As I helped my four-year-old son, Morgan, pull off his sand-filled shoes and soiled socks after preschool, I noticed clear glitter nail polish on his toenails. I glanced at his fingernails and saw that they were lacquered too.
"Who put polish on your nails?" I asked him, keeping my voice neutral.
He looked carefully at my face, trying to read my expression.
"Sarah," he said, looking down. "She put it on lots of kids."
"Well," I paused. "It looks great! I love the sparklies; I want some for my nails."
He smiled at me and ran into the house.
The next day I told his teacher, Sarah, a woman in her twenties with bleached white hair and a nose ring, that I loved the glitter nail polish. She let out a big sigh.
"Oh, good. I was a little worried that some parents would get mad at me; maybe they don't have any remover at home, or they didn't like it."
"This is our kids' last chance," I said, "to get
away with things like polish and dress-up." I thought of how Morgan's older brother had immediately tossed out his maroon socks when he started elementary school because they were "too pink." I sounded confident, but I wasn't admitting my reservations. What was next? Misty mauve, midnight metal?
I remember my surprise when Morgan's preschool teachers invited the girls to come out from the playhouse and squirt the hose in the sandbox. And when I picked up Morgan and he was dancing in a pink tutu with a huge grin on his face. I've learned from the preschool teachers that I can let my boys play with both "boy" and "girl" things.
But, as I emptied the sand out of Morgan's shoes on the front steps, I remembered that he would run barefoot on the mats at his gymnastics class later that day, his toenails glistening in the fluorescent light.
I pictured some of the parents giving me disapproving looks, and I wondered if the teacher, a college gymnast with bulging biceps, would tell Morgan that polish is only for girls and make him feel ashamed for wearing it. I cringed when I pictured him humiliated over his glittery nails. I wanted to protect him from that if I could.
I scrounged around in my bathroom cabinet, looking for an old bottle of polish remover that I last used 10 years ago. I found it back behind the cotton balls, brought it out, and twisted off the cap. It smelled like it would still do the job.
But I closed it up and put it back on the shelf. Morgan had looked so proud of his nails, and I hate the unwritten rule that says, "Boys can't do that." It's not easy letting my kids go first. I'm afraid that allowing them to stretch gender rules will make them outcasts. And when I tell myself I don't care what people think, I'm lying. I'm afraid people will call them sissies and say things like, "Your mother let you wear nail polish? Well, that explains it!"
That evening I told my friend Margot about Sarah's comment.
"The same thing happened at our preschool," Margot told me. "A mother freaked out that her son had polish on. She said she'd have to go to the drugstore before going home to get remover and take it all off before his father saw it."
"That's a shame," I said, "I bet that little boy had been running around school showing off his nails. He must have felt awful when he heard that." I didn't tell Margot how I'd held the polish remover in my hands earlier.
Morgan spends most of his time playing with balls and wrestling with his big brother, but he also likes bubble baths, body glitter, and temporary tattoos. I like this balance, this androgyny; it feels right for this son. I finally decided to leave the sparkly nail polish on.
At gymnastics, no one said a thing.
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