Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Forcing Boys to Perform Masculinity

Nail Polish!photo © 2009 Michelle | more info (via: Wylio)

I love to paint my nails.  Right now they are an awesome lime green.  Every time I pull out my nail polish, Mayhem stares at my hands and asks me if he can touch them when they are dry. One day he finally built up the courage to ask if I would paint his nails too.  Of course I had no problem with that, and I let him pick the colour he wanted.  The unhusband received praise from our friends for allowing his son to walk around with painted nails.  This irritated me to no end, but I took it in stride. Is it any wonder that kids learn that certain things are for girls when fathers are complemented for allowing their sons to explore?

When Monday rolled around, Mayhem asked that I remove his nail polish, because he didn't want to be laughed at, at school.  He told me that a lot of people think that nail polish is for girls, and because he is a boy, that they would laugh at him.  My heart broke for him, but I took the nail polish off as he requested.  The weekend rolled around and on friday night, Mayhem once again asked if I would paint his nails, and if he could pick the colour again.  We sat down and he patiently waited for his nails to dry.  Throughout the weekend, he went to the park to play with his friends, but on Sunday night he once again asked that I take off his nail polish.  He told me that people laughed at him, and called him a girl at the park and that it made him mad.

The next day when he came home from school, he noticed that I had not bothered to put any makeup on.  "Your lips look regular mom," he said. I told him that I was not wearing any lip gloss today and he asked me if lip gloss and lip stick are only for girls?  I told him that boys can wear anything that they want, but because some people are silly and only believe that girls should wear this, that should he choose to do so outside of the house, that some people would tease him.  He put his head down and said okay, but I could see that he was sad.  For Mayhem, wearing makeup is about play.  He loves vibrant, bright colours and it is just part of an expression of who he is.

What he is learning by this whole experience is that breaking the gender binary in any way comes with social discipline.  He knows that his home is a safe space, and that he can be who he wants to be, but acceptance has limits outside of his home. In my mind, this answers the nature vs nurture debate.  Social discipline is how we force people to conform and perform gender in the manner in which we have normalized.  If a six year old boy cannot wear nail polish or play with his mother's makeup without worrying about being teased and attacked, then the very idea that boys are born with an innate desire to perform certain behaviours is wrong.

Mayhem has 12 days of school left, and I know that his summer vacation will be spent exploring, playing and generally speaking having fun, that is when he is not busy trying to increase my grey hair.  During that time, he will get a reprieve from the pressure to perform masculinity in a specific way, because all his father and I care about is his happiness and safety. Some boys don't even have the safe space that Mayhem has because of gay and trans panic. If we really believe that childhood is a protected class, we would not invest as much time as we do into the gender binary, because it is limiting and hurtful.  Children should feel free to express themselves and to investigate the world in safe ways.