Earrings, and Nail Polish, and Barrettes, Oh My!

By , July 11, 2012 10:55 pm

Guest Post By Sarah MacLaughlin, Author of the Award-winning Amazon bestseller, What Not To Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children

"The truth was I didn’t want him to get any dirty looks, or have some overbearing person say something to him about how boys don’t wear earrings."

These days, depending on where you live, a metro-sexual, gender non-conforming male is commonplace. Even here in Maine, I see men with two earrings, for example, or eyeliner on a semi-regular basis. I even catch a glimpse of some nail polish from time to time. It doesn’t bother me at all. In fact it makes me smile. But is everyone comfortable with this? No. And why is that? No one worries when girls play with trucks, wear blue jeans, (seems “normal” now, doesn’t it?) or have short hair and play sports.

Here’s my one word answer: HOMOPHOBIA. In our generally misogynistic culture, it is more respected for women to express masculine traits than it is for men to present in any way as feminine. I have to think it has something to do with the fact that in our society women, femaleness, and femininity are just less valued. Our culture’s disregard of the “women’s work” of parenting continues to manifest in our total lack of paid parental leave. According to this article from Reuters, “Of the 190 countries studied in the report, 178 guaranteed paid leave for new mothers and nine were unclear about their maternity policies. Just three countries clearly offer no legal guarantee of paid maternity leave — Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and the United States.”  That is a truly sad standing for U.S. families.

A couple of years ago 1.5 million people clicked on blogger Nerdy Apple Bottom’s post, “My Son is Gay.” The article, about her five-year-old son dressing as Scooby-Doo’s Daphne for Halloween, made national news. As someone who wants to raise an emotionally literate, open-minded, feminist son, I read with rapt attention. You can read the post online here. The upshot of the post was that the boy’s costume was balked at upon his arrival at preschool for the annual parade. His attire was not called into question by the other kids, as had been his worry. No, it was the other moms who clucked their tongues and asked, “You let him wear that?”

All of this begs the question: Why are we so afraid? I am not worried by the possibility of my son being gay, with one exception: some people are so intolerant of homosexuality that because of this they would purposefully harm him. Even when we aren’t homophobic because we are afraid of homosexuality itself, we are homophobic because we are afraid of the discrimination, bias and downright hate it could bring.

Why do we continue to perpetuate the stereotypes that require our little boys to “suck it up” and “be a man”? If a child is gay, asking them to hide feelings will not make them any less gay. Don’t we want our children to be at ease with themselves? I am comfortable with my son’s honest expression of emotion. I want him to be fluent in the full range of human feelings.

When he was a toddler, my son discovered a pair of my grandmother’s old clip-on earrings. He was so excited to be able to actually try on a pair. I watched him shake his head back and forth, delighting in the sensation as they swung back and forth on his little ears. Even though they pinched a little, he refused to take them off until naptime. When he awoke, he asked to put them back on right away.

But before we headed into the grocery store, I told him that dress-up time was over. I soothed my own cowardice with a story about how I wouldn’t let a little girl wear such grown-up earrings in public either. The truth was I didn’t want him to get any dirty looks, or have some overbearing person say something to him about how boys don’t wear earrings. I guess I thought he was too little at the time to understand this—that it would be too hard to explain other people’s beliefs in a way that he would get it.

A couple of years later, a friend innocently posted a photo of her three-year old daughter’s freshly polished toenails. They shone bright pink above the caption, “Mother-Daughter Pedicures.” Oh Facebook, what a pot-stirrer you can be. This adorable photo (it was undeniably adorable) got me thinking. My son loves to dress-up, to wear play tattoos, to adorn. He has been known to cover himself from head-to-toe with washable markers. I just knew he would love nail polish. I went and bought a bottle of non-toxic blue polish at Whole Foods. (Was I chickening out again by getting blue? Maybe.)

After his fingers and toes were shimmering in “Mermaid Blue,” I casually told him, “You know, I don’t think so, but some people think that nail polish is only for girls and women.” When he asked me why, I told him I didn’t know—I might have said something about them being silly and misinformed.

Peggy Orenstein in her great book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, talks about informing kids of gender-biased marketing and broadening their perspectives about what it is to be a boy or a girl. She also tells a hilarious story about a child growing up in the 70s who was teased I his preschool classroom for wearing barrettes. The story goes that a boy repeated, “Barrettes are for girls,” and this proud barrette-wearing child informed him numerous times that he was –despite the barrettes— a boy, not a girl. Finally, because the teasing child would not be swayed, he pulled down his pants and hollered, “See, I’m a boy, I have a penis!” I’m hoping it won’t come to that with my son and the nail polish.

How do you fight gender bias and homophobia in your home? Please comment below!

