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Nail Polish for Boys
Learning new questions and answers in being a boy-mom
I have a confession to make.
I bought my son Nico his first nail polish a few months ago, a midnight blue. I surprised him with it one afternoon and he painted our nails - Matisse masterpieces, fingers half blue as well, no millimeter of nail left untouched, eyes squinted, a diamond assessor unforgivably searching for faults. When we were done, he ran to show-off his flashy hands to Dad, and I sat soaking in the minutes of genuine connection with my 3 year old (plus all the cool-mom vibes that radiated from me, of course).
But something inside gnawed at me, why hadn’t I bought him the red one instead? At the store I’d told myself blue was cool. Besides, I rarely get manicures but when I do, I hardly ever go for red. Still, I knew he would have preferred red. After all, red is his obsession in all matters.
So why didn’t I?
When I first learned I was having a boy there was an unexpected sense of relief, an internal inkling that raising girls in this world was harder. While I hoped for one someday and am now grateful she’s arrived, in that moment it felt less challenging to step into the bigness of motherhood with a boy. But as I look around today, there is a growing conversation around empowering girls. There are books telling stories of trailblazing women, construction blocks being marketed to girls, new movies released where the damsel in distress is now the damsel whose a badass and gives no fucks. And while there’s still a way to go, parents are ushering in the tools needed to raise strong, confident, autonomous girls.
Now I’m asking myself, is the reverse conversation on raising strong, confident, yet also self-expressed and sensitive boys prevalent enough?
I’m grateful to live in Los Angeles, a place that starts to challenge traditional gender norms, offering more room for fluidity, and with it, more room for fun. Where young boys with long hair don’t cause you to look twice, boys’ birthday parties invite The Little Mermaid alongside racing cars, and preschool dress-up not only involves girls dawning superhero costumes but boys flaunting princess dresses too. This is certainly not what I saw growing up in Latin America - where the telenovela ‘macho’ stereotype was more than a cliché - and not how most of America is today.
I’ve come to truly value the sometimes squirmy process of unlearning and relearning, getting pulled out of my comfort zone in the most mundane moments of my day. Like the first time Nico helped me put my make-up on, opening and handing me the concealer, the blush, the mascara; examining each one, asking “What’s this for?”, and then “Can I try it on?” Or the first time he noticed grandma’s shiny ruby nails on Facetime and asked if we could do the same. It’s embarrassing to admit, but in these first requests I felt a slight constriction in my chest, invisible societal beliefs running deep. It’s why, when I bought the nail polish, I didn’t choose red; a voice, which I was in denial to accept was there, saying ‘painting his nails is already girly, at least go for a boyish color’.
“We've begun to raise daughters more like sons... but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.” ― Gloria Steinem
We’re mindfully building our language and creating new storylines so girls can step into their power. Can we be as mindful with boys, so that they too get to show us who they are and how they feel?
Nico’s toddler table is covered with color and a collection of staplers, scissors, and hole-punchers (yes, all plural); it’s no wonder he’d be mesmerized by the idea of splashing paint onto his nails using a miniature bottle and brush. And whether it’s blue, red, or glittery pink, does it matter? This question goes beyond color, but color alone teaches us so much. Seeing it through his eyes, where each one is just a sliver of the same rainbow, none owned by a certain group, is refreshing to experience.
So I’ve learned to ask myself - is it safe enough that I’d let my daughter do it? Then so can he. Leave the mascara, go at it with the blush. Long hair getting in your face? Hair-clips to the rescue. I now hear the absurdity of a robotic ‘no, that’s for girls’. Because it’s natural for kids to explore, to play, to mimic adults, and to express themselves without us labeling something as meant for them or not, before they’ve even had the chance to try it. I understand this can make some parents uncomfortable. We weren’t raised this way and it’s normal to have questions about our kids’ future, or to worry about what family and friends think. I do experience the tension of living in between the old and the new, like when we travel and Nico is frequently mistaken for a girl. But I’m not thrown aback, I’m proud and I hope he hears it in my voice, because I know he hears them.
Hair, make-up, clothes, art, sports; these are just physical manifestations of self-expression. How can we create the same safe spaces for them to freely feel? Nico’s a sensitive soul. A mega-nurturing brother, always professing his utmost love for baby sister (fine, I’m not jealous). An extroverted introvert, who asks to be carried tightly into preschool each day, only to not look back a minute later. He speaks in the language of ‘my heart loves this flower’, ‘Elsa was so kind to me’ (yep, Disney’s), and ‘Are you ok, mami?’ at the first off vibe. I truly hope none of this changes.
Although I’m trying to be conscientious, there are moments when he’s coming at me like a 5 Whys pro, curious why Dad doesn't wear make-up, or why he doesn’t shave his legs, and I just don’t know what to say. I bite my tongue, not wanting to simply revert back to the dull dichotomy of men and women, so I babble an improvised story. Only, I wish I did know what to say. I wish I had more scripts. But giving boys this kind of freedom of expression is new terrain.
What I do have is a new red nail polish waiting on the counter.
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