Monday, April 25, 2011

Nail Polish and the Policing of Gender Norms

Why are we still so hung up on who uses make-up and why?

Over the weekend, I stopped in at a large beauty retailer to pick up a few things. While waiting in line to pay for my selections, I took the opportunity to browse the abundant and strategically placed impulse items—mirrors, tweezers, creams, and nail polishes, all artfully arranged to catch the eyes of patrons. Spotting a lilac colored bottle of polish, I flipped it over to read the name: Iris I Was Thinner. It went back on the shelf. Immediately. Flirty, flippant names are common to nail polishes, but I really didn't need a color that essentially told me (and others) that I needed to drop a few pounds. As the cashier rang up my purchases, it occurred to me that I shouldn't be surprised. After all, we're a society concerned with preserving the normative categories of gender, which means, of course, that 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).
This ideology begins to change in the early 20th-century with the rise of actress endorsements of beauty practices (not products). Beauty manufacturers began to push the idea women could be beautiful if they chose—specifically, they could acquire beauty through purchases, which was a departure from the idea that beauty was tied to morality:
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.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

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

1. Schweitzer, Marlis (2005). "The Mad Search for Beauty": 262. | 2. Schweitzer 2005: 280. | 3. Schweitzer 2005: 280.


  1. This post (awesome, as always) made me think of this photo of a young FDR I came across a week or so ago:

    Talk about changing norms in dressing baby boys!

  2. my almost-three-year-old boy is currently in love with having his nails painted green, his current favorite color. his preschool teacher started it, but my wife and his babysitters do it for him periodically. it's awesome -- he can't wait to show me when i come in the house. it just makes him so HAPPY.

  3. This reminds me strongly of

    The role of the two genders has been a changing on as far as I understand it while I find it interesting to see the importance of someone being cisgender meaning that a persons sex lines up with the cultural norms set in place on how a person born with those parts should act
    for example: boys play with trucks

    Gender roles are silly little things that many humans have placed in a way to try and control natural selection to some degree: the most girly girl must obviously be the most attractive
    If I have a child I like to think that I will allow my child to do what they want. Like how I played with barbies as a child but I am still cisgendered male.

  4. I love this post! Our daughter plays soccer, which is regarded as a man's sport in Belgium (not so in the States, I gather?) and has to deal with negative remarks - from parents! - frequently. Of course, when she scores, my masculine father pride rejoices ;)

  5. @KK, thanks for the pic of FDR. I particularly like his curls! When did dresses stop being the norm for all babies?? Seems like it might make diaper duty a little easier ...

    @David, thanks for reminding us of the Doctorow post. I remember reading that and thinking how disturbed I was that the adults had more of a problem than the kids did with the costume choice, though in hindsight it should not have really been surprising: mothers after all help nurture and encourage the personality and interests of their children ... if the child is breaking with norms, then it reflects on their mothering skills.

    I agree that gender roles are changing and for the most part, the commentary I read on articles dealing with the "nail polish debate" seemed to also agree, but there seems to be a fair portion of the population that holds fast to the pink=girl/blue=boy mentality (though, as noted, these colors were not always assigned in this way.) I was really heartened to read responses that shared a sense of comfort at letting kids explore—and be kids. I was a total tomboy as a child—much happier playing in the dirt than wearing pretty dresses. In fact, I have a few photos where I look downright annoyed at being put into a frilly dress. For a long time, my greatest wish at Christmas was that I would get one of those mini race track things. I had Legos and trucks and a tea set or two. These things definitely don't make me any less of a woman today—and in fact, those experiences may have helped shape my scientific pursuits later in life.

    @Tom, I sincerely hope she grows up to kick@ss at soccer or whatever else she decides to pursue.

    One last note: Jezebel had a really good article discussing some of the research done on gender roles that may be of interest.

  6. Very interesting article, I think what is most important to note here is the fact that "these practices are constructed and can be undone". Many people are not aware of this and accept practices without really examining them.

  7. This is an interesting though it is only one example of how society domesticates people, both female and male. It's a good example though by far not the only one. It could be said in you conclusion that little girls will have to put up with their brothers playing with cars and trucks too. I would suggest that there may be a genetic predisposition for men to want to play in more rugged arenas; though clearly women are not exempt from this desire, and for women to be more focused on what is beautiful. The promotion of external beauty to the negation of the feminine energy is where the cosmetic industry and beauty industry in general seems to have had negative consequences on how girls are raised, though given our ability to select how to live, we certainly are not at their mercy.

  8. You didn't include the notion of wearing makeup as a "court dictated" fashion that women accept to increase their status.

    Rich old women often need makeup to make them less ugly and high status women can afford the best.

    Thus women who don't need makeup will wear it in part as a status marker. This apeing of fashion from on high serves the interests of the rich who need makeup because their makeup wearing no longer signals that they need it.

    Something similar happened hundreds of years ago when high-status bald men started wearing wigs (because lack of hair was perceived as lack of virility). Lesser men who didn't need wigs started wearing them as a courtly fashion which resulted in wig-wearing no longer being an indication of baldness or mange or other bad hair.

  9. Hm. I'm male, but I wish I was thinner, too.

    According to most media, I need to get a gym membership, a bicycle, appropriate attire for each, buy a couple books on the subject, drink protein shakes for breakfast, take creatine, etc., etc., etc....

