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.
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.