Pink Toenails

A ridiculous media storm has erupted over the innocent act of painting a child’s toenails. All young children, boys and girls alike, want their nails colored. It looks pretty. Congratulations to J. Crew for illustrating normal childhood.

The early years of childhood are an enchanted time of imagination. The child’s job is to play, to imitate, to pretend to be everyone. The child’s job is not to fit into rigid gender expectations. That comes later. That comes when the hormones of puberty kick in. Before that, the sexual identity of a child is fluid.

I have four adult children, two females and two males, and as they grew up they exhibited this fluid, undefined sexual identity. Their play was influenced more by their order in the family than by their gender.

As a child, my oldest, Lally, dressed her two younger brothers in girl clothes and pretended that they were her sisters. I have one photograph of my son, Bram, around four, dressed in a skirt, boots, shawl and wearing a scarf on his head. Nonetheless, he grew up to be a hearty male. But, even if he hadn’t it wouldn’t have been a tragedy and it wouldn’t have been because I painted his toenails when he was a child.

My favorite photo of this “genre,” is the one of my son, Finnie, also about four at the time, standing at the top of a stairway. He has on a football helmet, is holding a football in one of his hands and other than that is dressed only in panty hose. He now has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

My youngest daughter, Nora, with two older brothers, grew up playing GI Joes, cars and mostly “boy” games. This helped her to get along exceptionally well with boys but did not make her into a lesbian.

What difference would it make if she were a lesbian? Would I love her less? No. Would I have failed as a parent? No. Could I have “made it happen?’  No. The first thing wrong with this whole conversation about the innocent pink toenails is that it’s not a tragedy if a child grows up to be homosexual. Homosexuals are a normal part of life.

Only those with insecure sexual identity themselves would assume that we have to teach our children their sexual orientations. Sexual orientation is a complex subject but it is not something that we learn; it is something that we have.

We may be confused as parents when our children experiment with different sexual identities in play but we can trust our children’s play. It’s just that. It’s make believe. You will observe that your children will undergo a transformation at puberty. You will see them become men and women then, but not before. Before then they are only children.

We try to pin down our child’s sexual identity too early. Why do we dress girl babies in pink and boy babies in blue? That is so stereotypical, so 1984. I realize that people want to signal the sex of their babies so that others won’t wrongly identify them, but this encourages conformity. We don’t have to set boundaries for our children regarding their sexuality; they will do it themselves. It is inherent; it will unfold.

This rigidity regarding the sexual identity of children is even more exaggerated with boys than with girls. It is acceptable for girls to be “tomboys,” wear boy clothes and engage in sports, all without censure. But boys can barely step out of the roles expected of them. Their clothing is limited to pants only and they are ridiculed for interest in areas traditionally dominated by women, such as decorating, dance and cooking. We have to be careful as parents that we do not corral our children into stereotypical gender roles.

We’ve published a couple of great articles about gender-bending boys. One, “The Boy in the Blue Tutu” is about a three-and-a-half year old boy who just wants to wear dresses. The article was first published in the March/April 1999 issue of Mothering Magazine and received the 2000 Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Award for Outstanding Magazine Column. And, we published Handsome in Pink in our July/August 2010 issue and have an audio version online.

It is the issue of defamation that is at the heart of this furor. First is the defamation of a child’s innocent experience. Those who read unnatural motives into the innocent play of children would do well to examine their own sexual security. To attempt to control children’s play because of adult’s prurient intentions is exploitive and abusive.

It is a further defamation to deny a person’s authentic experience, either as an innocent child or as a teenager and young adult. For the teenager or young adult who realizes that he or she is homosexual, the censure of the society at large can be overwhelming. In fact, a 1998 study claimed that homosexual or bisexual junior high and senior high school boys are seven times more likely than heterosexual boys of the same age to report suicide attempts.

Demonizing the innocent behavior of the pink toenails is a way to bully others into conformity and is inherently homophobic. A homophobic society doesn’t eliminate homosexual behavior, it only forces it underground and its intolerance increases suffering. Specifically, it increases the chances that teens will take their own lives. Let us be compassionate to these teens.

And, let us treat children as children. It isn’t correct to interpret the behavior of psychologically healthy children through the lens of neuroses. It is correct to let children be, to trust in their inherent innocence.


Peggy O’Mara  (101 Posts)

Peggy O’Mara founded in 1995 and is currently its editor-in chief. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has lectured and conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League International, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four.

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14 thoughts on “Pink Toenails”

  1. Fantastic response! Sad that we even have to respond, though, such a non-issue. I don’t understand how it became one.

  2. Amen!

    Children learn from and imitate what they see–feminine or masculine. My son sees me doing dishes and sweeping the floor–lately he has been helping out. Today after we ate some chips and guacamole he carried the bowls into the ktichen and put them in the sink. If he sees something on the floor he will go get the broom and “sweep”. If he saw me painting my toe nails I’m sure he would put his foot out or take the brush and try to paint his toe nails too. All it means is… He’s learning and exploring/experimenting! He’s too young to make some political statement!

