Painting your son’s toenails and other crimes against society

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Thanks to Meg for emailing us about the media debate currently raging over a J. Crew ad showing a designer painting her five-year-old son’s toenails pink. The debate was sparked off by a Fox News columnist freaking out about how this ad is “a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity” … but the rest of the media is playing along, with one headline screaming “J. Crew Wants Your Kid To Be Transgendered.”

The original J. Crew ad, showing a designer with her son

While I chalk most of this hysteria up to a 24-hour news cycle, a columnist baiting people into debate, and pundits trying to whip people into a froth in the name of more eyeballs (I’m a media cynic), there are larger issues to be discussed here…

The the claim that painting your kids toenails could “turn him gay” or “make him transgender” really points to the larger cultural split between the “born this way” vs. “it’s a choice” schools of thought on sexual orientation and gender identity. If gender identity was something that a parent could influence by, say, painting your kid’s toenails … wouldn’t all the generations of LGBT and genderqueer adults who were forced into standard gender roles as children have turned out nice ‘n’ straight and gender-normative? We all know that doesn’t work, so why is allowing kids to play somehow damaging. The logic baffles me.

My even larger question is this: why is childhood exploration of gender identity so scary? Kids explore all manner of identities, but why is this is the one that terrifies people?

A note on comments: don’t take the original columnist’s bait TOO seriously. He’s definitely just trying to piss people off.

Comments on Painting your son’s toenails and other crimes against society

    • PS: My son discovered green sparkly fairy wings on our porch this weekend and has been wearing them almost 24/7 since. His genitals appear to be intact.

      • My two year old son LOVES hair clips. Especially the pink ones with the bunnies on them. He puts them in his hair, stands in front of the bathroom mirror, and says proudly “Lookit Mama! I look like a pretty girl!” Then he procedes to smash his trucks together and get muddy digging for worms in the garden, just like every other little boy we know. Only *they* don’t have cool hair clips to wear while they do it.

      • Hahaha. My daughter wears her Papa’s boots and stomps about growling and kicking her cars around, but also plays sweetly with her barbies and tells you to hush when they’re sleeping.

        Gender-bending my butt! Kids will be kids and its perfectly normal to experiment as a young child.

  1. And, though not a new thought, why is okay for little girls to wear ball caps, and traditionally “boy” clothes but when a boy does it there is some shame involved? As if there is something wrong with pink, or dressing like a “girl”.

    • This is how I think about it. Man is normative, and female is lesser. If a female takes on “male” attributes, she is embracing the normative. If a male takes on something coded “female,” he is making himself lesser.

      It is terrifying.

      • Yep, or in the words of Madonna:

        Girls can wear jeans
        And cut their hair short
        Wear shirts and boots
        ‘Cause it’s OK to be a boy
        But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
        ‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading

    • In Renaissance England, there were extreme laws to protect against a woman dressing as a man because that meant she was trying to be something more important and greater than she was born. A man dressing as a woman was a lark. The same was true about dressing higher than one’s class–big no, no. But lower wasn’t. It’s interesting to me that the same fear is motivating these insane comments, but they have taken a different tack.

      • I think the change in attitude is because now we live in a society with less strict class divisions (especially since the civil rights era) and greater potential for upward mobility, not to mention a cultural value placed on attaining that upward mobility. To want to be “better” than you are, well that’s just ambition, if maybe of a misguided sort. To want to be worse? Well, that throws the whole system into question!

  2. “why is this is the one that terrifies people?”

    I think unfortunately a lot of the fearmongering and hysteria arises from a group of people who believe that being gay sends a person straight to hell. So, the idea of a child exploring with gender identity to these people really means the child is exploring with going to hell. And of course what naturally follows then is that woe be the parent who enables the child to explore gender identity (aka, going to hell) and better for them to have a millstone tied around their necks and thrown in the ocean, cue other judgmental phrases, etc. Whether it’s nature or nurture, for them, a parent enabling the behavior they view as damning = parent be damned.

