That boy in yellow nail-polish

A few months ago, I took Re for his first real haircut. His locks had grown beyond my ability to manage, but he never said “yes” to a haircut, so I had let him be. Before I knew it, his hair was long enough for a braid and had enough volume for four heads. I often got asked if he was a “baba” or a “baby” and I smiled through it. These were not the battles I wanted to fight.

We went through the butterfly clip-banana clip-scrunchy-hair-band route, and one fine day, he said, “Don’t put anything in my hair!” It was finally time to let the hair go. A new kiddie salon had just opened in the area; I decided to try my luck. Since Re doesn’t take well to sitting on swivel chairs in capes and strangers touching his hair, we had to try something different. We tried stickers and doodle pads, but what really worked like magic was nail polish. For the next 10 minutes, an assistant painted away on Re’s fingers and toes, while the hairdresser went snip-snip. And just like that, he went from Rapunzel to cute mop. On the way home, I asked him if he liked his new hair. He said, “I like my new nail polish,” beaming at his fingers and toes.

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Off he went to school the next day, low maintenance hair, feet adorned with bright yellow nail polish, happy as a bird. On day two, he came back from school and announced, “Mamma, boys don’t wear nail polish. Only girls wear nail polish!”

So his first lesson in stereotyping had begun. It made me a bit sad, but it was a sign of things to come. The nail polish, of course, wore off in a few days, but the boy-girl statements would erupt every once in a while and I would never miss an opportunity to tell him they weren’t true. But then, for a child, seeing is believing. If he never saw a boy wearing nail polish or long hair, he would probably think that was the norm, right?

Since birth, I hardly bought Re any toys. There were hand-me downs from his male cousins (strictly gender-specific) and the rest he found on his own. A tea cup here, a ladle there, a pan, a cooker, a colander, some spoons and a few cupcake moulds. I realised the kitchen was where his heart was. Till today, his portable plastic kitchen and the more elegant Ikea version (gifted by my brother) are the only pieces of toy estate he really cares about. “Why don’t you buy him cars?” said a friend. “Yes, he has cars too,” I said. She seemed relieved. It was as though liking cars redeemed his boy-ness in some way.

Things are more extreme in the girl universe. A fellow mommy on Twitter took pride in the fact that her girl doesn’t sleep with a cuddly girly toy, instead chooses a crocodile. She said that by allowing the girl child to look after a mock baby, we are, in fact, reinforcing the nurturing mommy stereotype. Another mother prided over the fact that her daughter always chose boy toys and clothes.

There is this enormous sense of relief when children don’t fall into clichés. But what is disturbing is when they are veered into anti-clichés. Why do we celebrate it when our girls do boy things and not enough when our boys do girl things? Why should I worry that my boy likes pink when I am relieved that my girl doesn’t? Why should it bother me that my girl likes to play with toy kitchens when it doesn’t bother me that my boy likes cars? If we constantly aspire for our girls to do boy things, isn’t that a stereotype as well? Are we not victims of our own fight against stereotypes? At this rate, there will soon be a whole generation of androgynous women, and not enough men in touch with their feminine side to balance them out.

What I don’t get is a mother who veers her girl child towards things that are un-pink simply because she is a girl and it would be uncool to fall into a stereotype. That, to me, is sad. I don’t have a daughter, but I love to see girls dressed up, wearing pretty shoes and beads and purses. Unless we allow our children to get in touch with their yin and yang in equal measure, we will always make them versions of what we want them to be. The thing is, kids don’t know stereotypes. We do.

It breaks my heart to know that I have no control over Re’s school friends or what they or their parents think. I want my boy to get in touch with his feminine side in equal measure and find a balance that works for him. Unfortunately, that may not be so. There are school friends, park friends, building friends and bus friends, a collective which has enough stereotype to beat careful nurturing.

But home is still a place where he can drape a dupatta like a sari, dress a doll, wear bindis, bangles, nail polish and anything that makes him happy.

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(This piece first appeared as my column in the Indian Express on 9th December 2012)

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18 thoughts on “That boy in yellow nail-polish

  1. Lovely piece. One that needs to be shared enough among people who can make a difference. Been following your blog for a while but first time commenting. I love how you speak your mind and have no qualms about it. 🙂

  2. What a wonderful wonderful thought and article.. I’m a fan of your column in the express eye and so very happy that this came out in a national newspaper.. more and more people need to think like this and stop imposing gender norms and oppressive roles on children. !

  3. Hahaha!! Now, thats me! Even i was made to wear my cousin/neighbour ‘s frocks at home when i was 4.Remember my mother dressing me up like a Bride. My favourite game was kitchen-kitchen! I have no shame admitting it now, but when in school it was very embarrassing to show those pics to my friends and get ridiculed at. Its fun now! 🙂 🙂

  4. Stereotypes can be tiring…and they are no fun, I agree. My 2.5 yr old girl would wait for those around her to break wind to say, “Yayyy You tooted”.. Or if she was the culprit, she’d follow it up with a happy South India “Ayye Kuku tooted”.. But school seems to be changing that. A carefree toot is followed by a “Shame Shame Puppy Shame”… Sigh.. and nobody breaks wind in peace at home anymore! 😛

  5. This is just a problem with doing things that we are expected to do vis-a-vis what we really want to do. You are one good example of an anti-traditional-Indian-mom. I mean it in a good way. But yes stereo types can be pretty strong influence, whether it is conforming or anti-conforming, what is cool rules. These days it is ‘Dhaag achche hain” types which are being potrayed as the cool moms. Girls learning karate are cool but we can’t really influence our kids too much. I have a girl who loves pink, Barbie, frills and frocks. She just doesn’t go near jeans unless she has to.