Special Giveaway!
Please comment on this post about gender bias and homophobia in your home. Your comment enters you in the eBook Giveaway — to win an ebook copy of What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children, in the format of your choice: PDF, epub, or Kindle format. Sarah will be giving away one copy at each blog stop and will announce it on the comments of this post tomorrow. Be sure to leave your email so we can contact you in case you’re the winner!

Other stops and opportunities to win during this Blog Tour are listed on Sarah’s blog here: http://sarahsbalancingact.blogspot.com/p/blog-tour.html.

Also, you can enter at Sarah’s site for the Grand Prize Giveaway: a Kindle Touch. Winner will be announced at the end of the tour after July 15th. Go here to enter: http://sarahsbalancingact.blogspot.com/p/blog-tour.html

About The Author
Sarah MacLaughlin has worked with children and families for over twenty years. With a background in early childhood education, she has previously been both a preschool teacher and nanny. Sarah is currently a licensed social worker at The Opportunity Alliance in South Portland, Maine, and works as the resource coordinator in therapeutic foster care. She serves on the board of Birth Roots, and writes the “Parenting Toolbox” column for a local parenting newspaper, Parent & Family. Sarah teachesclasses and workshops locally, and consults with families everywhere. She considers it her life’s work to to promote happy, well-adjusted people in the future by increasing awareness of how children are spoken to today. She is mom to a young son who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice about What Not to Say. More information about Sarah and her work can be found at her site: http://www.saramaclaughlin.com/ and her blog: http://sarahsbalancingact.blogspot.com.

13 Responses to “Earrings, and Nail Polish, and Barrettes, Oh My!”

  1. Samantha says:

    How do we fight homophobia and gender bias in our home? I have a house full of boys, they are fantastic. We’ve talked about how one day they will love someone the way daddy and mommy love each other. That some boys love other boys, and some girls love other girls, and some girls love boys, some boys love girls. We allow them to express themselves in anyway. There are times when we play chef, or take care of baby dolls, or dress up like anything we can imagine using makeup and markers to complete our look. My sons have worn nail polish, mascara, or carried plungers in public. We love them as perfectly made as they are without question.

  2. Those are great Samantha! Thank you for sharing. I say the same thing about growing up to love whomever you want.

  3. Sarah says:

    As a two mom family we talk about homophobia and gender identity on a pretty regular basis. I must say that the issue that surprises me is the definition of pink as girls clothes. Even among my beloved sons-in-law, there are strong feelings that their boys “cannot” wear pink. I don’t know if it is a kind of homophobia or perhaps the result of “disneyifcation” of America. Thanks for a great article, Sara!

  4. Jennifer says:

    We have a 4 yr old girl, a 2 yr old boy and a 1 month old girl — so there are tons of girl and boy things in our house! We’ve painted our son’s nails (we certainly get dirty looks from family members though) but I just ignore them and ask them if they were a kid would they think it was cool to put paint on their nails?? Ummm duh! Yes!! My son wears high heels when he plays dress up with his sister (only because it’s not something they always do, so wearing silly shoes is fun). We don’t do the make-up thing though, on any of the kids :) He wears a Snow White costume from time to time as well. None of these things will ever make him who he is suppose to be. He is already his own person and playing with nail polish or baby dolls isn’t going to hurt anything. He’s actually a really good dad with his baby dolls, until he turns the stroller in to a lawn mower and tries to run things over…hahaha! He’s just as interested in ‘boy’ things as he is ‘girl’ things, same with my daughter. The only awful part about it, is having to deal with our family members harping on him about how he kisses a baby doll or wearing high heels. Actually now that I think about it…that’s very sad. :(

    He will be who he is destined to be no matter what I let him play with or do. Period.

    Samantha — I never really thought about telling them that sometimes girls love girls and boys love boys?! Good idea!

  5. We encourage our son to express his emotions whenever he feels compelled to do so. This year was a great year for talking about gender as he was the only boy in both his dance class and his library lap sit. We talk about equality and reinforce words like “firefighter” not “Fireman.” He loves having dinosaur toes painted. It’s been neat to hear other kids comment to him about his painted toenails and to hear my son say, “isn’t it cool?!”

  6. amanda says:

    We were doing so great at keeping our household very gender neutral. My son took ballet and was begging to get a pretty tutu to wear to classes. My daughter’s first word was “tractor.” Then we moved to the city and the influence of the other children in the neighborhood started to take over, at least with my son, who is four. He quit ballet, and decided he needed a racecar bed. (NOT happening!) All of this nonsense came from the two girls who live on our block that he plays with. Sigh. At least he still takes his doll everywhere. As for my two year old girl, she is often mistaken for a boy! She has short hair (it just hasn’t really grown) , but i think what it really is is that she doesn’t have her ears pierced and she doesn’t wear barrettes or anything. We are trying, though! We just keep trying to tell them they are free to like whatever they like!

