When A Little Boy Wears Nail Polish…

So, the latest tempest in a teacup out here in the internets is that somewhere there is a picture of a little boy wearing pink nail polish on his toes. And somewhere else on the internets is a psychologist who thinks that little boys with pink nail polish will lead to the eventual end of male aggression and war, but in a bad way. I know. I’m having trouble wrapping my brain around it too.

The little boy in question is the son of J Crew’s creative director and a picture of him decked out in J Crew clothes and wearing pink nail polish went out in an email to customers along with some discount offer. I would not have chosen to do that if I were his mother, not because I think there’s anything wrong with boys in pink nail polish but because I have visions of that photo being plastered up and down his freshman dorm in college as a prank on his birthday. It’s the same reason there are virtually no pictures of my son on this blog: if he wants to make them public later, fine, but I’m not making that decision for him.

But that’s neither here nor there. The dichotomy in reactions to the ad is a veritable template for the on-going discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in America. Dr. Fox Shrink* appears to believe, as do many others, that everything related to gender and sexuality is a choice and failure to engineer “correct” choices will lead to the downfall of civilization as we know it. J Crew mom and her supporters understand that children like bright colors and imitating adults and letting them do that, as long as the activity is safe, is so normal as to be yawn inducing. How many of us with little kids have let them leave the house in a football helmet, Superman cape, tutu, or pajamas because that’s their favorite thing du jour? It’s just what they’re into that day and letting them be into it is harmless. Absent any other information about the little J Crew boy’s personality and motivations for wearing nail polish, I can only assume that pink toes are his version of my kid insisting on wearing his new bike helmet in the car and not an early sign of the kind of sexuality that will have him doing Liza Minelli in a drag club in South Beach.

Messages about behavior and attaching gender to different actions is a social concept, not a biological one. Girls are not born craving pink princess dresses. Boys are not born begging to play cowboy or soldier. Children, instead, are born like little sponges, absorbing the details of the world surrounding them and acting them out to help them understand them. How we as adults react to that behavior is what forms their reactions and prejudices and values. A child – boy or girl – who pretends to cook dinner is nothing more than a child pretending to cook dinner. A child who tells his friend “Boys don’t cook dinner!” isn’t more masculine that his friend; he is parroting something he heard from an adult. Which makes me shudder to think what adults told a young Dr. Fox Shrink to make him so adamant that pink nail polish on one little boy is evidence of total social decay.

I will concede that boys and girls are different and it’s possible to track trends in the behavior of each gender and draw some very broad conclusions. But the fact that each child is an individual means that the trends and the generalizations are not 100% perfect predictors of, well, anything. The boy in pink nail polish will grow up to be a man who…does something, somewhere. The girl who pretends to be a mechanic and fix her bike will grow up to be a woman who…does something, somewhere. Hopefully, they each have parents who are kind and supportive of their interests and can shield them from dumb judgments about superficial things because those judgments, and the contention that a child is in some way wrong, is what’s really harmful.

*If you go to Dr. Fox Shrink’s website and look at a few of his pictures, you might notice that he has perfectly smooth, even, glowing skin. That leads me to suspect that he avails himself of such “feminine” behaviors as moisturizing and exfoliating, if not facials, Botox, and tanning. And he’s in pretty good shape. Maybe not with the wash-boards abs he decried but he probably works out. There wasn’t a close up of his hands but its entirely possible that he’s had a manicure at least once in his life. And you KNOW he’s worn make-up for television. And yet he doesn’t seem to equate his own pore-less face and gym-toned physique with gender identity issues. Instead he picks on a little boy. Yeah, Dr. Fox Shrink can suck it.

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13 comments for “When A Little Boy Wears Nail Polish…

  1. wendy
    April 14, 2011 at 9:55 am

    If you take of Dr. Fox Shrink’s socks, you just might find toes covered in pink polish.

