"Playing beauty parlor" is one of my most beloved past times. I would either play with my mother or with a small group of girlfriends, and we would take turns painting each other's nails, experimenting with Mimi Bobeck Carey's makeup, and burning each other's ears with a curling iron. Of course, none of us were properly trained or patient enough to produce quality results (in fact, I think I'm still trying to grow back a chunk of hair that was accidentally cut off--a cosmetic casualty from years ago), but it was more about spending time together. I am sure many other girls have similar memories of heartwarming whimsy, just as boys have memories of bonding with their friends over Super Smash Bros. However, what about the boys who would rather experiment with neon nail polish than smash a bro? Does it matter when the child with the pink toenails is a boy?
The latest J. Crew online catalogue, featuring a photo of creative director, Jenna Lyons painting her son's toenails pink, has sparked quite a controversy. Critics of the photograph say it is inappropriate to encourage typically girl-only behavior. Some even believe that this will inevitably turn what would otherwise be a normal little boy into a Lady Gaga-worshipping homosexual.
Psychologists disagree on the level of concern parents should feel when their children express an interest in activities that are typical of the opposite gender. Fox News psychologist, Dr. Keith Ablow has become one of the most vocal protestors against the photo and of allowing children to experiment with breaking traditional gender roles. Not only does he say it is unwise to allow such liberal expression, but he goes even further in admonishing Lyons' parenting by saying, "Yeah, well, it may be fun and games now, Jenna, but at least put some money aside for psychotherapy for the kid - and maybe a little for others who'll be affected by your innocent pleasure." Other child development experts express a more laissez-faire attitude. Child psychologist, Dr. Jeff Gardere, says that allowing activities that may break gender boundaries is no big deal. "There is no reason to hurry the gender-role process along." In fact, if we put too much emphasis on silencing transgendered behaviors, especially with young children, this only leads to added unnecessary pressure to conform and confusion in the minds of these impressionable youths.
While the evidence may be inconclusive regarding whether or not a coat of cotton-candy pink will encourage little Ricky to become little Ricki, our country is becoming more and more accepting of gender-bending behaviors. While children of generations past may have shuddered at the thought of wearing anything that might be construed as feminine, it has become fashionable for elementary aged boys and even decidedly straight college males to proudly don pink shirts.
Clearly, the attitude surrounding this historically feminine color is rapidly growing towards acceptance, but this acceptance comes with a few qualifications as well as some reservations. In a very informal survey I conducted among college students, I found that almost everyone, males and females, see nothing wrong with a man wearing pink clothes, as long as it was not too tight, too flashy, or too pink. The few who admitted to actually wearing pink shirts claimed a sort of pride in the fact that they are secure enough in themselves and their masculinity to wear the color. However, the overwhelming response was, "Pink is perfectly fine for guys to wear...but I wouldn't wear it," indicating that although the color is becoming less gendered, there is a certain stigma attached to it that most feel uncomfortable challenging.
This tension between the opinions we express and those we suppress puts parents in a difficult position when it comes to whether or not to allow their sons to take ballet, or purchase a skateboard for their daughters. It is, after all, a parent's duty to protect their children from a world that is oftentimes judgmental and cruel, so many may feel that it is safer to discourage these activities. However, are these really the lessons we want to be teaching? Do we want to raise our sons to eschew anything that may attract a critical eye, or do we want to instill our children with the drive to pursue their passions, whatever they may be. Do we want to encourage conformity at all costs, or do we want to instill within our children the confidence and self-esteem to believe in their convictions-even those as simple as choosing to wear a pink shirt or nail polish?
Known for its classic, conservative aesthetic, the pages of a J. Crew catalogue hardly seem like the place to be making any kind of political statement regarding homosexuality or transgender behaviors, especially in children. Perhaps this is only the beginning in the company's shift towards targeting a more liberal consumer, or maybe the photo was chosen simply because it was an adorable picture of a mother and her child, devoid of any intentional political undertones. Either way, it will be interesting to see how consumers and fans of the brand respond and how the controversy will affect J. Crew's numbers and future marketing campaigns.