Does Pink Nail Polish on a Boy Create Gender Confusion?

You may be aware of the controversy over a mother painting her five-year-old son’s toenails neon pink in a recent J. Crew ad. One pundit called it “blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children.” Psychologist and author Keith Ablow advises the mother to put money aside for her son’s future psychotherapy. Here, Jon Stewart weighs in on The Daily Show:

I wrote a post a couple of years ago about this topic (“Pink is for Girls“) but even then I didn’t seriously consider that people would cry “Transgender!” if a boy painted his toenails. (Or is it that they’re pink that’s the problem?) And what’s with all the blame being heaped on the mother for seeming to encourage this behavior?

One of my readers directed me to an article in Mother Jones about the “pink problem.” In it, the author points out that until the 1920s, the gender-assigned colors were reversed: pink was for boys and blue for girls. And boys used to be dressed like girls (long hair and all) until they graduated into short pants.

The fact is, there are many strands in the process of gender socialization and color is probably the least significant. How we talk to, handle and play with our children has more to do with how they perceive their gender. That’s why many parents with children who prefer to “cross-dress” don’t seem to be unduly concerned. Do a Google search on boys loving pink and you’ll be surprised at how many parents report that their perfectly normal boys are enamored with the color. There’s even a Facebook page titled “My Son Likes Pink.” Sarah Hoffman writes about her son looking great in a dress in a article.

Why are we so concerned about little boys dressing like girls and not the reverse? (Although there has been some media speculation about Shiloh Jolie-Pitt and her tomboy ways.) A woman has to go really butch to get people second-guessing her sexual identity, but all a man has to do is wear hot pink.

And these assumptions are buried deep. It’s the rare person who doesn’t feel discomfort at a man in a skirt, for instance. I once attended a blues concert where the performer wore a long pleated skirt throughout the entire show and I honestly didn’t know what to think of it. I’m still puzzled. (The performer never mentioned his attire.) But why should I be? Women wear pants, don’t they?

An alternate question might be, what harm does gender socialization do anyway? Isn’t it important for a child to be clear about his or her sexual identity? For one thing, small children might “know” their gender, but don’t view it as set in stone. Many children wish they were the opposite sex at some point in their development. Some even think they will change at a later date or that they’re free to choose. It’s not until a child hits preadolescence (ages 8-12) that his or her gender identification— and adjustment to it — becomes critically important.

Caring which way your child goes has more to do with discomfort about transgender and homosexuality than anything. Because the bottom line is, so what if your child identifies as the opposite sex, or is only attracted to the same sex? We do our children a great disservice when we force them into boxes they may not feel comfortable in.  (See tomorrow’s video, “The Man Box.”)