My 4-year-old son, the middle child, is not a “princess boy.” He doesn’t badger me for pink tutus or sparkly shoes. He showed absolutely no attraction to the girly Halloween costumes, and has never told us he’s a girl. He’s too busy slinging mud at his brothers and playing Star Wars. And yet.
“What’s that brush for?” he asked, pointing to a tiny brush lying among my makeup.
“It’s for eyeshadow,” I told him as he loitered in the bathroom, post-toothbrushing.
“What’s eyeshadow?” he asked.
“I’ll show you,” I said, and I swiped on my favorite shade of purple.
“Can I have eyeshadow?”
I did the calculations. Billy Corgan wears it. David Bowie rocks it. I believe in children deciding what to put on their bodies, barring climate or other practical objections.
“Sure, Baby. What color did you want?” And I sort of cringed inside, because I knew what color he’d say. His favorite color. The color he always picks.
So I told him to hold still, found that tiny brush, and spread Estée Lauder Coal over his eyelids and under his lower lashes. He immediately looked in the mirror and pronounced it awesome. Silently, I pronounced it awesomely goth. The black made his big green eyes look even bigger.
My husband flipped out. “He looks like Mimi from Drew Carey!” he said, rubbing at our son’s eyelids with a cloth. “If he was a girl, would you have done this?” he asked.
“No,” I said. Then, “Yes. But I’d have used a different color.”
He was unable to scrub off all the black, so our son wore a bruised look for the rest of the day.
My son shows no interest in dolls. He’s mostly dirty. He prefers Spinosaurus to figurines and playing rocket mission to playing house. I don’t harbor a sneaking suspicion that he plays for the other team. Besides, what does gay mean in a 4-year-old? Whatever it does, I don’t think he’s it.
But to those who don’t know him, he can be a gender-bending conundrum, especially with his big eyes and delicate features. He’s Elven, this child, down to the pointy ears and the full lips.
And he has beautiful hair. Pin-straight, reddish-blond, and silky. I love long hair on boys, and I’m sort of a hippie, so I keep his hair long. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he wants to grow it “right down to my knees!” My mother itches to chop it every time she sees him, but he loves his hair, even with its required maintenance of daily detangling. Sometimes, he asks me to straighten it. He says it makes his head nice and warm.
Everyone presumes this long-locked, silky-straight haired child is a girl.
I’m not offended. I mean, long-haired kid generally equals girl. I’m impressed that they think I’d dress her (him) in something other than pink, like a dinosaur shirt and red Chuck Taylors. I just try to slip in a pronoun.
“Oh, HE won’t get hurt,” I’ll say.
Or, “HE is so sweet, isn’t HE?”
I might toss in a “son” while talking to him, or refer to him as a “brother.” I try to never be rude. It’s an honest mistake. But I can’t let the assumption pass without comment.
The assumption gets stronger when they see his nails. Every time I touch up my toenails, I end up with a three-boy line for mama salon. My oldest always picks gold for dragon claws. The baby picks whatever the oldest does. But my middle son? He chooses the sparkles. The more sparkles, the better. Fingers and toes, please, two coats.
Or he picks black.
I’ve explained it to him. “You know. buddy, mostly girls wear nail polish. But nail polish is for whoever wants it. If someone says something to you, you can say, ‘Nail polish is for everyone!’ and ‘I can wear whatever I want!’”
He nods solemnly, but it doesn’t sink in, really, because no one ever comments on it. No adults, no children. His older brother wears it, so to him, a boy wearing nail polish isn’t yet seen as social deviance.
And he must believe me, because when he was potty training and needed a reward, he always picked a new shade of glitter polish. Which I would never wear, and so belongs exclusively to him. I bought him a new shade of black when his got sticky. My son has his very own collection of Target nail polishes.
I asked him the other day if he was a boy or a girl. He answered, emphatically, that he was a boy. I asked if he ever wanted to wear girl clothes. His eyes got wide. “YES!” he said. “I want a black dress.”
He was so enthusiastic that we got one on Amazon. I showed him pictures. He selected the plainest, most unadorned black dress. “That one,” he said. “I want that black dress.” I told him that if he asked me for it every day for a week, I would buy it for him.
I don’t know what he is, exactly. I don’t think I need to know, nor need to label it.
He’s a little boy who likes nail polish and eye shadow and wants a black dress. I’m proud that he’s comfortable enough to ask for these things and I’m happy that his world lets him rock his sparkly fingernails without condemnation.
As he gets older (or wears that dress to Target) there will be more questions. I’ll take them as they come, the same way I took a little boy asking for eyeshadow: in the moment, as gracefully as possible, without labeling or judging. I hope I can be that person. I hope to my son, I already am.More On