The other day my friend Sue gave me some non-toxic nail polish to try out. My 5-year-old Hannah was beyond thrilled to see the little bottle filled with bubblegum pink promise, so we headed straight to the back yard for an impromptu nail polish party. Of course, my 23-month-old Jacob came along to see what was up.
I painted Hannah’s toes, and she painted her own fingers and one of my toes. I painted the rest of my toes. The whole time Jacob was reaching for the little polish brush. I didn’t give it to him, because, you know, he’s a toddler. Even though the nail polish is non-toxic and we were outside, I couldn’t see any good coming from handing off a bottle of the stuff to a kid his age. I could see spilling, breaking, ingesting, clothes-ruining or patio-decorating coming from it, but no good. I’m always raining on everyone’s parades.
Hannah painting her fingernails
As Jacob’s frantic shrieking and pointing escalated, though, I finally got his message. He didn’t really want to play with the bottle of nail polish. He wanted to take part in the party. Why should he be the only one in the back yard with plain toes?
I could think of no reason why my son shouldn’t have the bubblegum pink polish his little heart desired. As soon as I started applying the polish he stopped reaching for the brush. He was more than happy to let me apply the colour, so long as he got some. Of course, he promptly ruined one of his big toes by grabbing it while it was still wet, but he was not the least bit concerned about the smudge. He looked at his toes and smiled, satisfied, before running off to play.
Jacob’s fancy toes
Because Jacob has a big sister, he engages in a lot of traditional ‘girl’ play, and not always willingly. He wears sparkly tiaras and fluffy boas. He nurses his dolls and reads books about fairies. He also loves trucks and balls and pressing buttons and all sorts of traditional ‘boy’ play. But through Hannah he is exposed to a much wider variety of toys and ways of playing than he would likely be if he were the oldest. People just don’t tend to buy ‘girl’ things for boys, even people like me who consider themselves evolved. I would likely buy my son at least a few stuffed toys and a doll, but probably not an entire chest full of princess costumes.
And yet, even as I struggle, I don’t like the way that we bar males in our society from all things ‘female’. Would I dress my 3-month-old boy in a pink dress? I wouldn’t, but I would totally dress my 3-month-old girl in ‘boy’ clothes. I painted my son’s toenails pink, but I didn’t think to offer, and I know that other people will look twice when I do. While we have opened gender doors for women, we’ve left them closed for men. And I think that, at least in part, it’s because we still view the feminine as lesser, and any man who engages in feminine activities as lesser, too.
Polish applied and ready to go
Regardless of why we’re here and why I still opt for a red bike for Jacob’s birthday over a pink one, I suppose that I can do my part to slowly break down this gender barrier. I can paint Jacob’s toes pink if he asks, and tell my daughter that in fact he does not look like a girl. He just looks like Jacob with pink toes, playing in the summer sunshine, no gender implications required
Would you paint your son’s toenails pink? And what do you think about the way that we divide children’s clothes and toys and activities by gender? I’d love to hear your thoughts!