Published on June 25th, 2014 | by Mutha Magazine


Ask A MUTHA: My Nephew Likes to Wear Nail Polish

Hi Mutha Magazine,

My nephew (who is more or less like a son to me) likes to wear nail polish; pink, red, purple, yellow, it doesn’t matter what color. He just likes to get his nails painted. Today he came home crying from school because it was finally the day he was bullied for it. I was half shocked because I wanted to believe so badly that kids these days didn’t buy into gender roles. Sadly, I found out I was wrong. This is what we told him:
Those kids are being bullies. If you like to wear nail polish, then keep wearing it. There are all kinds of bullies out there and the best way to deal with them is to keep doing the things you want to do and not let them change you.
After this I couldn’t help, but feel like that wasn’t enough. What additional advice can we give my nephew about standing up to bullies? What could he say to them that would empower him and hopefully make the bullies think twice about gender roles? Remember he’s 5, and so are his peers. Any advice from the parental team at M.M.?
An Auntie from a suburb of Portland, Oregon
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Jessica Lucia, Flickr Creative Commons

I highly recommend this picture book, written by a mom whose young son liked to dress up like a princess.      – Deeshaw Phyllyaw


My first advice to the parents and the aunties is to have a good cry about how brutal the world is to our kids around gender.  Just let your heart break.  Or have the big raging session.  It’s important to have space to vent, because we don’t make our best decisions with our own emotions bottled up.  This is a great time to remember how we got smashed around gender when we were little…and pretty much all of us did.  We also need to recall what happened to us (way back when), and what the adults did (helpful or not).  Far too often, caring adults treat the current situation in reaction to what happened to us without taking time to process our own history.  Every situation is different.  Maybe the kid needs to be supported to wear the nail polish and stand up to the bullies.  But maybe the kid doesn’t need to be on the frontlines of the gender wars at five years old.  It’s important to help the young person identify and develop their own agenda.  Otherwise, this boy can be caught between the bullies at school who don’t want the nail polish, and the adults at home who do want it.  We don’t want our children to make their choices based on our feelings, such as their fear of disappointing us by accepting defeat in this round of the nail polish battle.  Or there may be a middle ground, where the family agrees to polish his toenails under his sneakers, so he knows who he is, but doesn’t need to be targeted on a daily basis.  Maybe at drop off, the parent and kid could both touch their toes to affirm that they know who they are, a sort of stealth move, that they’re pulling over a trick on the bullies.  Ultimately, it should be up to the child to decide what kind of warrior he wants to be, gladiator or covert operative.  Both are valid, and the kid should be supported to try different things, with the support of present and flexible adults.      – Aya de Leon


Before I had an actual child—a rough-and-tumble son who likes to get his nails done sometimes, too, and who is obsessed with any sports with balls—I had a theoretical one growing in my liberal arts undergrad mind. “Let’s have a house baby,” I would ‘joke’ to my Sarah Lawrence housemates. And I would lead the planning: We would use gender neutral pronouns. The child would have ambiguous haircuts and a symbolic name. We would encourage climbing trees outside, playing dress up inside. We’d find it an anatomically correct baby doll and Lego-like blocks made out of sustainable materials. Between the five—ten activist women moving in and out of the house at any given time, we could easily schedule our feminist lit theory classes and queer studies seminars so that someone could be home with the baby at all times. No problem. 


But now. A decade later, I am an actual feminist mom to an actual child, and when I read about your Portland nail polish emergency, I hate to say it, but I had to laugh just a little. My son is the same age as this boy. Hopefully the “bullying” this Aunt mentions is just regular kindergarteners making lame observations they’ve been conditioned to believe in. That’s for girls. This is for boys. Girls can’t do that. Boys can’t do this. I’m hoping no one is beating this child up. Scorning him on the internet. Threatening his family over nail polish. But you never know. 


I say take that boy out for some fancy pedicures. If the toes just aren’t enough polish for him, have manicure night on Friday evenings and polish-take-off parties on Sunday nights before school. 


