While parenthood is undeniably rewarding, it also requires accepting that you’ll be judged for nearly everything you do with your kids. Now imagine being a public figure, and the scrutiny magnifies: Enter Kim Kardashian West, who was criticized for sharing a topless selfie on Instagram 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. Some viewers commented on the image's sexuality, while others accused Kardashian of setting a poor example. Because we'll never know the context behind the photo, perhaps our attention is better focused on the debate itself: 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 or being undressed around the house. How parents teach their children about being comfortable in one's body—including sexuality and consent—varies between families. To find out how seeing parents au naturel really affects children, we asked an expert to weigh in.
Below, read on to hear what science (and moms) say about family nudity.
What the Expert Says
It's natural for parents to be relaxed about nudity until children are about three years old, according to licensed family therapist and Making Healthy Families founder Gayle Peterson, Ph.D. "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," Peterson says. She explains that when families feel comfortable being naked, it can encourage self-esteem and positive body images.
Meet the Expert
Gayle Peterson, Ph.D., is a family therapist who specializes in family development and prenatal counseling.
"It's good for children to feel they can ask questions about their bodies [and] receive educational answers," says Peterson. "If they grow up with a basic liking of their body, they'll feel better about themselves at the core."
It's also important to observe personal boundaries by respecting children's wishes for privacy, which often start in pre-puberty. "That’s a matter of being empathetic and attuned to their child’s responses [to nudity]," Peterson explains.
In terms of research, one study conducted by UCLA concluded that "beliefs in the harmfulness of [parental nudity] are exaggerated." Researchers found no negative effects among adolescents who saw parents naked before the age of six. Another study by ODU examined the experiences of 200 students, finding that those who saw their parents nude as children were more comfortable with their own sexuality.
If they grow up with a basic liking of their body, they'll feel better about themselves at the core.
What Other Moms Say
Members of the MyDomaine Moms Facebook group expressed one message loud and clear: Let's put an end to shaming.
"There's no right or wrong here," 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." Blanchard believes the focus should be on teaching our children to love their bodies, and to feel empowered to set boundaries.
Group member Lexie T. agrees: "This is 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." She noted that these moments can help children feel positive when they're older. "Memories, such as skinny dipping or breastfeeding a sibling, can reinforce that nudity is not exclusively associated with sexuality."
In the Fashion Mamas group, several mothers agreed that showing skin around children is acceptable as long as it's not done in a sexualized way.
"I think it's natural and appropriate," says Christine C., who noted that other cultures approach nudity differently from Americans. "In many Asian and perhaps Italian cultures, we often go as a family to bathhouses. [It's] normal to see each other naked all the time, no matter what age."
Elizabeth Kennedy, a mother of two, says she feels "100 percent 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."
Natasha (who prefers not to use her last name) shared her experience growing up with a family that was especially comfortable with nudity: "My parents were always naked around the house. My dad still is, [but] I believe you need to read the room…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 [what they've seen in] advertising and porn, versus me seeing so many naked hippies and drawing life models as a kid."
Family Nudity in Other Nations
Are Americans more modest than Europeans? Like many other facets of our daily lives, the cultures we're raised in can influence how we approach nudity at home. While it's certainly not unanimous across all families in the U.S., one study does suggest a few differences. Published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, it found that American college students "judged promiscuous women more harshly than British students did," the New York Times points out.
The French approach to parenting tends to be more relaxed about nudity, according to Florence Mars, a Paris-bred mother living in New York and author of Say Bonjour to the Lady. If you shrug your shoulders at your partner parading their birthday suit around in front of your kids, you might find comfort in the Parisian mindset: "Nudity is not shocking if it's not in a sexual context," Mars says. "On a body lotion advertisement, you'll see a topless lady in a French magazine. Culturally, [nudity is] completely accepted in France."
She explains that it’s normal to see women topless on the beach. From young adults to grandmothers, the culture does not demonize children's bodies or women's breasts.
"My kids can walk in my bathroom when I'm taking a shower," Mars continues. "We're 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…It's simply natural to us."
The consensus among mothers we've spoken to is similar: As long as your family is comfortable, it's natural to be naked in front of your kids within reason. It can even help develop their self-esteem and promote healthy views toward sex as adults. Overall, your decisions to teach your children about nude bodies are entirely your own—and it's all a part of growing up.
Let's strive for healthy relationships with our own bodies, respect each other's boundaries, and let our intuitions guide the rest.
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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