HARLEM — A Harlem parent withdrew her children from swim classes at the local YMCA after officials there said her 4-year-old daughter had to wear a top while in the pool.
The incident prompted dozens of comments on a listserv — so many that moderators unsuccessfully asked three times for discussion of the issue to cease.
The mom, who did not respond to requests for comment, wrote to the forum Tuesday that when she took her daughter to her regularly scheduled swim class at the Harlem YMCA on West 135th Street, her daughter was "denied access" to the class because she was "not wearing a top," "only swim bottoms, just like her brother."
The mom said she was not informed of the requirement and found the request "unreasonable and damaging, especially when applied to 4-year-olds."
She later added that she felt the issue was indicative of "our confused relationship with the female body, and what...subliminal and less subliminal messages we send to girls and boys with seemingly innocuous actions every day as we try to raise them."
Anne Bergquist, vice president of communication for the YMCA of Greater New York, confirmed the incident but said the mom in question is incorrect in saying that she had not been notified of the policy.
Under national YMCA regulations, women of all ages are required to wear a swimsuit and a swim cap. That policy is listed in the program materials given to parents.
The group is one of the largest swimming educators of children in the country.
"Our policy is that we require proper attire, which includes a swimsuit and bathing cap. That's the policy and it's pretty clear," Bergquist said.
For boys, a swimsuit consists of trunks. Swimsuits designed for women cover both top and bottom, she added.
"She removed her children from the program and it's her decision to make. It's unfortunate that we lost her and her children but we can't deviate from policy," said Bergquist, who added that the mother was issued a refund for unused classes.
Some parents said they felt the YMCA was sexualizing a 4-year-old girl who looks no different than a 4-year-old boy with her shirt off.
"If the Y is so concerned about bare chests, they should require boys and girls of all ages to wear tops," parent Moikgantsi Kgama said in an interview.
"I think it's ridiculous to deny a 4-year-old child access to a pool because she's not wearing a swim top. I took my 2-year-old son swimming at the Y and I can't imagine being offended by a bare-chested 4-year-old," she added.
"The mother has every right to her opinion. The only thing we can say is our policy is our policy. It has nothing to do with sexualizing a child," Bergquist said.
Other Harlem parents had mixed feelings about the incident.
Timberly Leite, owner and executive director of Innovative Therapy Solutions Pediatric Speech and Occupational Therapy, said she doesn't see anything nefarious about the YMCA's policy.
She doesn't allow her own daughter to swim topless and doesn't even buy her two-piece bathing suits.
"I understood the points people are making and respect the parent's decision, but at the same time we have to ask why are people so mad that you have to cover up sometimes," Leite said in an interview.
Agnes Davis, president and CEO of swim, swim, swim I Say, which gives swimming lessons for young people, said she's never faced the issue of a young girl wanting to take lessons without a top but that she does notice cultural differences among parents.
"I have European parents who will change their child out of their swimsuit on the deck," she said noting that she doesn't have an issue with the YMCA policy.
The key, Davis said, is to speak to parents about the cultural norms in a way they can understand.
A similar incident arose in Tennessee in March, according to news reports. A mother protested the fact that her 4-year-old daughter was not allowed in the pool without a top.
Sarah Parada told The Tennessean that her daughter was made to feel "ashamed of herself" over the incident.
While protesting the policy, Parada said she would comply with the rules.
“My daughter was treated like there’s something sexual about her she needs to hide,” Parada said. “From now on I’m definitely putting a top on her. I don’t see the need to traumatize her.”
In response to the flurry of emails, the Harlem mom wrote a note to parents on the site saying that she brought the issue to their attention because she wanted to spark a "philosophical discussion on how we view women and their role in this society."
While Kgama agrees with the outraged Harlem mom, she said that doesn't mean that she wouldn't follow the rules.
"If I had a daughter, I believe I would have completely clothed her, to comply with societal standards and to ensure that I wasn't placing my child in an awkward position," Kgama said.