5-year-old boys should not paint their toes pink (though perhaps blue is acceptable), and girls and women should wish they were thinner.
Recently, a friend bought a gladiator's outfit for her not quite 2-year-old daughter. She reported that the saleswoman had been perplexed that she was not buying the outfit for a son and that she did not want the goddess costume instead for her daughter. Boys are soldiers, and girls are goddesses. Boys play with trucks, while girls have tea parties. Boys don't paint their nails or wear makeup (we'll pretend that some male performers are born with eyeliner and black nails), but girls can—and once they're women, they can also worry about their weight, whether they're too assertive in the workplace, and whether they're bad moms because they work. For many people these ideas touch on the core of the gender divide, as is reflected in the recent kerfluffle caused by a J.Crew ad featuring creative director Jenna Lyons and her 5-year-old, pink-toenailed son as yet another example of the ways the social order helps shape the expectations associated with gender.
Makeup allows the user to construct a persona. In the 19th-century, the majority of women who used makeup were actresses and prostitutes—painted ladies, whom most middle-class women were hesitant to be compared to. Makeup had no place in the construction of a "True Woman," defined as:
an emotional delicate creature, deeply devoted to marriage, motherhood, and God. As both the moral and spiritual guardian of her family, she was expected to set an example for her husband and children and establish a loving, stable environment in the home (1).
|Vintage ad, 1947. Source: Perfect Balance Marketing|
Ironically, whereas nineteenth-century writers emphasized the importance of seeing true beauty in the homeliest of women, twentieth-century beauty culturists argued that the homeliest of women need not be homely anymore (2).The use of makeup to enhance or to create ideas of beauty is not a new one, but this particular shift explicitly creates markers for beauty: This allows products to"talk" to consumers: glossy hair, natural looks, softer skin, pinker cheeks, longer lashes—female consumers begin to be told what constitutes beautiful, which leads us today to Iris I Was Thinner.
But this shift also adds an element to gender roles as well: not only was the right to be beautiful within reach, but women had the responsibility of being beautiful as well—there was no reason not to access beauty if it was available (3). Nail polish becomes a tool by which the gender ideal is attained. For boys to use nail polish challenges the tool, the power ascribed to it, and the result (achieving "femaleness") itself. And this, of course, makes certain media outlets uncomfortable, causing them to call in an expert to discuss the promotion of transgendered individuals and what this means for the future of our children. (Cue Helen Lovejoy?)
These practices become so ingrained over time that we don't think about the pink hat we put on girls, but pause before doing the same for a boy. But these practices are constructed, and can be undone. Pink was once a popular color for baby boys, linked to the color red which was used in church (blue was linked to the Virgin Mary and was thus a feminine color).The rise of subcultures that frequently make use of makeup, including nail polishes, to define identity may ultimately taper these sorts of responses. Until then, little brothers may have to endure the beauty experiments of big sisters quietly.
1. Schweitzer, Marlis (2005). "The Mad Search for Beauty": 262.
2. Schweitzer 2005: 280.
3. Schweitzer 2005: 280.
Schweitzer, Marlis. (2005). "The Mad Search for Beauty": Actresses' Testimonials, the Cosmetics Industry, and the Democratization of Beauty. The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 4 (3), 255-292