    Obviously this is only an answer that covers one particular group of people, but they’re a mighty big group that has a lot of sway in the cultural conversation.


    • Yeah, I guess when I put myself into that mindframe (you’re encouraging your child in ways that result in them suffering), I can almost wrap my brain around it. Strongly disagree with the assessment, but at least the general idea makes sense.

      Empathy: it’s a weird thing!

      • I think it’s really important to try to understand the thought processes of people we disagree with. It’s easier to combat detrimental views when we see the bigger picture and the picture that the other party is seeing.

      • Ariel, that’s exactly the type of conversation I have with my Mom.
        She will say “I don’t judge gays, I just think they’ll be terribly sad their whole life.” Ha!
        The problem is she’s never been open-minded enough to have LGBT friends and witness fulfilling LGBT relationships. It’s a f*cking vicious circle.

  3. It is SO funny that this was posted today. Just last night, my beau and I were talking about his upraising, and we always joke that he is living proof that children are BORN gay/lesbian/bi-sexual/transgender, and aren’t raised to be.

    His words: “You do realize that my upbringing should’ve resulted in me being gay, right? I started dance lessons at the age of three, and continued for 12 years. I was not allowed to play contact sports. My parents both do theatre. I was not allowed to listen to rock music when I was a kid, I had to listen to things like John Denver or Julie Andrews. I didn’t know how to fix a car, but I knew how to apply make-up.”

    I love him so much. <3 I wouldn't have him any other way.

    • Your bf sounds awesome! Does he wear makeup every day? My sister’s FH has skin problems and wears foundation to even out his skin tone. He used to get teased all the time by his buds until some hot girl at a bar (my sis) complimented him on it. That shut them up quick.

      How come his parents banned sports? I think that’s wrong to limit your kid if it’s what they really want to do.

      • Oh, no, he doesn’t wear makeup on a day to day basis. He was raised doing theatre, and there’s nothing sexier than a guy that can help you with your stage makeup! That said, stage makeup also makes you look like a clown up close, but he somehow pulls it off marvelously. *;)

        As for the sports, that actually had nothing to do with his parents hating sports. My boyfriend was diagnosed with type B hemophilia when he was 5 or 6, and his mother kept him from playing contact sports as a safety precaution.

  4. Me and my fiance get bombarded with the “You have to cut your son’s hair now” comments. My son’s hair is a little longer than the boy in the pictures. It’s beautiful, and until he complains about it I’ll keep it long. After that it’s his choice.

    What I find most peculiar is how most people seem to have no problem thinking that he’s a girl in boy clothes, but god forbid I tell them that ‘she’ is a he. It’s like their heads just exploded.

    • We just cut my son’s hair, and everyone is happy with his “little boy cut”. Gosh, I only cut it because he’s a sweaty, stinky little boy and he always gets his green beans smeared in it, not because I wanted him to look more masculine. If I had left it long, does that make it a “little girl cut”?

    • My 13 year old has, until recently, always had long hair. And I’m talking about long enough to sit on….he was frequently mistaken for a girl, but even as he got older never asked to cut it for that reason. He has asked to have it cut twice – both times he donated it to make wigs for children and then proceeded to grow it back in again. I am so proud of him!

      The only other haircut he got was when he was on vacation with my in-laws. They brought him home and we were horrified to see our beautiful boy sporting a crewcut!!!! He was quite upset and we didn’t leave him alone with them for many years.

      Funnily, he new “short” hair is longer than the boy’s in the photo…

      Once he was at a party and another boy was harassing him, telling my son that he wasn’t a boy because his hair was long. I assured the kid that he was all-boy, but he still insisted that we were wrong. So I threatened to SHOW him the proof….I don’t know where he went to hide for the rest of the party…

      • People are so weird about guys with long hair. My husband used to get a fair number of “what are you, some kinda sissy?” -type comments on a fairly regular basis when he had his long hair, and I would always be thinking, “He’s a 200-pound, menthol-smoking farmboy in a leather jacket and Army boots! Isn’t that masculine *enough*?”

