July 1, 2011 at 4:07 pm , by Louise Sloan
One day when I was about 16, my mom came into my bedroom and looked with horror at the skirt that was hanging on the back of my armchair. “Oh, no,” she said in a low voice that managed to communicate judgment and despair at the same time. “You’ve become one of those.” She meant a hippie, druggie, unwashed alternative person. It was one of those wrap-around Indian-print skirts that, in the late ’70s, you could buy on streetcorners in New York. They were all the rage at my preppy, fairly conservative Southern high school. Having it in my bedroom meant I thought it was cool and wanted to fit in with the other girls. But my mom read an entire lifestyle into it.
I thought about that moment this week when a somewhat conservative male friend saw that my son’s toenails were Kermit the Frog green. I had gone to buy myself some shiny pink polish and my 5-year-old son had grabbed the green bottle and asked if he could have some, too. After pausing for a moment to calculate the risk factor, I’d said sure. It wasn’t a pink tutu. And given his current obsession with cars, trucks, guns, competing to see who’s fastest, and generally being stereotypically male in every way imaginable, I thought it was a nice change of pace.
“You let him wear nail polish?” my friend said, in a low voice, full of judgment. “A boy should not be wearing nail polish.”
“It’s just paint!” I said. “And it’s GREEN, for godsake. Don’t be silly.”
It was just after Gay Pride weekend in New York, where thousands were celebrating their new right to get legally married. And so my friend replied, “All those people in the street, representing their viewpoint. I gotta represent mine.”
Wow, back in the day, I became a drugged-out hippie with the purchase of one wrap-around skirt, and now, with just 10 swipes of a green brush, my five-year-old son was on a path to get gay-married. (To Kermit, maybe?)
So I was interested to get, in my email inbox the next day, an article written by Stephanie Brill, the executive director of an organization called Gender Spectrum, which aims to get us all to chill out a bit about gender roles and let people be who they are, wear what they like, play the games they find fun, without making too many assumptions about what it all means. Let’s review some basic facts, she suggests: “Colors are colors, toys are toys, clothes are clothes, and hair is hair.”
Crazy talk! Though I might add, for my mom’s benefit, “and skirts are skirts,” as I sit here conservatively dressed, in a corporate office, drinking coffee, reflecting on the fact that apparently that wrap-around didn’t ruin me.
Brill feels that these kinds of superficial things are just about the joy self-expression—that they don’t necessarily have anything to do with deeper issues around gender identity or sexual orientation. She also feels that, by making kids put so much energy into policing their preferences to make sure they fit gender norms, we’re taking away energy they could be using to study, play sports or be good citizens.
This is a topic that’s come up a lot, lately, with the firestorm over the J. Crew ad showing fashion designer Jenna Lyons painting her son’s toenails neon pink, which I guess was part of the impetus for Brill’s essay.
“Should you allow your son to wear nail polish out of the house?” asks Brill. “If he likes it, why not? Wearing nail polish will not make him gay; it will not make him transgender. It just may make him happy!”
What do you think: Is nail polish just nail polish? Is a skirt just a skirt? Or do we really, sometimes, become what we wear?
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