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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