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.