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.
To add some color commentary (har har) to my experience with pink toes…
– Erica omitted that the people working in the Salon didn’t think I was serious when I told them I wanted pink toes with panda bears on them. The woman who had done the rest of the pedicure had to come back and complete them after the fact. How often, I wonder, do males come for pedicures and joke about hot pink toes for them to assume I wasn’t serious?
– I have been asked twice if I have daughters. Both times pluralized.
– Most of the individuals who have commented on them have sought confirmation when I say that I “Won” the bet with the six year old that I meant to say “Won” and not “Lost”.
– One person stated that I must be comfortable with my sexuality to “allow” this to happen.
– One person (a male) said that my toes were “Baller”.
– Three women have commented that they are “Pretty”.
Honestly, the ultimate “good” outcome of this and potentially other future interactions with L (The six year old) from my perspective would be if she continues to encourage those she is associated with to bend such boundaries, but drops the bullying aspect. It’s fun to break the established rules periodically, whether or not your intent is to achieve large scale social change.
I see the pink toes in this case as a badge of honor, not as a detriment to my masculinity or anything else. I succeeded in making a kiddo laugh, and possibly challenged her assumptions about how the world works and what the ramifications of bending these boundaries are. These are all good things I am more than willing to suffer explaining the “bet” to many people for.
When I was in Haiti, a two year-old boy asked me if I could paint his fingernails while I was painting the nails of all the other little neighborhood girls. I did it without hesitation, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen how quickly his mom took that paint off (and Lord knows how she did it because she definitely didn’t have nail polish remover). Granted it’s a different culture, and considering that I was a little ashamed to not have asked her first, I was still struck by how clashing our ideals both were. Even at two years old, it was vital to show the boy that nail polish was NOT for him.