  7. Kelley says:

    My 3 year old son loves having painted nails! He picked out a bottle of purple “Piggy Paint,” and wears it frequently. I love that he sits still while he waits for it to dry ;).

    We make sure to tell our boys often about the different ways you can make a family, that some families have only a mommy or a daddy, some have a mommy and a daddy, or a daddy and a daddy or a mommy and a mommy. I never want them to feel like they’re “in the closet,” should either of them be gay. I also sometimes ask, “Do you feel like a boy or a girl on the inside? Some people feel like they are boys in girl’s bodies. Mommy and Daddy will always love you whether you’re a boy or a girl, if you feel different when you grow up.”

    I remember once reading a post addressing this on Mothering, where they talked about a boy who was trying on sparkly pink shoes at the store and the clerk saying, “What are you doing wearing GIRL’S shoes?” The boy’s face fell, and he was really hurt. The mom was wondering how she could have handled it. My favorite response she got was someone who said a good response would be, “Wow. That’s rude. Guess we’re done shopping here.” I liked it because it was succinct, and, to me, summed up the situation perfectly. It is NOT a problem that our children like pretty, sparkly things, because, frankly, who doesn’t?! Who wouldn’t want a pair of sparkly shoes over a pair of ugly boring grey ones? It is society’s problem, and, yes, I think it’s because of homophobia – no one wants a mamby-pamby boy who likes things that are arbitrarily designated for girls, because, oh god, what if that means he’s feminine and, huge gasp, GAY?! Since I’m blessed with plenty of gay people in my life, some of whom enjoy sparkles and some of whom don’t, I’m pretty sure that sparkly shoes at a young age won’t make a hill’s beans worth of difference as to who they love.

    I often feel that it is so, so crushingly unfair that little boys cannot outwardly like anything “girly,” while girls have (rightfully!) been allowed to become tomboys. The exact same barrette in the hair of a little boy goes from being “pretty” to “weak,” essentially. It makes my feminist blood boil, frankly. I’m so glad to see other parents who are aware of this double standard and working to correct it for the next generation!

  8. Amy says:

    I am the mother of three children. Two girls and one boy, the boy being the youngest. His first “toy” was a blush brush. He found it in his sister’s room and once he picked it up he would never put it down. As he got older he would diligently watch me put on makeup and use his brush to pretend to put on his own makeup. At the age of four he asked if he could put on his own makeup which I was quick to reply “Of course!” There I sat, with my son, in front of the mirror applying powder and blush as well as lip gloss. Our special time was soon interrupted by my husband seeing and asking to speak to me. He asked if I really thought that it was a good idea for me to let him do that. Yes my dear husband, I do think that it is okay for our son to be a kid. My sweet, sweet boy, who is now eight years old, still loves to play with makeup and will wear lip gloss on a daily basis while he plays with cars and goes back and forth on whether or not he will be an inventor or an architect when he grows up. Although he did just tell me the other night he thinks it would be cool to be a makeup artist. I have always tried to be open and honest with my children which includes not making excuses when they see two men/women holding hands. If you ask them how they feel about homosexuals, their reply would be “You can’t help who you love!”

  9. justine says:

    http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/When-Did-Girls-Start-Wearing-Pink.html i love sharing the history of “pink” and “blue” whenever i get a comment about it!

  10. What a wonderful collection of comments, reflections and suggestions! Well done mamas!

  11. justine says:

    Congrats, Amy! You are the winner of a digital copy of Sarah’s book, What NOT to Say: Tools For Talking With Young Children! I will PM you with the details!

  12. Amy says:

    My son, now almost 12 also loved wearing nail polish. His Dad was great about it and didn’t mind at all. He wore it until the summer he turned 9 when someone called him gay. That was the end of that. He had worn his nails professionally painted in American flags to summer camp. It looked very cool. He is pretty “boyish” and always wanted green, blue or black but it was something fun I loved doing with him and I didn’t care at all about the dirty looks I got in the nail salon. One day we even went to a “dress-up” store in the mall for little girls and my son walked in and said, “where is the boy stuff?” He wanted to get dressed up fancy and play too! He told them the should get some boy stuff and I was so proud of him.
    My second son is 9 months old and has long hair which I put my daughter’s barrette in but I want to make “boy” barrettes because my second husband is not open-minded about this. It isn’t fair what our kids go through in terms of gender assignment. I am happy I managed to raise my first son the way I did and I hope I can do the same for my new little guy.

  13. Jin Crocker says:

    As an adult heterosexual male my contribution to gender normalcy is to simply wear what could be considered “girly” accessories in my everyday activities. I have long hair and wear barettes, high pony tails, even pigtails in public. Sometimes I paint my nails, wear dangly ear rings, heart necklaces, and pink tank tops. If I act confident, people tend to treat me as normal. Just “Do It”!

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