  6. Delurking. I love the way this was written. I love the way you express your thoughts so beautifully. It just flows so simply and easily.

  7. thank you yet again for this piece…

    I to worry about this whole stereotyping and then anti-stereotyping thats going on all around…

    why not just let kids be kids?

  8. That’s a beautiful read. At first, I felt so good to see another woman think this way. And then I realized it was an Indian woman and the feelings turned to pure joy. This makes me hopeful of a free and tolerant India. An India where my kids will be born and I wouldn’t have to worry about it. I hope to be able to give them this kind of a liberal society, with people who can think like this. Thank you.

  9. What is the “feminine side” but? Doesn’t breaking stereotypes also mean that there is no stereotypical “feminine” side?

  10. I am a mother of 2 yr old boy-girl twins! And call me old fashioned or stereotyped but it hurts me to see that my daughter is less emotional than her twin brother. She’s never played with dolls nor is keen to see real babies whereas my son is more compassionate and is interested in everything that his sister does. I am having a hard time making him understand that he’s a boy and his sister is a girl. I can’t even put hair clips on my daughter’s hair because my son then gets upset and wants to wear them too. Stereotyped? Perhaps……..but would you like to see your husband in a saree/kurta kamiz etc.? But it is these differences that make us man or woman! That is the beauty of creation!

  11. I agree with Arushi’s comment. I love the fact that you will let your boy do ‘girl’ things, but isn’t the whole idea behind that precisely that there *are* no fundamental, natural, typical ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ things – that these are constructed?

  12. Oh, its excatly on my mind!.. few minutes back i was reading an article on what all you sholdn’t say to a girl child..and yes today ppl only want to raise girls like boys but then why boys cant be raised like girls… why the children cant be raised like children n not divided by norms!.. few days back a client called n told her both boys r crazy for gardening and dancing…thought it was so cool :)!.

  13. The fact that we celebrate a boy doing girly things or a girl doing things which boys love to do is stereotyping. It is difficult to create a balance when there is none in our society. TV ads, movies, magazines are all enforcing gender differences. So no matter how hard you try, eventually kids are going to fall into the trap. I think rather than focusing on what toys, color, clothes children should pick or not pick, we should allow a certain level of freedom of choice. If the girl is hung up on pink or the boy, there is no point panicking and analyzing. She/he may get over it eventually.
    A lot of our choices are also driven by our genes and how we are wired to think, something which cannot be influenced by environment or friends – sometimes.

    My daughter loves dancing and playing sports. I encourage sports not because its a boy thing but because sports gives focus, strength and life-skills. The emphasis on raising kids who respect each other NOT on the basis of gender or age but the choices people make and what they stand for. Someone could be incredibly girly but could be a strong powerful person and may be making a difference to society. Similarly, some of the best chefs, designers are men. Those are traditionally women oriented roles but just some men are talented in that area. Do we question or raise an eyebrow about that. Nope, we enjoy the food and get out. Wear their clothes and feel good about it.

    Can we just teach/enrich kids with a good value system and ethics than indulging them in cliches or anti-cliches or sermonizing them on gender neutrality. I think if children see a balanced man-woman relationship at home between their parents, they won’t need any tutoring at all.

    • Excellent reply!…..now,this is what i was looking for in this blog….a logical voice of reasoning!….

      lalitaji,i mentioned this in your other article “raising a boy in times of rape” that no matter what preventive measures we take,the media,the society and the world we live in which is male dominated will change your child within no time.

      instead of worrying about cliches or anti-cliches and gender partiality,just focus on teaching or enriching them with a good value system and ethics…..thats the solution…..

      the more you struggle to teach your child that men and women are equal,the more he will realise that women are weak and need to be protected……

      instead of that,instead of teaching him worthless gender partiality issues,teach him what is right or wrong….mould him into a good human being,that respects other human beings,not just the other gender….
      let’s all be serious here…..are you going to sent your son out to the street wearing a churidar or saree?….no,absolutely not,right?,…..men will be men and women will be women…….let them maintain their individuality,and their respective roles in society…!

      at the end of the day,what matters is we mould our child to be a good citizen,that’s all!don’t try to imitale a complete feminist ideology,just try to think from an unbiased moral side.

      because,let’s all be honest here,the world isn’t going to change anytime soon….honestly speaking,unless,the world suddenly flips over one day and a miracle happens,you’re not gonna get the change you are envisioning,lalitaji….!sorry to say that,but that’s the sad and hard truth!

      the next time,your son comes from school saying someone mocked him because he wore a nail polish or something feminine,laugh it off,because you more struggle,the more he will realize your words are hollow in context with the modern society,and finally he will stop caring for your words,and will make up his own mindset from what he sees.

      just focus on making him a better person and a better individual who respects other individual’s freedoms and rights,as well as respecting his own without caring much about cliches and gender distinctions.

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