Taking a Stand, Feet First
When her son, 4, wears toenail polish, he learns how hard it is to flout peer pressure
In my mind, it will remain the summer of the painted toenails. Other things happened, good and bad, but none quite as unexpected as the toenails and all the alarm and furor they kicked up.
It started sometime in late spring, when Danny Mac, a few months past his fourth birthday, noticed that his best friend's toenails had the ability to change colors. Sometimes they were pink. Sometimes they were red. Sometimes they were reddish pink. Danny Mac thought his toenails should have this capability as well, so he turned in a request to the head of acquisitions and distribution--Mama. Which is to say he announced one day: "I want rainbow toes just like Bailey."
Obstacles presented themselves immediately. The chances of my being in possession of a non-petrified bottle of nail polish were pretty slim; of my having the manual dexterity to apply it to such small surfaces, almost nil. I popped the old "next time we're at the store" CD into the maternal hard drive. "You always say that," he said.
It occurred to me that, at 4, his concept of "always" was a bit limited, but there was a germ of truth in what he said. So I rummaged and discovered in the medicine cabinet a miraculous bottle of metallic blue polish, the presence of which I could not explain under oath. With strains of "Scarlet Ribbons" wandering through my head, I bent over my son's feet and did my level best not to go outside the lines.
I had to admit the blue toenails looked quite fabulous, and of course his little sister, Fiona, had to have hers done too. Then I did mine. My husband declined--he is a bit outside the toenail-painting-male demographic--but he swallowed once, twice and dutifully admired his son's feet. Soon we were all dancing around the house with glittering rainbow toes, and I wondered why I hadn't thought of this before--so much joy from such a little thing.
The next day, Danny Mac went to school. Not unexpectedly, he took his toes with him. And when he came home, he had learned many things, including that some people thought nail polish was for girls, and that boys who wore it were sissies.
I suppose I should have seen this coming, but I really hadn't. For one thing, he was wearing shoes and socks. For another, he is 4. Which isn't to say that the mini-gender police weren't already issuing citations; they had been for about six months--about clothes and games and colors. But nail polish? I figured most kids were just getting acquainted with its existence, and there hadn't been time to do a gender-breakdown study.
And then, there we were stuck with that word "sissy." Why is this word still in the vernacular? What exactly does it mean, anyway? Effeminate? Skinny? Smart? Kind? Artistic? Weakly? Gay? I am almost 40 and I still don't know precisely what this word means. All I know is that it has probably started more wars than organized religion, and if I weren't trapped by my own anti-censorship bias, I would request that it be banned from the English language.
So I had to explain this word to our son. I said there are very few things in this world that are just for girls or boys and that nail polish is not one of them. I told him that there is nothing wrong with liking things that girls like, with doing things that girls do.
I told him the word "sissy" doesn't mean anything and that if someone calls him that, he should just ask them what they mean and he will see that they don't even know. "Just tell them they're being ridiculous," I said.
Later, I overheard my husband telling Danny Mac that if the kids don't stop teasing him when he asks them to, he should hit them. Just once. Hard enough so he doesn't have to do it again. Deep down inside me burned a tiny spark of gratitude and glee.
You see what the word "sissy" does to people.
At bath time that night, I reminded Danny Mac that he didn't have to have painted toenails if he didn't want to, that I could take the color off right now. "But I like it," he said.
So the next day he tried his new word--" 'diculous"--and that worked for a while. He asked for green toes next, and then gold. We went to the store and bought lots of colors. His favorite was a bright red with sparkles in it. Before we got it, I warned him that a lot of people would say that only girls wear red, and he said he didn't care.
But the kids still teased him, and he did so care. He had his allies--his best friend, Bailey, is his stouthearted supporter in all things, and they have been through this before. When they were 3 or so, some of the older girls told Bailey it was "yucky" to play with boys, and some of the boys told Danny the same thing about girls.
Friends since infancy, they didn't even need a parental pep talk for that one. "You're just wrong," Bailey told those girls, with a Susan Sarandon shrug.
At swim class, the instructor, a young man, took one look at Danny Mac's feet and said "Cool toes, dude." I could have kissed him. When Danny Mac came home the next day, head hanging because of the sissy thing, I tried to explain to him that when you're really cool, the people who are not at all cool sometimes say mean things.
Again I offered to take off the paint. Again he said, "But I really like my toes." And so we painted a rainbow, a different color on each toe. Kneeling on the bathroom floor, I tried not to lean into the future, tried not to see all the battles that lie ahead over haircuts and friends and clothing, over music and sports and wanting to do and be and see things that are different. I tried not to remember how hard it all seems for so many years, how hard it is still, even at 40, even at 50, even forever.
By this time the weather was warm enough for sandals, and watching Danny Mac walk into the schoolyard with his resolutely different boy feet closed my throat with pride. Here he was, at 4, taking on peer pressure, taking it on and shrugging it off. I punched my husband in the shoulder--that's our son.
Then one evening he barged into the bathroom and asked me to take the polish off. Two kids kept teasing him and teasing him, and he was tired of it. "They won't stop, Mama," he said. "No matter what I do. Take the colors off."
For a minute I wanted to refuse. I didn't want him to fold just because two kids had nothing better to do than watch his feet and criticize. Who were these kids, anyway? Point them out, I wanted to say, and I'll give their parents a call and have a little conversation about bigotry and tolerance and what life in an urban setting, what life in America, is supposed to be about. Ignore them, I wanted to say, what they say doesn't matter. They don't matter.
But I couldn't do any of those things, and neither could he. It's hard to ignore what other people think, especially when you've just discovered that other people think at all and that sometimes they think about you.
I took off the polish, and he smiled at me and ran out into the yard.
Over the phone, I told a friend the story of the summer of the toenails and how hard it was to realize that peer pressure and gender pressure start so young. "Look," said my friend, who is a fairly free spirit herself, "we're constantly pushing ourselves against the boundaries, figuring out what is worth fighting for and what isn't. Danny Mac didn't cave, he made a decision. He decided toenails weren't worth the grief. Someday he'll find something that is, and he'll know exactly how to fight for it."
I hope she's right. We all need to choose our own battles. Even at 4. Someday, with any luck, he'll be able to ignore what other people say about him. Someday, with any luck, those "other people" will include me.