COLUMN: It takes more than nail polish to construct gender identity

Friday, April 22, 2011 | 11:36 a.m. CDT
This image, sent as a promotional e-mail to J. Crew customers, shows company president and creative director Jenna Lyons and her 5-year-old son, Beckett. Pundits have criticized the ad because Beckett is wearing pink toenail polish.

Essie’s neon pink nail polish must be pretty powerful stuff.

The fluorescent shade — featured in J.Crew's latest promotional e-mail, which shows candid shots of president and creative director Jenna Lyons and her five-year-old son, Beckett, giggling while she holds his feet, his toenails painted pink — apparently has the power to change gender and sexual orientation. If the talking heads on my television are to be believed, it packs a psychological blow strong enough to necessitate years of future therapy.


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The outrage over this image seems to have started with Fox News columnist and psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow. In his column for the channel’s website, he asserts that this is a form of “psychological sterilization” and a dramatic example of how our culture is being encouraged to abandon all trappings of gender identity.

I’m not sure what seems to be more offensive to Ablow and everyone else unnecessarily in a tizzy about this: The fact that the mother-son duo was engaging in the traditionally feminine activity of nail painting or that the lacquer in question is a shade of pink. When I look at that photo, I see a mother and son enjoying a nice bonding moment. I also see some observational learning and mimicry at play. Children learn by acting out what they see, and if Beckett spends any considerable amount of time with his mom, he’s used to seeing what she does.

Plenty of other little boys have grown up learning this way without questioning their core gender identity. But Erin R. Brown from the Culture and Media Institute argues that J.Crew’s publication of the photo constitutes “propaganda celebrating transgendered children.” That’s a huge assumption to make about a little boy whom the media know nothing about.

So what if pink is his favorite color? It’s a color, and the only significance it carries is what we as a society have placed on it through the constant stream of gendered messages children get from birth. The day they’re born, wrapped in a pink or blue blanket at the hospital, gender becomes a bizarre badge children are forced to display to the world. The gendered use of pink and blue came about just before World War I. It has nothing to do with their preferences and everything to do with society’s beliefs about the meaning of gender.

I’d like to say that I’m shocked that there are still large — and apparently outspoken — groups of people in this country who are so insecure in their own identity, or parenting, that they feel the need to look out for the sanctity of the gender of a stranger’s child. The idea that a picture of a little boy with pink nail polish warranted sensational coverage on Fox News, ABC’s "Good Morning America" and a variety of other national newspapers and television shows is mind-boggling. Gender is a role we all play, one developed and shaped individually based on the sum of our life’s experiences.

Nail polish cannot change Beckett in a drastic way any more than suffrage or wearing pants turned women into men.

Taylor Combs is a senior magazine journalism major with a women’s and gender studies minor. She has written for both Vox Magazine and the Columbia Missourian and is currently a contributing writer at Vox. 

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Gregg Bush April 22, 2011 | 12:54 p.m.

An insightful article, Ms. Combs. These phony alarms from Dr. Ablow and Ms. Brown should be laughable, instead they seem to be the equivalent of editorial bullying.
My mother used to have her hand slapped with a ruler when she wrote with the "wrong hand". In her lifetime, she's over 70, she's seen the civilized world accept left-handed writing. We will have to continue to be patient with these gender-tyrants until they work themselves out of this tizzy.
Your last line is a gem.

(Report Comment)
frank christian April 22, 2011 | 3:04 p.m.

Greg B. - We have learned, since your mother went to school, not to try to influence a child's ability to write and throw a baseball, by slapping the hand they choose to use for those purposes.

We have also learned not to influence a child's mental growth and sexual direction by continual application of "role reversal", boys playing with dolls, wearing dresses, Painting of Nails with colors reserved for girls (even if this has only been in vogue since WW1, nearly 100 yrs).

We knew this before one of the liberal protected minorities became "gays & lesbians". Since then things have changed. We cannot protect them, if we don't promote them. We of the rest of the world are expected to happily change our opinion and so "secure our identity" according to the view of Ms Combs and that, in my opinion, is the intent of this piece. It will do no good to state that I'm not prejudiced against gays and lesbians, but I am not.

(Report Comment)
Robin Nuttall April 22, 2011 | 4:23 p.m.

