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

  1. I saw this article and the uproar surrounding it on my MSN e-mail ticker this morning. I was going to reblog it here because I know a lot of you feel the WTF feeling when it comes to this gender bending leads to gayness nonsense, but you beat me to it!

  2. As a side note–I love that kid’s hair and totally plan on taking this picture to my hair stylist when it’s time for my son’s first cut. Maybe we’ll make it a mommy and me spa day even! 🙂

  3. It’s a great ad, and it’s so sad that it’s being blown up as some kind of societal threat. Psh. I’ve been a through and through tomboy for most of my life, occasionally donning a dress here and there, but at 5’10” I find that guys shirts fit better and are often way cooler! Men’s hoodies, sweaters, skate shoes- love! I was mistaken for a boy a couple of times as a pre-teen, but I was never deterred to dress as I felt. At least this media sh*tstorm will open up some dialogue about gender normative behaviour, like here! Boys with pink nails, no fear.

  4. Please, if painting toenails will ‘turn’ a boy gay somehow, I should a stereotypical raging butch lesbian with a vendetta against all men because my favorite hobby was playing ninja with a friend of mine and beating each other up with the stave’s my dad made for Boy Scout walking sticks. And climbing trees, and playing with matchbox mini cars.
    Does the fact that I lived with only brothers count for me liking them because they were about the only toys/hobbies in the house? Or that my friend was a female who also lived with brothers, so we thought everyone tried to hit each other with sticks (lightly) for fun? Noooo….That would be logical.

    Well, I hope this dies down soon. Let kids like what they like. It’s good for them to explore their own interests.

  5. Interestingly, I learnt the other day in a developmental psychology lecture that kids that engage in both stereotypically male and female behaviours or tend toward androgyny have better mental health in the long run!

  6. Why is *childhood* exploration of gender identify so terrifying? Why, because ALL exploration of gender identify is terrifying.

    For now.

    I have faith things will change. Someday we’ll read that Fox pundit and everybody will both cringe and laugh — just like we do when we read articles from the 1940s about the “sin” of interracial marriage.

  7. My son regularly had his nails painted, all of our friends kids were girls and so he joined in on lots of so called female activities.
    I could care less if he is gay or straight, I know that the nail polish and dolls had nothing to do with it.
    All I hope is to raise an open, critically thinking, unbigoted, caring human being, who he ends up forming relationships with is not up to my influence and I’m glad it’s not.

    • Ditto to this: “All I hope is to raise an open, critically thinking, unbigoted, caring human being, who he ends up forming relationships with is not up to my influence and I’m glad it’s not.”

  8. Gender exploration doesn’t damage children. Society ostrocizing (spell check) and making them feel different in a negative way damages them. So it’s on the heads of non supporters.

  9. This makes me sad, because the photo is such a beautiful moment of joy between parent and child. I didn’t see the nail polish at first, just the pure delight on their faces. I’m willing to bet that when this little boy grows up, what he remembers isn’t the nail polish, it’s the fun time with his mom.

    Oh, and ruining America. :b

  10. The moment I realized that one day I was going to have children, and when I did it was going to be very important to break gender-stereotypes for them was when I was taking a child care class in high school. Through high school I had the really short cut hair (Agyness Dehn short – sorry if I spelled her name wrong). One day I had to go in and help out with the older preschoolers (4-5ish years old) and one came up to me and was like, “are you a BOY or a GIRL?!!” I told her that I was in fact a girl and these little kids actually started arguing amongst each other that there was no way that I was a girl with that short of hair, that girls have long hair and boys get THEIR hair cut off. I just kinda stood there wondering if this was seriously a conversation taking place between 4-year-olds.

    That said, I will be damned if my daughter ever says something like that to anyone else. It simply isn’t going to happen lol.

    • I understand why this incident was troubling to you. However, I think that children, in their effort to make sense of the world, have natural tendency to see things in black and white that they lose as they grow older. You’ll notice that when children learn to speak, they try to apply standard grammatical rules to every situation, even though English is full of exceptions. Kids like rules and routines and dislike ambiguity because the world is big and confusing and they want to know where they stand. I think it’s great to teach your child not to be so rigid about gender, but I think it’s important to understand that some of that rigidity is developmental rather than environmental.

      • Very true. In addition, young children tend to focus on obvious external cues such as hairstyles or clothes to determine gender since they simply haven’t developed the ability to observe nuances such as body type. As you said, kids crave order, so they categorize everything… often in ways that make little sense to adults.

