We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.  ~Gloria Steinem

Last weekend, my partner and I decided to treat ourselves and went for pedicures with a group of people. Our friend’s six-year-old daughter ‘Ruth’, part of the party that day, decided that Nick should have his toenails painted bright pink with panda decals. Evidently, she’s at the age where forcing someone to violate American gender norms is the funniest thing on the planet.

But Nick surprised her, and the salon staff, by cheerfully going along with her suggestion. Though he’s never painted his nails before- and, to be quite frank, doesn’t bother with his appearance beyond a “does this look professional?” in the morning- he took to the nail lacquer with great aplomb. When we talked with our families over the weekend, and they commented on his toes, he proudly told them that he’d won a bet with a six-year-old. On his days off, he wore his Tevas and- whether deliberately or unconsciously- he showed them off. It didn’t matter how much Ruth laughed at him.

There’s been plenty of media brou-ha-ha in the States lately about young boys wanting to do “girly” things- wear tutus, dress as female cartoon characters for Halloween, paint their nails– and about the conundrum faced by their parents. To permit or not to permit? All of the parents involved, including the ones who let their sons dress as they please, have cited bullying as their biggest concern with their children’s behaviour. Bullying that can break a person’s spirit or that can result in physical assault. Bullying that is a danger, a risk, a Very Bad Thing. As a victim of childhood bullying myself, I completely understand why these parents are so concerned. Ruth is a sweet kid, but Nick’s toenails have brought out- even in her- a desire to mock and bully.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told, at least in the U.S. and Canada, that “we don’t need feminism anymore” because women go to school, women go to work, women travel, and women have choices they’ve rarely had before. Never mind the startling statistics about domestic and sexual abuse, wage inequalities, pregnancy discrimination, and education disparities, or the ways in which race, ability, and other social discrimination categories cause further disadvantages. Look at the way we treat gender expression and identity, and it’s easy to see that feminism- the belief that gender- and sex-based differences shouldn’t result in discrimination and inequalities- is still very necessary indeed.

Consider this: while girls/females in the West are encouraged to defy gender stereotypes by doing everything from wearing pants to keeping their last names if they marry a man, men are discouraged from doing the same. Men wearing skirts are mocked and attacked- unless it’s a kilt, in which case it’s very carefully distinguished from being a skirt. Men who take their wives’ last names upon marriage are “emasculated.” Women are asked to be strong and stoic, especially if they want to run for public office. Men are called names when they cry. To quote an increasingly frequent refrain: have you ever noticed that the worst thing you can call a man is a woman?

As Go Girls, we frequently push boundaries- in our native cultures and in the places we visit- by demanding respect from the people we meet. We challenge the rules, written and unwritten, that put us in danger or are simply degrading. It isn’t enough, however, to change rules for approximately one half of the global population. We can demand respect all we want, but if “being a woman” (whatever the hell that means) continues to be a source of humiliation for men, then we’re still only second-rate. That not only hurts us as a broad category, but continues a cycle of gender discrimination that screws over trans and genderqueer folk too. As with any relationship, it takes two to tango; change needs to happen on both sides.

Pink toenails aren’t a lot, in the grand scheme of things. Nick’s gender-bending didn’t include a change of clothes or body language, and people who didn’t look at his feet missed the whole thing. Thankfully, he’s continued to enjoy the pink without making any mention of feeling inferior or emasculated. Ruth’s reaction spoke volumes though, because for a six-year-old, she knows an awful lot about her current and future place in the world.