@Frank, how do you know this is a deliberate fostering of feminine traits on this boy? Maybe he likes pink nail polish. Maybe it means nothing. Maybe it was a photo op for the magazine and still means nothing.

Pink nail polish is not going to make a boy gay, any more than every girl who is a "tomboy" will turn out to be a lesbian. Yet somehow it's not seen as a threat to a girl's sexual orientation if she chooses to play baseball and roll in the dirt as a youngster. But for a boy to play with dolls or wear nail polish? Oh, the horror!

Some people treat homosexuality as some sort of communicable disease. It is not. Homosexuals are always asked, "when did you become gay?" Nobody asks anyone "when did you become straight?" I happen to be straight, but I can tell you that most of my gay friends would just as soon NOT have to deal with the slurs, the prejudice, the ugliness and hatred that comes as baggage for them being who they were born as.

I especially love this post:

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle April 22, 2011 | 7:20 p.m.

"Gender Identity"?!? More like rank sexual projection by sick (expletive redacted).

Yeah, I have some really strong opinions about this. There's absolutely NOTHING wrong with a mom painting a 5-year-old's toenails with pink polish. Are people really worried this boy is gonna turn out gay because of this? It's ludicrous. There's absolutely NO evidence to support it.

Toenail polish is part of this kid's mom's business. Of course he's going to be interested in whatever she's interested in. It does not mean, even in the slightest, that the child is learning to be effeminate. It means he wants a very busy mom's attention.

Please, just let kids be kids. Stop being a pervert and projecting sexuality onto them. They aren't ready yet. Regardless of whether they play with dolls, guns, or like pink or blue nail polish or not, they're not going to discover their "gender identity" until the time comes. When the time does come, they're going to discover what they are, not what you think they should be.

Fact is, there has been a fairly consistent percentage of gays in the human population since the dawn of recorded time. No matter how vehemently or violently homosexuality has been discouraged, or flamboyantly promoted, the percentage has stayed about the same throughout human history.

Equating hets with morality, and gays with immorality, is just plain wrong. Having the gall to use morality as a guise to persecute this mother and son for some pink nail polish, or even persecute actual real gay people for being gay, is even wronger.

(Report Comment)
frank christian April 22, 2011 | 7:34 p.m.

Robin Nuttall - I don't see "deliberate" or "fostering" in my post. Parents in the era I refer to, preferred that their children not be homosexual, nothing for it, if that's the way they turned out, but hopefully, not. It's that stupid, one man, one woman, thing. Haven't read Dr. Ablow on the subject, but would wonder, if there is nothing to it, why would one Psychiatrist's opinion generate so much controversy? Oh, yes! He was on Fox News. Makes all the difference. Your online example, told all we need to know about she and son. Did not mention a husband. Do you suppose those other mothers had one?

Is there any other ugliness and hatred that your gay friends, or all the rest of us, for that matter, have to deal with in this life? We have a law protecting gays from discrimination in Columbia. Before it was passed, I mentally noted the number of times our commission for discrimination reported No instances of any kind had come to their attention. My liberal Councilman on radio, stated he would vote for the ordinance, because he "assumed" there was discrimination. A gay rights advocate came on the radio favoring the ordinance. I stated all the above, hoped he would surely be able to give us some of the Blatant examples examples of Gay discrimination in our City. A silence, then, "I could, but, I'm not going to." nothing else.

Most Americans, I believe are quite willing to allow Gays, along with the other "protected" (they are!) minorities, to live their lives in piece, that they just not be expected to change their way of life to accommodate them. As is happening with religion, etc.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams April 23, 2011 | 9:33 p.m.

Hey wait a minute. Why did the author (and those posting) making this an issue of sexual identity?

There are degrees of masculinity and femininity that have nothing to do with sexual identity.

(Report Comment)
Jack Hamm April 27, 2011 | 6:57 p.m.

Look what can happen to your boy if you dress him in pink feminine outfits...

We must stop this or there will be no real men left!

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire April 27, 2011 | 7:13 p.m.

Send him to IRAQ!!!

(Report Comment)
Jack Hamm April 28, 2011 | 6:54 a.m.


They already did

(Report Comment)

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