  5. I say do what you like,

    but the irony here over the controversy is that until the second half of the 20th century, Pink was a masculine color and boys wore dresses until 6 or 7. Do those Fox pundits think their grandpas were gay, not that it’s bad if they were, but old fashioned ideals are actually usually modern mis-interpretations of the past.

    It’d be nice if people understood that there is no reason for the controversy. maybe the boy is an old soul or a reincarnated one. Ooops did I just stir up controversy again?

    • I saw a picture of my father when he was a baby in the thirties and he had on an adorable little frilly gown like outfit with a little bonnet. Nowadays if you dressed your boy like that people would be in such an uproar. He grew up to be one of the most honorable men that I have ever known and fathered seven children. What your children dress in or what colors they like have no bearing on the person they will become. However, making them feel ashamed for being who they are certainly will.

  6. I felt awful the one time I mistook a very long haired boy (past the shoulders) wearing gender neutral clothes as a girl and asked the mom how old her daughter was. When she said “he’s a boy and he’s 3,” I seriously wanted to die. I dress my daughter in a lot of hand-me-downs, which are, unfortunately, rather pink. Still, I get asked if she is a boy or girl. (heh?) But I guess it’s good that people don’t assume? Ever since then I have been really careful about kids that are ambiguous with referring to them in a neutral way (your child, etc) until I receive an identifier from the mom! And while I probably would rather paint a boy-child’s fingers or toes a different color other than day-glo pink (day-glo yellow for example) I wouldn’t have a problem with the painting per se.

    • This is why when we’re at the park, I never say “Do you see the other little boy?” I just say “Do you see the other kid?”

      My brother used to get mistaken for a girl because he was growing out his hair to have a ponytail like our (much older) cousins – it made him really mad.

    • My son grew his hair out when his sister was born (mostly because he hated getting his hair cut and then decided he’d donate it for cancer when it was long enough) and while he totally dressed and acted like a boy he got called a girl a lot while his mostly hairless sister was mistaken for a boy.

    • This happened to me at the gym once — little boy had on the most darling grey-and-pink striped leg-warmers and had longish hair, and I wasn’t sure and just went for it — my son had knocked him down trying to bear hug him, so I had to address the mom, “Sorry, that was our bad; he knocked her down trying to huge.” — and was wrong. The mom looked mildly put out, and I understand her frustration, but it didn’t exactly make me feel much more stellar.

      • People mistake my 2 year old boy for a girl all the time because I put him in bright colors and I suppose his hair is a bit longish. But you know what? It doesn’t bother me one bit. Who cares if someone uses the wrong pronoun for a baby or toddler? The kids don’t know the difference. It’s the parents who get ruffled because it implies that something is wrong with their kid’s gender expression. I can understand why the mistaken party might feel uncomfortable but the more you trip over yourself apologizing, the more you’re reifying the notion that a baby’s gender expression should be clearly demarcated.

  7. I think its fine to paint your sons toenails. Are they going to have a fit if they see a little girl in a football jersey saying you are going to make her gay. Everyone (including children) like different things. We need to stop labeling children and let them be children. How long have little boys dressed up in there moms shoes and put on there make-up. They do as they see but it doesn’t “make” them gay or transgendered. It helps them explore there imagination and be more open minded.

  8. I have to hope these kinds of “exposes” are the dying throes of an outdated mode of thought. So many men I know think nothing of wearing nail polish. It’s already become passe to them because it’s MEANINGLESS.