  2. Michelle
    April 14, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    When my oldest son was 2-3 years old, he LOVED nail polish – on his fingers and on his toes. He saw Mommy wearing it and since I was his primary caregiver (I was single at the time) and way back then he still thought I was the best thing in the world, of course he wanted to imitate me. I saw no harm in it and when I’d paint my nails, I’d paint his. My dad would rib him about it (good-naturedly enough, but it still bothered me) and my son’s response was “If I like it, I can wear it.” All these years later, he is 16 and is very well adjusted, smart, gorgeous, sensitive, obnoxious, confident (borderline conceited), and athletic. Oh and I think he bathes in testosterone (but that’s a whole different story).

  3. anthrogrrl
    April 14, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Someone pointed out that if the reverse had been true, if a little girl had been pictured playing with trucks in the dirt with her dad, no one would have blinked. I’ve also heard that today, being a boy is defined almost exclusively in opposition to being a girl, meaning anything feminine is completely taboo. I wish that we could have a masculinist movement, that opened boys’ possibilities in the same way that the feminist movement opened up girls’ possibilities! When we have a world where both genders can choose freely what they want to do, I will be an extremely happy person.

  4. Shelley
    April 14, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    That’s like telling my 3 year old daughter that she can’t watch baseball or football with her dad (or with me) because it’s a “man sport”. Or that she can’t ride her John Deere Powerwheels tractor around the yard because cutting grass is a “man’s job” and John Deere’s are for boys. WTF ever. Dr. Shrink can go lick a sidewalk.

  5. April 14, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    My 4 year old boy loves getting his nails painted, because he looks up to me and wants to be like me. Plus, his dad is in a band & wears black nail polish to shows. So he’s grown up seeing boys AND girls wearing polish. Sometimes he wants them green, sometimes pink. When I get ready in the morning & he’s watching me, sometimes he asks to put on some eyeshadow. It’s just imitation.

    Now that he’s in school with other kids, he’s starting to adapt their idea of “gender specific” activities and that terrifies me. I want him to continue being exactly who he is. If he decides he doesn’t like nail polish anymore, I want it to be his decision, not because someone else told him it’s “only for girls.”

  6. April 14, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    You know what’s really funny? I played with He-Man, Construx, Legos, GI Jo, etc etc, when I was little. Almost 100% “male-appropriate” toys.

    And I’m gayer than gay.


  7. Amy
    April 14, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Thank you for addressing this. I saw an article on Yahoo about this and what the idiot/fox shrink believed and I almost threw up. I saw the photo awhile ago(I work for JCrew at a store) and never even noticed the nail polish on her son. I bet alot people didn’t notice it until it was pointed by said Fox/idiot shrink out that this little boy will need years of therapy for the warp mind of his mother
    Thank you!

  8. DMCostorf
    April 14, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    I was on line to get into a museum or something with my family and my uncle noticed that my son had on nail polish and he made a face and talked about “the gay”…and MY MOM said “but you loved wearing nail polish when you were around that age…” His face? Priceless…

  9. April 14, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    Was curious to see how you would approach the subject (although I was pretty sure I knew where you stood). Did you see my post from last night? I think no one would be making a big deal about this if it was girl doing something “manly”… it is so sad that there are such vocal members of society that just don’t get it. Things are getting better, but every time one of those morons gets some air time that progress is slowed.

  10. Casey
    April 14, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    Great post! I heartily concur! I have a 7 y.o. boy who loooooooves to wear lavender colored socks. He will wear them with anything. I don’t know why he loves them so much, but he does, so I’ll be just fine with that. (He picked them out when he was 3, we thought they would be a short-lived phase, but he still manages to shove his big 7 year old feet into them, so be it…I’ll get him bigger ones if he wants.) I personally think he is awesome in his kick ass lavender socks!

  11. April 15, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    Guess Mr. Shrink doesn’t want to hear about the dollbaby decked out in pink that I got my 15mo son last week.

  12. Jules
    April 18, 2011 at 12:10 am

    First of all, Dr. Shrink’s real name? I’m having lots of fun with it. My then three-year-old coveted a pair of pink Converse high tops. Go for it, Buddy. He’s now the boyest boy I know. Just get over it.

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