Eliot came back to ranch country from the Big Apple all manscaped, right down to the blue fingernails. The chic teenager Esme had painted hers, and Eliot, who is five, did his own, carefully and with purpose. This dyed-in-the-wool Wyoming cowboy had LOVED New York like a child should – pizza everywhere, kids everywhere, and the taxis. He got a toy E Train and couldn't wait to get it on the tracks at home.
My New York friends remarked how well-behaved he is, but I knew he was being spoiled to the point of toxicity. I suppose they did, too, awed in their knowing that his terrible twos – and threes and fours – were spent in tractors, semi trucks, fencing on the mountain, midnight haying on the plains, sleeping on a pillow in his father's lap (not so unlike a treasured dog in a Louis Vuitton carrier under the seat in Cloud Nine, but still, he's this precious little boy).
He is tough, for sure, tough enough to return to his kindergarten class at his country school with his blue nails. But when he came home he was scratching it off. I asked him if someone had teased him about it and he said no, "not weely," but this one boy had said it was "innapwopwiate."
"That kid?" I retorted, dabbing his fingers with nail-polish remover. That kid was Eliot's Mexican farmhand friend. He spoke no English when he and Eliot entered kindergarten; he was known by his Spanish name. The two boys spoke only the brrrs and vrooms of toy tractors and construction equipment.
"I'll take it off, " I said, "but you can always put it back on. You can flash those blue fingers in his face and say, 'How do you like me now?'"
Eliot liked that idea.
"But you'll have to duck, because he might hit you," I said.
Eliot wanted to practice ducking punches, and did so as I told him about bullying, about being different, about doing things you like to do, like wearing nail polish, and how cool it is to be a rootin' tootin' cowboy who knows how to take the E Train. And of course that boys, too, love nail polish, and how lucky we are that we now have perfectly appropriate colors like blue or John Deere green for boys to sport, and thanks to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, rodeo cowboys are tough enough to wear pink.
I told Eliot his fellow kindergartner was likely envious of the blue nails – after all, what five year old doesn't like nail polish? – but maybe he was too shy to paint his. I realize I was trying to bully-proof him without explaining the rules, and the rules are that young cowboys in country schools can expect to have their feelings hurt if they wear nail polish. Nail polish is for girls.
At least it still is in this ranch country.
My older son, who is nearly 15, does not want me to encourage Eliot to "sport" nail polish. He is worried Eliot will be teased, ridiculed, humiliated for any transgression of gender codes in the Intermountain West. Simon knows that children can be cruel to one another. So do I.
I know it's not about the nail polish; it's about being allowed to be yourself, about being considerate of one another and being kind. In this case it might be considerate of Eliot to avoid the unnecessary distraction his blue nails cause in the classroom. But I don't want him or anyone else pathologizing it, not in this world, and not at this time in the world. I also know I can't prevent bullying without passing on useless gender rules to a new generation – it's the explanation "nail polish is for girls," or "it makes other boys uncomfortable because they're not allowed to," that I worry would stick to his social psyche and keep him on the hurtful side of conformity, where shame lives.
I want him to be tough enough to wear pink, and ultimately to know how and why a cowboy wearing pink can help promote equality and goodwill in gender and sexuality. I want him to be that cowboy.