  9. Along with the previous post about the “being gay means going to hell” issue for a group of people, I think another issue arises with those who have very conservative beliefs about gender roles and a man and woman’s “purpose.” For many people in my conservative family (of which I get pegged as the crazy liberal all the time), the real “issue” with letting a boy wear pink, paint toenails, etc. is that means the boy gets his “true gender identity” confused which means he will never use his penis for its true destiny and purpose – to procreate. According to the beliefs certain people I have talked to put forward, this gender confusion means that, somehow, that little boy will never grow up, get married, and continue on the species which (for them) is our only reason for existing. In their eyes, the clear outlines of “boy things” and “girl things” are a guarantee that boys and girls will match up and make more babies.

    I don’t agree with it at all but whenever I ask my more conservative families why they have such issues with breaking gender stereotypes, this is the reason they give me.

  10. I have made a habit of giving both of my boys “pedicures” whenever they asked. I didnt force it on them, but if they wanted toenails painted too – no problem!

  11. My son (2) loves to climb up into my lap when I clip my nails. He LOVES for me to trim his finger nails and toe nails. He would probably want painted nails too if I ever painted mine. He loves pink and orange. And one of his favorite cartoons is Angelina Ballerina. I mentioned Angelina Ballerina as a possible character on his birthday cake and thought some of my family members were going to freak…sorry but the ballet mouse will be there and they just have to deal. My husband and I are not worried about his future sexual orientation – and actually my husband said it would be cute to see him dance in ballet. Although I will admit that we did steer him to the more masculine of the girl colored Halloween pumpkins my son liked, simply because we didn’t want to deal with the opinions of others if he carried a “girl” pumpkin. And we loved that he picked out the Cars Easter basket only because it will serve as a nice container for all the cars in my living room.

  12. My husband was raised in Scotland and I am so thankful that he wasn’t exposed to the gender stereotypes here in the US. His favorite color is pink (mine is blue) and I have painted his toenails pink before. His masculinity is very secure- he also plays rugby, cricket, football (aka ‘soccer’) and started the worlds longest canoe/kayak race with his father. (Yukon1000) The ideal that pink nails makes him less masculine is absurd. I’ll bet the news pundit would claim his kilt is somehow turning him gay too. OMG boy in a skirt!
    I don’t like toxic nailpolish but am super excited about trying this natural, kid and pregnancy friendly polish!

    • Q: What does a Scotsman wear under his kilt?
      A: Lipstick.

      One of my daughters favourite sayings is that “a man in a kilt is a man and a half” and I’ll not say she’s wrong. 😉

      I was born in England, and even after we emigrated to the US when I was a child, I wasn’t really raised in the American mainstream. As such, I often feel I’m missing some of the finer points of the culture around me, even after living here for 30 years – still, I find it hard to accept that Fox ‘news’ speaks for the majority of Americans.
      Maybe I’m just in denial? I hope not.

  13. This may be naivete on my part, but…
    I agree that many people observe gender stereotypes because they think that defying them will somehow turn their child gay, and that gay = bad.
    I do think, though, that for some people their reluctance to break these “gender rules” stems from a place of genuine (if misguided) fear and concern for their child’s well-being and happiness. As a parent, I know that I will love my son no matter who he chooses to love, how he chooses to identify, and what he chooses to wear. I also know, though, that some paths are easier and less fraught with meanness than others, and I can’t help secretly hoping that he has it easy – that he won’t have to fight all the time to be recognized as equal and worthwhile. Today, that means being a “typical straight male”. I think many parents are afraid to encourage behavior in their children that they know will invite ridicule – even if they themselves totally support the behavior.

    • I totally understand where you’re coming from- I have thought many times about the reality that choosing any path off the norm can make life more difficult, because my lesbian partner and I are raising our awesome daughter in a rural, conservative area. I have sometimes thought to myself that since she already sticks out as different, it would be easier for her if she grew up to be a stereotypically “normal” girl here- the cheerleading, the heteronormative behaviors, the pink. Thankfully, as soon as that thought comes it is banished with this one: an easier life is not a better one, and the only job I have as a parent is to encourage my daughter to be exactly as she feels she should.

