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Commentary: When pink toenails raise alarms

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 19, 2011 -By now, you might have heard about the hoopla surrounding a young boy with pink toenails. Perhaps you missed it, but the creative director of J.Crew was photographed playing with her son. It was an adorable, loving moment captured by the lens, but much of the focus has been on the fact that his toenails were painted...... PINK! Jon Stewart offers a comedic summary of the brouhaha.

We certainly like our boxes and get quite upset when people contradict them. The concerns surrounding the toenails are indicative of the greater reification of gender role norms. I taught about disorders of sex and gender recently, so this example of our intolerance of variations across gender came (unfortunately) right on time. I am constantly encouraging my students to see the research and material in their daily lives, so this small yet telling incident is a perfect example.

We think have a clear sense of what is "boy" and what is "girl." We see them as opposites mostly, and they are certainly distinct. We are so rigid about these norms that if someone feels more like the "other" gender, we've created a disorder to explain them. We fail to consider that our assumptions that gender is dichotomous, discrete and mutually exclusive might be faulty.

What if gender were not conceptualized as dichotomous? What if men being perceived as strong did not preclude women from being the same? What if women being perceived as emotional also allowed room for men to express similar tendencies? Without judgment.

It might sound far out to our Western minds, but there are cultures that allow for more fluidity when it comes to gender. It does not mean the end of maleness and femaleness as we know it. It might mean conceptualizing gender on a continuum rather than polar opposites. It would definitely allow a young boy to have his toes painted pink without calling into question his gender identity, sexual orientation (which is too often conflated with gender identity), and mothers' level of fitness as a parent.

My hunch is that people fear deviations from traditional gender role norms, partly because they think that such deviations are contagious or might spur others to do the same. Rather than validate fluidity in gender expression, this perspective minimizes it to a fad or something that can be put on or taken of at will.

Our silence about gender expectations is contrived. Kids are aware of, thinking about, and making choices based on gender whether we intentionally have the conversation or not. From as early on as preschool they are making sense of who does which tasks, who has which genitalia and even what is expected of them based on their gender.

What some call, often pejoratively, "gender bending" is becoming more accepted as a natural possibility within the spectrum of gender expression. Take for example, India's recognition of third gender. Many college campuses are adding gender identity to their non-discrimination clauses. In fact, many school settings are making policy changes that provide not only added protections for transgender youth but also for shaping a more inclusive environment.

When you look at the J.Crew photograph in light of these recent shifts, rather than locate the problem within an individual or act, perhaps the entity getting diagnosed should be the society that clings to its rigid conceptualizations.

Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. 

Kira Hudson Banks

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