“No more pedicures,” I told my sons.
“Whyyy?” they whined.
“It’s not summer anymore,” I lied.
I have two boys, 7 and 10, who are addicted to pedicures.
They love the nail salon’s Captain Picard command bridge chairs with digital massage controls. And the bubbly blue water. And all the women at the salon who dote on them and tickle their little Barney Rubble feet. And they love the colors of the nail polish, which they’ve renamed Bionicle Green, Ravens Purple or Hot Wheels Orange.
But I’m tired. Tired of confronting what a binary, gender-constricted society we live in. Tired of people telling them, “Boys don’t do that.” Tired of the judgment.
This all started in the summer, when we were headed to a wedding. I needed my toes done and had no one to care for the boys. So I took them with me to the nail salon, and they asked if they could sit in the big chairs, too.
I was ready to let them get their feet scrubbed and nasty nails trimmed. But when they saw the wall of cool colors and asked if they could get their toes painted, all eyes peered up over the People and Us magazines to see what I was going to do.
“Okay, if you want. But just for a day or so, then we’ll take it off before taekwondo,” I said.
I knew this probably wasn’t a question of gender identity or sexual orientation. Instead, it was two kids who saw colors and the opportunity to decorate and create art — on themselves!
And I should have been totally okay with it. For the past few years, I have been following a Maryland family and their transgender child, who was born a girl but decided at age 5 that she was a boy. I admired the parents’ strength in their decision to raise their child this way, but once faced with my own children’s gender diversion, I crumbled like a meringue on the inside. I wigged out.
I warned them that folks might not be very nice about boys with painted toes.
“Who cares?” they said.
Their dad was horrified when we got home. “They’re going to get crap for that,” he said.
Sure enough, at taekwondo class, one of the masters looked down at 10 spots of Hot Wheel orange and said, “Boys don’t paint their toes.”
After the class was over, I asked them whether they wanted me to take the polish off when we got home.
“No,” my 10-year-old said. “That’s not right.”
He pointed out that the girls at taekwondo had painted toenails. “Why does Hazel get to have her toes painted. Or Olivia?” he asked.
See, those girls who break boards are congratulated for being strong and fierce. I’m right there. You go, girl.
But boys who wear nail polish? Society freaks.
And I had no good answer for my boys besides, “Boys don’t do that.” And if I said that, I might as well say, “Girls don’t do taekwondo.”
Turns out my sons are further along on the road to gender equality than I am. For every girl told that she can be a firefighter or a pilot or a taekwondo master, boys also have to know that it’s okay for them to be stay-at-home dads, nurses or to paint their toes.
Nail polish on boys is nothing new. Some Major League Baseball catchers do it; bright nail polish helps pitchers better see their hand signals.
“We were always walking around with our nails done,” explained Joe Tien, the manager of Capitol Nails on Capitol Hill, whose mother owns the store. When his mom was studying nail techniques, she experimented on all three of her boys.
“Did you survive? Did you get teased? Bullied?” I asked. After all, there was a small furor when a J. Crew ad showed a mother painting a boy’s toenails pink. And it’s a perpetual joke to keep making fun of the metrosexual man getting a pedicure, even without the color.
Tien’s nails didn’t set off any alarm bells. “I guess it’s, like, a counterculture thing for some guys, so it wasn’t really unusual,” said Tien, who wasn’t really goth or punk. Just the son of a nail store owner. “All the girls were coming up to us and looking at them. Or they’d look at our eyebrows and say, ‘You have really nice eyebrows,’ because Mom practiced waxing on our eyebrows, too.”
He was fine.
I’ve tried, as a parent, to raise gender-aware boys. I bought gender-neutral clothes when they were little but switched to dark blues and black-and-neon basketball shorts when that’s what they asked for. I gave in on all forms of Nerf guns and Army men. We dropped tumbling for football. And even though it’s one of my favorites, I haven’t forced them to watch “The Little Mermaid” with me.
In truth, I thought raising conscientious boys was going to be more about keeping plastic AK-47s out of the house.
Turns out I didn’t have to do much besides sit down and shut up. I watched my boys stand up for themselves against authority figures and family members. When their grandfathers and their uncle and their friends took issue with their toes, both boys said, “So what?”
I even overheard them arguing to their friends that boys should wear nail polish, like, of their favorite sports teams. So far, they have one convert.
Maybe fighting for the right to wear nail polish is a little silly. But I think it’s been a good exercise for them and for me and for anyone who tried to come up with something better than, “Boys don’t do that.”
One of my kids broke a board, sparred like a champion and earned his brown belt this summer, all with Optimus Prime Blue on his toes.
Maybe, when the older one earns his black belt next week, we’ll all go celebrate with pedicures.