Seeing a parent naked can help children learn what real bodies look like and better understand consent and boundaries
Poppy Noor – The Guardian
A Utah court ruled against Tilli Buchanan, whose stepchildren saw her topless. Photograph: Leah Hogsten/AP
This week you may have heard about the Utah lewdness law, which a judge refused to overturn in a judgment against a woman who removed her top in her own home while applying drywall, and was seen by her stepchildren doing it.
This raises the question: is it really that bad for a child to see a woman’s naked breasts?
Outside of the inherent misogyny in this case (the complainants’ partner had his top off, too), aren’t non-sexualized adult bodies a pretty good thing for children to see?
Adults have a habit of sexualizing the human body; it’s largely why breastfeeding in public remains taboo, despite the fact that it is a practical, non-sexual function of the breast.
What little research there is on the topic suggests fears around the harms of parental nudity are exaggerated. One UCLA study that followed families over a period of 18 years found no negative effects among adolescents who observed their parents naked regularly when they were between the ages three to six. Another study asked college students about their childhood experiences of parental nudity and found “modest support that these childhood experiences are positively related to indices of adjustment”.
One of the main benefits to seeing a parent naked is that a child gets to see what a normal, naked adult body looks like. “The bodies they will see in the media and porn are not typical, women just don’t look like that,” explains Amy Lang, a child sexual health educator.
By contrast, seeing women with stretch marks, pubic hair and lumpy parts gives children more realistic expectations. To see women’s naked bodies in a desexualized way can also help children to understand that women are more than just objects, and that their bodies are not inherently shameful.
“Kids are super curious. If they want to see what boobs look like, they will Google it. It’s better that they have resources to learn about the body which are safe,” she says.
Some fear exposing a child to nudity will ruin them in some way, or at least embarrass them – but these concerns are unfounded. “All the evidence we see is to the contrary,” says Lang. Because family nudity gives children an opportunity to talk about boundaries, bodies and safety, children who see their parents’ naked bodies are actually safer from sexual abuse, she says.
It also means that they have a better model for talking about sex in a healthy way. If your first experience seeing a naked body results in the conversation shutting down, a child may think they can’t talk to their parents about their body, or that there is something wrong with it, says Lang.
Of course, strict guidelines need to be set. “You might say that when their friends are over, they at the very least need to have their underpants on,” explains Lang. Parents need to accept other families will have different rules that need to be respected, too.
There also needs to be a proper discussion about rules. That means talking about when it’s OK to see someone naked, or telling your children not to touch each other’s private parts. You must be consistent with these rules, as kids sometimes need reminding. But in the end, it can even provide a good base for future discussions about consent. “Kids are always just grabbing – at boobs, at penises – especially at bathtime. This is a really good opportunity to plant the seeds around understanding respectful consent later in life, because they are learning someone else’s body is not theirs,” says Lang.
Ultimately, Lang says parents need to be comfortable – don’t start getting naked around your kids if you hate it. Equally, if you feel it’s normal, worthwhile or practical to let your kids see you naked, do it – but make sure you’re comfortable explaining that: “People might freak out. Parents need to be ready to explain it,” she says.