There are so many actual parenting crises that come up all the time. Where to live so your child can get half a shot at an acceptable education? When to talk to your child about sex after you hear that fifth graders are doing it at recess? What to do when your six-year-old of opposite gender from you insists on asserting his independence by using the men’s restroom at a freaking music festival? Guns. OMFG, guns—in the toy aisle in Target, in schools every single week. Nail polish is just one fight you can let go of. Seriously. 


Yes, it’s important to teach our kids to feel good about themselves and all their weirdness. But unless everything else about this child is mundane and unexceptional, totally not three-dimensional at all, then I think this Aunt can relax. Like all of us actual human beings, this child is full of quirks and original style. Part of his coming of age will be to learn how and when to let any of that show, and then to manage the vulnerability that comes with being himself out loud. And he will. And he’s got a cool Mutha-reading Aunt to support him in that. But for now, he’s five. Put that polish on his toenails and work on teaching him how to propose to his friends (and his enemies), subtly, that everything’s for everyone—Legos, dolls, sports, nail polish, speaking up for yourself, being nice, whatever.      – K.E. Leong

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Zicon, Flickr Creative Commons

I explained the situation as best I could to my own son, who is also five years old. When I told him that a boy his age was being bullied for wearing nail polish, I was relieved to see him cock his head in confusion and ask me “Why?”

I explained that some people thought that nail polish was only for girls, and that of course that was silly, and then I asked him, if that boy were a friend of his, would he consider painting his nails too to help keep his friend from being teased—or would that be too scary? He thought about it for only a moment and answered, “I would feel nervous, but I might take the chance.”

I was picturing a nail-painting party with boy friends and girl friends and all kinds of colors. I was picturing little decals: kittens and skulls, flowers and Spider Man. I was picturing the safety of someone’s living room on the weekend, the gentle fingers of grown-ups applying nail polish with care, and—I’ll just say it—I was picturing cupcakes.

I think my son would want to go to that party. I think he would put Spider Man decals on one hand and kittens on the other. I think on Monday he would return to school and proudly sport his decorated nails.

I think it is a victory that up until now your family has provided your nephew with a safe enough world that he has felt free to paint his nails. Sadly, the world has begun to challenge this safety and the world will continue to do so.  Just like you, I wish I could protect our boys from the stupid tyranny of gender roles. But maybe the best we can do is to fill our homes with love, and hope that this love spills into the classroom and onto the playground. I like to imagine the bullies noticing all of the painted fingernails at recess and relenting, or maybe even yearning for their own Spider Man decal.     – Jennifer Berney

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Jessica Lucia, Flickr Creative Commons

Read him the book Jacob’s New Dress, by Sarah and Ian Hoffman, and talk to him about what it brings up for him. Protect your child’s burgeoning sense of identity, not the binary gender patriarchy! Sounds like you’re off to a great start already.

– Rhea St. Julien


When my nephew was five years old, he really wanted to be a girl. Nail polish was a big part of that. It sent my entire family into atailspin because they wanted so badly to protect him. I was the one who painted his nails. My brother wanted to kick my ass. From my perspective, if my sweet young nephew was going to get the message that nail polish was for girls, and that he was wrong for wanting to wear it – it was not going to be from me.

My nephew is grown now and is not demonstrating a continued interest in being a woman at this time. However, he is gay. As you can imagine, he’s not been immune to negative messages about that through his adolescence. I do not think he experienced a significant bullying problem, but these days, it can be hard to tell.

Your nephew is faced with negative reactions from children who have received the message loud and clear that being “like a girl” is not okay. That’s a fucking shame. And it’s also an opportunity to demonstrate how to respond to these types of messages. If another child wants to know why he wears nail polish, he can answer honestly. “I like to. I like the colors.” If they want to shame him for it, by saying something like, “Nail polish is for girls! You’re a girl,” then he has a lot of choices. “It can be for boys or girls.” or, “What? Why do you think it’s for girls only?” The lesson for your nephew can be that he doesn’t have to buy into their perspective on nail polish, or ultimately, gender roles.