      • I agree with Lex and Muse, I remember learning in my child development class that pre-school aged kids go through a phase when they are figuring out gender where they can only understand it in very strict terms. My teacher gave the example that her niece started crying and got very upset when she jokingly told her that her dad could wear a dress if he wanted to. I think the little ones who were arguing about your hair were just handling the situation in the natural way their little brains would allow.

  11. Man, people are such suckers for artificial social constructs. The whole boys-shouldn’t-wear-pink nonsense didn’t really start until almost the mid-twentieth century (! It just as easily could be the other way around (blue for girls, pink for boys), and it WAS for a long time. I honestly can’t believe the outrage that such a simple, sweet ad has sparked. Critical thinking skills are a rarity, huh?

  12. I’m 22 and my little brother is 20 and i remember when were we’re little he played with my barbies and i played with his tonka trucks!! Sorry but he has NO PROBLEM with the ladies!!!

  13. The way those articles work is by misdirecting from the actual message: Being Gay Is Undesirable and Bad. As soon as you get into a tizzy about whether or not toenail painting affects your sexuality, you’ve bought into their story and supported their argument implicitly.

    When you were a kid did you ever have a friend play the trick on you where they ask something outrageous like, “Have you finally stopped masturbating to pictures of your parents?” The answer is beside the point because they just want to get you to agree with their story to your detriment.

    It’s sort of like that, because engaging in any answer supports their narrative. The only way to win is not to play.

  14. So.. according to Dr. Ablow, I should be worried that Giana is going to turn into a lesbian because she likes to wear her Papa’s boots?

    HECK NO!

    Just because a child does something that is outside of the “normal” gender trappings doesn’t mean they’re going to need therapy or grow up to be gay.

    Is that like saying that little boys shouldn’t learn to do housework or to cook or play with baby dolls?

    And then should little girls NOT play with cars or splash in the mud or learn to camp, hike, hunt and fish and fix cars?

    That’s like saying we should all go back to the Stepford 50’s and keep all women indoors, raising children and keeping the household together.

  15. While I have nothing more to add to this discussion (I whole-heartedly agree that this story is ridiculous, and has been blown out of proportion by the media)…I just thought I’d let everyone know that Jon Stewart and his writers have caught wind of this and on his April 13th show…did a huge segment on it. Appropriately named, “Toepocalypse 2011”.

  16. My son wanted red toenail polish on his two big toes last summer, so I obliged. We went camping about a week after I painted them. Some kids on the playground laughed at him and made him cry. Then I watched their mom spank them into submission. The whole event was sad and traumatizing for me on so many levels.

  17. I KNEW there would be an AWESOME discussion about this here! I freaking LOVE you girls!

    As a mother to 3 boys. I can’t tell you how many times my boys have done their makeup with me, put cute and curly little clips in their hair and painted their toe nails. My 10 year old even proudly painted his finger nails JUST last week, just to show that he could do a better job of painting with his left hand than me. LOL! And while painting his nails, we chatted about the cute girl that lives up the street…

    I’m actually kind of glad that this story broke. Bring some recognition to issues that REALLY effect parents today. Did you see that John Stewart even covered this story on the Daily Show? LOVED his take on it!

  18. s a kid I was hunting, fishing, out fixing the car with dad,getting muddy building things and I hated pink only wore blue no skirts dresses nothing pretty. I now wear heels dresses make up, I like sparkly things and girly things but I am way more handy then my partner (hes a nerd) and could probably survive in the wild for at least 2 weeks.

  19. I have a 13 year old cousin who is a male and loves bright colors (pink, neons, etc). he also enjoys singing and acting. Yet he also enjoys soccer, baseball, and playing Xbox. He is sincere in what he loves and does not let the typical gender roles stop him. I love him for his confidence.

    If I ever have a son and he wants me to paint his toenails, dress up like a girl for Halloween, etc…I will. Because I want my child to be happy, confident, and have fun no matter what!

    BTW I like watching baseball and football more than my brother or husband.. my hubby and I are happily married and expecting our first child in May. I think this whole thing is ridiculous.

  20. All I can say is that my husband loves pink and purple WAY more than I do, and loves getting pedicures and manicures and massages (he actually taught ME how to take better care of my nails when we started dating, lol)… Yet somehow he manages to still be a whisky drinking, poker playing, hatchet weilding manly man and has even successfully impregnated me, I’m pretty sure liking pink and having nice toenails does not have a negative affect on a man’s ability to procreate 😉

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