In case you missed the news story that Jon Stewart has named "Toemageddon," here are the facts: Retailer J. Crew sent out an online ad last week in which creative director Jenna Lyons appears in a photo with her 5-year-old son, Beckett. A quote from Jenna reads, "Lucky for me, I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon." In her hand, she cups her son's foot, done up with bright pink nail polish.
Out came pundits accusing J. Crew of pushing a liberal agenda in which gender distinctions no longer matter, glamorizing a transgendered lifestyle, and, according to Erin Brown of the Culture and Media Institute, "targeting a new demographic—mothers of gender-confused young boys." Fox News blogger Keith Ablow accused J. Crew of being "hostile to the gender distinctions that actually are part of the magnificent synergy that creates and sustains the human race." Ablow put nail-polish-wearing boys on a spectrum of disturbing behavior, including boys in sundresses and people coloring or bleaching their skin so they could appear to be of a different race.
I didn't want to write about this brouhaha for the same reason I felt compelled to: my 5-year-old son. Until recently, my son's favorite color was pink. He says it no longer is, which is fine, although I'm sad that the major reason is that some boys at school (sweet, lovely little boys) told him that only girls like pink. Until then, he didn't seem to know that his love of pink, occasional wearing of nail polish, and devotion to Dora the Explorer (as opposed to her male cousin, Diego, who is marketed to boys) mattered one way or the other.
But I knew. Once, I overheard two moms in the pool locker room talking about my son's pink flowered swim goggles. "I understand," one said to the other, "that we need to let our kids be who they are. But that's just too much." People would often comment, "He must like pink because he has sisters!" I would respond, "No, it's because that's what he likes." As the mother of this bright, creative boy who continues to defy some gender stereotypes, even though he now names turquoise as his favorite color, the J. Crew ad backlash hit me in the gut.
Some facts are in order.
Fact: The association of pink with girls and blue with boys was not decreed by God at creation. As Jeanne Maglaty recently wrote for Smithsonian.com, the association is a modern phenomenon. A 100-plus years ago, pink was considered a masculine color, blue a feminine color, and all children, boys and girls, wore white dresses and long hair until around age 6. Ablow asked how we would respond to a photo of a boy in a dress. Perhaps he should find a photo of one of his male ancestors at age 3 or 4, and answer his own question.
Fact: As Jon Stewart pointed out, nail polish washes off. If what we did on a relaxed Saturday at 5 years old determined our future lifestyle, we'd all be dropping our babies in the sandbox because our neighbor friend just showed up with Popsicles. Putting on nail polish is fun. Many parents of boys, particularly those who also have daughters, have fielded their sons' requests to get in on the polishing action.
Fact: Although this particular firestorm has played out along liberal/conservative ideological lines, the association of pink-loving boys with transgendered or gay identity is not solely a conservative idea. Two Halloweens ago, The New York Times's Motherlode blog posted a question from a mom uncertain whether to let her young son dress as a ballerina for Halloween. Of the commenters urging the mom to let her son be a ballerina, which were many, a distressingly high number also advised her to look into support groups for the parents of transgendered and gay children, assuming that an early love of pink, frilly dress-up clothes must predict adult sexual orientation.
That, to me, is the most troubling part of the J. Crew fracas. I can write off the people who are certain that a mother's allowing her son to love pink and wear nail polish is a harbinger of doom, because I know it's not. The problem is that we adults, of all ideological stripes, seem determined to sexualize our children from a very young age. Assuming that a 5-year-old boy wearing pink polish or a ballerina dress is a future transgendered adult is just as bad as buying young girls high heels, string bikinis, and sweatpants with words on the backside. In both cases, we impose adult sexual identity, behaviors, and motives on children who are nowhere near sexual maturity.
The creation of human beings as two genders is central to the biblical narrative (Gen. 2-3). Clearly there are innate differences between male and female—differences that add to the richness and flourishing of human life. But our innate gender differences are not synonymous with the culturally mandated differences apparent in the J. Crew controversy.
God created us male and female, but he did not decree which colors and fashion accessories are appropriate for boys and girls. God created us as sexual beings, but he also gives us children who are refreshingly free of the need to categorize and sexualize other people. Both those who claim to support God-given gender differences and those arguing for tolerance seem determined to define everything, even our kids, through the lens of our culture's obsession with sex.