Recently my six-year-old daughter was upset because her teacher had separated the class into boys and girls and had them compete to answer math questions. It didn’t feel good to her. The boys gloated when they won and said they were smarter than the the girls. As much as the mother tiger in me wanted to march to the school and give a lesson on binary gender constructs, I resisted. I encouraged my daughter to write a letter to her teacher about a) how she felt and b) what she wanted to change. She wrote a beautiful letter about how boys vs. girls made her feel sad, and that it should be boys and girls mixed on each team. She gave it to her teacher in the morning, and the teacher changed the teams that very day. She announced, “Boys and girls is not the right way to do this, so we are changing to Bluebonnets and Longhorns with boys and girls mixed!” My daughter changed the way
things worked just by sharing her feelings and making a request. And her teacher had the opportunity to rise to the occasion, and in this case, she did.

Sometimes it can be more effective and have more of a lasting impact to strengthen a child’s core by guiding them behind the scenes. Obviously, if he’s being bullied consistently, which to me means consistent harassment that is focused on shaming or abusing him, then he could use immediate and direct adult support. If it’s not quite at that level, consider the possibility of working with your nephew on things to say and how to respond to curious people, rude people, and everything in-between. Kids LOVE role-playing this, by the way. This will show him how to keep that wonderful self-confidence. When he has that, he will be able to keep doing what he wants, whether it’s wearing nail polish, dresses, or riding a skateboard in a feather headdress – and to make no apologies for doing so. And then others can see that, and think, “Maybe I can do that, too.”     – Erika Kleinman

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Brian, Flickr Creative Commons

My daughter has been experiencing something similar. I have taught her that she can be who she is, express who she is without worrying if her self expression is for boys or girls. That gender is fluid. She is only five, so in her mind she processes it how she will. Sometimes she likes me to call her my son, but mostly her daughter, so in this letter I will keep it with what we are currently using (the feminine pronoun). She has decided, rightfully so, that she is not a boy or a girl, she is  just who she is. And sometimes that leans towards dressing completely styled in suits and Spiderman shirts. And sometimes in lacy frilly dresses. (And sometimes a mix of both at the same time.)

When she wears her gumboots with airplanes and cars to school, the girls in her class tease her, tell her they are ugly. She cut her hair short and they tease her too. They say girls should only have long braided hair, which is what they have learned from the Mexican culture they have grown up in. Then some boys started picking on her, hitting her with sticks, saying they will kill her with a gun when she is older. These are six year old boys.

So, I handled this two ways. One, was to reinforce that she is special. That we are different and that is special and that not everyone will understand, but some well. There is a song we love by Willow Smith titled “I Am Me” on youtube. Willow had shaved her head and her song was her response to the media’s negativity around her style.

“I’m me. And that’s all I can be. I’m free. And you can’t stop ME!”

So sometimes I sing those lyrics as my daughter walks down the stairs to her class. We also talk a  lot about Polkadot from the Polkadot book series.


And second, which I felt to be very important was to talk with her teacher, and also the teacher of the boys in the other grade. My daughter’s teacher is working with the girls who called her boots ugly, expressing to them that there are no gendered toys or clothes and that everyone can wear and play with everything. Yay! for that teacher. The other teacher spoke with her boy students and also involved their parents (which I asked her to do). I wanted to meet with the parents too, but at this point the teacher met with them first.

Turns out the boys thought they were playing a game. She explained to the parents that its best not to play with guns in the house, to find other forms of games for their boys. Explained to the boys that it is a frightening thing to say to other children. And so far, everything has chilled out on that front.

We still talk a lot about difference and how we have to be brave to be ourselves. Luckily, the teachers at our school are great and open. AND this is a public school in Mexico. So I feel very lifted that teachers in a Mexican public school, in a culture where homophobia and sexism is ramped, are working hard to support my daughter in being who she is.

So my answer is to build confidence in the home, look for positive examples in the media, and also reach out to the teachers and parents in the school community.

Good luck! You are already doing so much just by letting him express himself.     – Sarah Maria Medina








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Exploring real-life motherhood, from every angle, at every stage.

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