Nail Polish, Barbies, and the Circle of Life

April 19, 2011 by Bill Ivey

So I finally taught somebody something,
namely, how to change her mind.
And learned in the process that if I ever change the world
it's going to be one eighth grader at a time.
- Taylor Mali, from "Like Lilly Like Wilson"

Recently, Susanna Thompson sent me an email asking if I had heard about the controversy being generated by a J. Crew ad, adding "Twitter is all a-flutter." I responded that I had heard about it, and in fact had been a-flutterin' myself. The ad is for nail polish, and it shows the company's president playing with her five-year-old son, whose toenails have been painted pink. Amid the firestorm of comments admonishing the mother to set aside lots of money for the massive psychotherapy her son would no doubt need eventually, or analyzing the history of colour as a symbol for masculinity and femininity (did you know pink was once thought of as being masculine and blue feminine?), was one small voice asking if anyone else had noticed the happy and loving looks being shared by the two of them.

When my niece was five years old, she too loved pink. She took dance lessons and loved wearing her tutu around the house. She also loved Barbies and was already building up a good size collection. One day, I was talking to my father, and he observed, "It must be driving you crazy." "Not really," I said, "as long as that's who she really is. I just don't want her feeling she has to like Barbies because she's a girl and people expect that of her."

People's expectations, of course, do inexorably shape who we are. Thus, when a new study comes out documenting learning style differences between boys and girls (thanks to 7Wonderlicious for this link!), or wiring differences in female and male brains, very often there are two competing reactions. One is essentially, "See? Boys and girls are different. It should have been obvious. Now that that's settled, can we move on and figure out how best to help boys and/or girls?" Another is essentially, "Nooooooo! That reinforces stereotypes. Can we kind of keep this on the down low?"

Suppressing truth, of course, is not the answer. Neither, however, is using truth selectively to reinforce stereotypes, whether they are gender-based or not.

Several months ago, an alumna returned to share her autobiographical one-woman show with the school (see the YouTube version of that housemeeting here). She talked about how one week into her first year, the name "Janice" just wasn't doing it for her, and so she decided to use the name "Obehi" to reflect and honor her African heritage. She launched into a rendition of "The Circle of Life," and as the song built to its climax and her voice soared with power, you could sense how thoroughly she had energized the room. "Brace yourselves," I thought, "because if I'm right about where this is leading, you are in for such a shock." Shortly after the song ended to thunderous applause, Obehi suddenly crumbled. "That Africa, to me..." she shuddered. "God, what's wrong with me?" she wailed.

Our school's mission statement says that each student will graduate "secure in the knowledge that her voice will be heard" (italics mine). The implications of that part of our mission are profound. Secure in the knowledge that she has found her voice, secure in the knowledge that her voice deserves to be heard, sure. No problem. Hundreds and hundreds of SBS alumnae (and at least one alumnus that I know of) can attest to our success there. But our mission is also that her voice will be heard. That implies a world that will listen. It also implies a world that is willing to set aside stereotypes and fully engage with the person standing before it. To my mind, then, our mission is not just to educate our students, but also to help build that world.

Mr. Bogel also received the email about the J. Crew ad. He asked me what I thought about the male faculty getting together and wearing pink nail polish one day. I told him I'd been wondering the exact same thing, and brought it up with Mr. Deason and Pete at the middle school team meeting that afternoon. In one sense, of course, it would be a small gesture, all but meaningless in the flood of images and stereotypes and assumptions in which our students live every day. But on the other hand, if it carries meaning for just one student, or if it makes just one person stop and think about gender expectations, then why not?!

And I'm pretty sure Mr. Bogel and I were thinking about the same student, one who would probably appreciate the gesture.

Besides, little gestures add up, and you never know when the chance to make a big gesture might come along. I stopped through the "cosmetics" section of Target that very night. And I do believe that if some day our world really and truly can say we have put stereotypes behind us, I will have contributed to that moment. One toenail at a time.

Written by Bill Ivey

A dedicated member of the faculty, Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Among his many hats, Bill also coordinates social media for Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

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Filed Under: Teaching, Gay-Straight Alliance, It Gets Better, diversity, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Gender Diversity, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School