  14. My two year old sits on the counter and ‘applies’ make-up and deoderant after he brushes his teeth with me in the morning. He also holds his toes out for me to paint when I’m doing mine (I don’t paint his, simply because he wants to touch the paint afterwards – he makes grabs for mine constantly!). I don’t see what the big deal is. I’m a single mother and what he sees me doing is what he wants to do as well. Children learn from bonding and immiation. Also, anyone else notice all of the ‘OHMYGOD’ articles against this are written by men?
    Methinks some boys have a problem with being comfortable with their own sexuality!

  15. Wow, this is weirdly timely for us! (And I hadn’t seen the media debate on it at all.)

    We went to a wedding this weekend and I bought bright blue nail polish to wear on my toes (b/c I wanted to wear sandals and my toe nails are funky… let’s just leave it there, shall we?). Anyway, my son asked for me to paint his toes, so I did.

    The only bad part to it was that after I’d painted one of his fingernails (again, he asked) he freaked out b/c of the sensory feel (he’s on the spectrum) and then wanted all the polish off… but I hadn’t bought nail polish remover. Ooops. (We talked him through the meltdown. A few times. That’s what we do.)

    Autism makes parenting clear to me: it’s all about the kid and what the kid likes/ wants/ needs.

    • I wish I could agree with this comment a million times.
      My daughter is on the spectrum as well, and I’ve learned it’s best to just go with the flow.

  16. “neither gender is motivated to protect the nation by marching into combat against other men and risking their lives”

    This quote from the Fox article nearly made my head explode. What about all of the women serving their country right now? The idea that inherently only “masculine” men can serve their country by fighting other “masculine” men makes me sick. What a slap in the face to all of the wonderful women serving, not to mention the gay men who also serve.

  17. First, this is one of those times where I reaffirm my commitment against cable TV…

    Second, yeah, I think it is two-fold
    1. Letting boys explore something girly makes them weak!
    2. What if they’re not infused with a healthy distaste for/discomfort with homosexuality?

    Obviously these two things would crumble the moral fabric of our nation, and so deserve constant national discourse. (yes, sarcasm.)

  18. This is so interesting because for years I’ve had this one issue stuck in my head. Years ago when my little cousins were toddlers (a boy and a girl), my mom (their aunt) stayed at home to watch them. It was a very cool thing for her to do and she treated them as well as she treated her own children.

    One day my little girl cousin wanted to have her nails painted and so my mom started painting them. Then my little boy cousin came up to her and asked if he could have his nails painted too. In a moment of panic, my mom said no, not because she was trying to be mean or sexist, but because she knew how small-minded my uncle (their father) could be. So to not start a family war, she told my boy cousin that nail polish is only for girls. By the end of the day my boy cousin was running around saying, “Eww, nail polish is for girls.”

    It was so fascinating to me that because he was told it was for girls, and because he couldn’t partake in the fun, he rejected it. I felt bad for him at the time and always remembered the story so that one day if I ever had a boy I would remember to let him in on the fun and paint his darn nails whatever color he wanted. Because to kids it’s just paint, and paint is fun.

  19. Hehehe! I’ll have to remember to tell my husband when he gets home that he has unwittingly changed his sexuality and gender-identity by willingly wearing sparkly pink nailpolish! Our eldest daughter paints his nails when they’re playing dress-ups and no one has ever said anything to him about it, even when he wears it to work as a mechanic.

  20. One of my nephews loves to have his toenails painted but he also loves sports, building and other typical “boy” activities. The other nephew loves pink, ponies and purses (almost 4) but he’s extremely rough and tumble like any stereotypical boy. Boo to trying to box a child into anything, and yay to realizing humans just like stuff, regardless of gender.

  21. The funny thing is it is his toe nails. If it wasn’t in a picture 99.99% of the world would never know if his nails were painted or not because he’d have shoes on. But now that they know they have to all have an opinion.

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