to promote body positivity.
Okami P, Olmstead R, Abramson PR, Pendleton L. Early Childhood Exposure to Parental Nudity and Scenes of Parental Sexuality ("Primal Scenes"): an 18-Year Longitudinal Study of Outcome. Arch Sex Behav. 1998;27(4):361-384. doi:10.1023/a:1018736109563
Lewis RJ, Janda LH. The Relationship Between Adult Sexual Adjustment and Childhood Experiences Regarding Exposure to Nudity, Sleeping in the Parental Bed, and Parental Attitudes Toward Sexuality. Arch Sex Behav. 1988;17(4):349-362. doi:10.1007/BF01541812
Huston M. Are Americans Still Puritan? The New York Times. August 3, 2012.