    The thing is, in both cases the goal is to make money. The purveyors of these products do so by exploiting insecurities. They find it easiest to exploit the insecurities by creating a false ideal - in this case gender-based - than then pointing to it and claiming that THEIR products can help you achieve it.

    We're already seeing the fitness industry become inclusive of women; I think we might even be seeing some cosmetic industry ventures into the male market. But they'll always want to keep separate gender roles, as that lets them market more product lines.

  10. @Anon: Makeup has indeed long been used to establish status and provide protection:

    1. Ancient Egyptians outlined their eyes in kohl for this reason.
    2. Fragrances were meant to protect the body from illnesses.
    3. And nail painting was done by the Chinese to indicate status.

    And the royal courts did play a role in determining what could be worn and by whom dating to the Renaissance.

    But let's consider this point:
    Thus women who don't need makeup will wear it in part as a status marker. This apeing of fashion from on high serves the interests of the rich who need makeup because their makeup wearing no longer signals that they need it.

    Who exactly determines which women "need" makeup and which don't? The beauty industry essentially tells us that there is a standard that women need to strive to attain that only they can provide. They adopt actresses and other well-known/well respected female figures who embody these ideals to promote their products—but you'll note that no single actress promotes all the traits, and even they seem to fall just short of achieving the ultimate ideal.

    I strongly recommend Schweitzer's article for additional comments on this process as it unfolded in America.

  11. 'Appropriate' use of color is highly gendered. I love colors, but the clothes which are designed for my sex are, with almost no exceptions, incredibly drab. And god forbid I put pigments on my skin!

    Perhaps the most dramatic example was when I was working in the student store at my university. There were two bins of shower sandals, clearly labeled "Men" and "Women". The womens' were bright fruit colors; the mens' were camo. I took down the signs. They were back the next day, so I took them down again. This continued for several days until I was observed and reprimanded.

  12. I recently realized that the deodorant that I have been using for years, Degree, has now split from being the gender neutral deodorant that it was in the 1990s to placing a sticker on the female deodorant that says "responsive in emotional situations." Needless to say, this does not make me want to buy their product anymore. As if women are the only ones who sweat more in emotional situations? Will this deodorant help me feel better when I am having a bad day?

  13. @Charlie: I think we're seeing a shift in men's fashions though, so you may be in luck! As summer approaches, the businessmen on my commute add some pastels to the stark contrast of their navies and blacks.

    Johanna, that hearkens back to some of the vintage ads I found while researching this post. There's a long tradition of products "fixing" situations for consumers (both male and female). Some of my favorite have to do with coffee: instant coffee ads tended to suggest the product could make women better hostesses. Charming.

  14. I think you're on the right track as to why women are so vehement against a man wearing any cosmetic that's been marketed to women. It's a subtle power thing. Men have so much of it by societal default, that the preponderance of the marketing of one area for the girls is something they do not wish to share at all.

    That they have been manipulated by marketing, as an above poster observes regarding deodorant, doesn't seem to bother them at all. It's an attitude of it's mine and don't you dare tread here. And if you do I will make the most unkind comments to embarass you enough to let everyone know you're not a real man, a manly man, that the advertisers also said I should have. How's interesting and so dull at the same time.

    Yet where would women be today without pushing that envelope of gender norms? Never ever wearing trousers, heaven forbid they become a fireman or race car driver because they thought that might be fun and interesting. But if a fellow might think it fun and interesting to wear a cosmetic then he is automatically dropped a few pegs in the mating order to most likely gay status at best, even if there is no way on this planet he has same sex attraction but everyone will tell him that he has, he is just in the closet about it. Odd. Very odd.

    So it must be about power and control. I can think of no other logical answer for the energy expended on it. What that power is, being male so not experiencing the culture as a female, is not readily apparent to me.

    Having said that, as a conservative heterosexual male, who does polish his toes, I can tell you that I understand the fun I have just choosing a color to decorate an otherwise drab bit of bodily real estate. Hmm. Much like that butterfly our rose tattoo I see on so many young ladies today, once of course reserved only for men of dubious character.

    I am one of many men who do, you just don't see it. Why? Because of the above, they are scared to death to show it. And with some good reason. From a socially inclusive or rejection point of view. These then are the manly men you're talking about? Scared of nail color and the possible reaction thereof? What would they do then in a really scary position?

    So logically I can only conclude that real men do what they please because it pleases them, and are not afraid to let the world know what they like, because to them they are in fact stronger than mere uneducated and manipulated thought. They don't need anyone else's approval to to what they wish when it hurts no one else.

    Why in the world would anyone seriously care what is on my toes or not? That they would is laughable by itself. There is so much more to be concerned about in this world I starvation, homelessness, sex trafficking, slavery (yes we still have slavery today in 2014), not to mention there ability to kill all of us within maybe 30 minutes by nuclear war. I hardly think that iris to be thinner, a lovely shade of purple by the way, on male toes, or even fingers if they want, qualifies as even a smidgeon of the same concern.

    But perhaps because the other things seem so large to a mind that cannot grasp true discernment then that would be the thing one could hang onto. Sad really.