Wednesday, April 13, 2011

polishing my child's gender identity

Damn you, Today Show. At least once a week you air a story that incites the activist in me. First, you made me want to fight against the Positive Parenting movement, and then you stirred up old frustrations about discrimination against those with food allergies, and today you aroused my need to defend boys everywhere who bond with their mothers over painted toenails. J. Crew has published a lovely ad featuring a mother sharing what appears to be an authentic, light moment with her 5 year old son- painting his toenails neon pink. The ad has sparked controversy among those who fear that by allowing our male children to indulge in toenail polish or princess dresses we will ruin their gender identities. This story is near and dear to my heart -as I was once the mother with the boy with painted nails. And, I, too, faced the scrutiny and negative assessments of others who were convinced that I would confuse my son's gender associations by letting him experiment with nail polish. Oh, for Pete's sake, it's not like I was letting him drink or sniff the stuff- something that might have really damaged his brain's ability to correlate with his gender.

The picture above was taken when Henry was 5 years old. He was the ring bearer in my sister's wedding- hence the stylish suit. While being a typical rough and tumble boy, he also had an eye for beautiful things. Especially objects that were shiny. He collected both bugs and crystals. So, to me it made sense that he would be fascinated by the silvery nail polish I applied to my toenails in preparation for the wedding. "Ooh, I like those. They look like robot fingers. Can I have some, too?" I would never deny my boy such a benign request. He was so proud of his nail armor.They were painted in a color which matched nearly every toy gun he toted in his play battles. And, it did hide the dirt he accrued under his nails from digging for beetles in the yard.

The presentation of his nails at the wedding, did come with mixed opinions. "Aren't you worried that you are going to confuse him or change him?" The thought never crossed my mind. That might have been because of the fact that I used to dress my much younger brother up as a little girl and style his hair in pigtails. And, he always remained very much a boy- more apt on his own to play dress-up in a camouflage army uniform than corsets and tutus. But, even as a 12 year old, I had the sense to understand that the reason why my three year old brother did not resist the costumes we put him in was because he wanted to bond with us- to identify with who his sisters were. For Henry, in addition to being able to temporarily walk around with a shiny gunmetal finish on his nails, he was also happy to have had that moment of attention from me- to bond with me.

Henry no longer wears nail polish. He has not since my sister's wedding. Of course, I cannot guarantee that allowing my 5 year old son to wear nail polish will have an effect either way on his future understanding of himself or his acceptance of society's expectations of his gender. That remains to be seen after years of extensive therapy my children will most certainly endure for all of my parenting fumbles. I can speak from my own experience though. As a teenager who wore her grandfather's very gender specific, old, red hunting jacket-not once did I ever wonder if I was truly an old man trapped inside a young woman's body wanting to smoke a pipe and reminisce about my time in the army during WWII. It doesn't matter to me if Henry wants to dress up like Eddie Izzard, or if Princess Commando decides after years of playing boy dominated sports that she would like a penis. To me, it matters only that they are healthy; at peace with their choices; that they continue to be kind and compassionate people and productive members of society; that they find love and are loved kindly in return.


  1. once again, you are so on target. i really can't believe the things people worry about. toenail polish damaging a child's gender identity? please. if it was that easy to damage a child's gender identity (WTF is that supposed to mean anyway?) then every male child who saw project runway would be gay. i think people really underestimate children. they know who they are. it may take them years to express it, but they know where there preferences lie and they are not so fragile that some polish will sway them. silly people.

  2. "That remains to be seen after years of extensive therapy my children will most certainly endure for all of my parenting fumbles." ~Amen to that, sister!

    Great post!! I followed you here from Sarah Hoffman's blog which I landed on from a "share your awesome" link.


  3. Thank you all so much for reading and commenting.
    @Emily- I love what you said about children already knowing who they are. It is so true.
    @Jeanine- Thank you for finding me through Sarah Hoffman :-)

  4. I find these controversies are often one sided. Women fight for the rights to do everything a man can do, yet a boy wearing nail polish is a crime. Give me a break people!

    Why is it never a problem when girls play house and one little girl takes on the husband or daddy role? No one raises eyebrows over that!

    I get so worked up over these things, and it scares me because I'm not even a parent yet! Haha