  3. It’s crazy to me that this one picture has created such backlash. Thanks for putting some perspective on this issue. Didn’t mothering magazine have an article a few issues back about the colors as gender standards? If I remember correctly, the pink for girls and blue for boys started after WWII. Hopefully we can all be part of raising the next generation to be less hung up on gender roles and more accepting of each other.

  4. Thank you for such a well thought out commentary that, agreed, ought not need one. My daughter wears her brother’s blue hand-me downs and my son enjoys draping himself in my jewelry and putting on make-up with me when I primp for Friday night dinners. It has never once occurred to me to be concerned that these innocent acts will affect their future sexual identities, nor would it horrify me if they ultimately had non-traditional gender identities. What is bazaar to me is anyone thinking that toe nail painting is some act of war upon a kindergartener’s “sexual” orientation. Fer f’s sake!

  5. Great article! When my son was about 2 and one of his sisters was about 4, his older sisters got dolls for christmas and he got trucks. Bigger sister took over the trucks and my son loved her doll. He wouldn’t go to bed without it. One day sister noticed he was playing with her doll. She was just being cranky (she hadn’t had anything to do with the doll in months)and took it away from him. He doubled up his fist and blacked her eye. He’s grown with his own family now, but I think that doll is somewhere in a box of his stuff. Later on a man in my life was trying to tell my son that boys don’t play with dolls, that’s sissy stuff. I stepped right in and told him that little girls play with dolls to learn how to be mommy’s, so why can’t little boys play with dolls to learn how to be good daddy’s? And my son is a great dad!

  6. Thank you for using your platform to educate people about the dangers of a socially constructed world. As a burgeoning researcher in the area of gender identity development in young adults I feel the need to caution you from confusing gender identity and sexual identity. These two are very different identities that often interact but are just as often independent. By this I mean that a man can be very masculine, even oppressive to other men and women, and be homosexual. I think the discourse of gender today has created a dichotomy of masculine and feminine that people then automatically associate with a sexual identity. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    I have no martial arts training, never played sports, dressed as a girl for Halloween multiple years and I am a masculine heterosexual male with a wife and daughter. I hope I make my point.

  7. Hear, hear! Beautifully worded response Peggy!

    I am a proud mama to a 3yo son who loves to walk around in a tutu (has to be the pink one, not yellow or blue) and heels at the local children’s museum Play Lab, and of course enjoys a mani/pedi! lol I think it’s just precious…

  8. Thank you. All 3 of my boys love having their toenails painted. And I have one boy who is just like the child in the “Blue Tutu” article–he just loves to wear dresses, pretend to be girls from the stories we read, try on my shoes, and wear jewelry and makeup. In fact, he tries to convince me to wear jewelry (because I never do). He’s just a kid who likes pretty things. I can’t believe how many people think I’m encouraging him when I let him wear (at home!) the dress he so desperate wants to wear! Thankfully he’s only 3 and his preschool teachers still think it’s cute when he plays dress-up. I love my sons, regardless of what they choose to wear now, what they choose to wear in the future, whether they grow up to love women or men. And I don’t think I can make any prediction on the latter based on their behavior in preschool!

  9. Thank you for this. I’m am constantly having to stand up for my 5 yr old who, up until this year, has always been very open and honest that his favorite color is pink. He has been shying away from answering the question as to what his favorite color is as of late, and I am sure it is because so many laugh at him or give us a “funny” face. It has been upsetting to say the least. So what. So he knows what he likes.Does anyone care that he also likes to play with my high heels while he’s tackling his brother in a pretend football game.No, the simple fact that his favorite color is pink is all they need to know to make judgments. My grandfather was a man among men. A WWII bomber pilot. A wonderful husband and father and guess what his favorite color was?….Pink.

  10. Well said, Peggy! It amazes me that our media doesn’t have more important things to be outraged about than an image of normal childhood. Most of the litte boys I know have had their toe nails painted at least once or twice. It is a sweet image of mother and child enjoying each other and it’s been portrayed as if the mother is doing something to harm her child. There are definately bigger things to be outraged about in our culture. I would never even have noticed this picture other than it’s beautiful photography.

  11. Don’t feed into the macho/feminine mystique by asserting that the son who once wore panty hose is now a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and the son who was photographed wearing a shawl and a half is now a “hearty (hardy?) male”.

    You don’t need to prove your sons’ masculine credibility! Jiu-Jitsu and heartiness (sic) don’t make a male any more manly than shawls and panty hose make him effiminate! 🙂

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