FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–The photo has caused no small controversy. An April advertisement for the mainstream retailer J.Crew features company exec Jenna Lyons painting her 5-year-old son’s toenails with bright pink polish and the quote: “Lucky for me, I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.”
Moms came out of the woodwork to weigh in on the ad — was it just innocent play or was it instilling gender confusion? Jennifer Lopez claimed she paints her son’s toenails blue. Sherri Shepherd, co-host of “The View,” said she wouldn’t have allowed it. Christianity Today blogger Ellen Painter Dollar wrote that she doesn’t see the problem in letting her son wear nail polish, especially since “the association of pink with girls and blue with boys was not decreed by God at creation.” Countless moms commented on whether giving their little men a mani-pedi was harmless or hurtful to his self-identity.
And that’s just the moms. Psychologists and cultural organizations had their take on the nail polishing pic. One group claimed the ad was targeting women with gender-confused boys and pushing a transgender message. A Psychology Today contributor claimed “Gender identity comes from inside, not from something that you paint on your toenails.” Another psychology expert said, “He looks happy! This has no bearing on gender identity.” And the scathing Fox News article by Dr. Keith Ablow advised the J.Crew mom to, “At least put some money aside for psychotherapy for the kid.”
Jenna Lyons isn’t the only mom to raise a few parental eyebrows this year. Cheryl Kilodavis’ son inspired her recent children’s story, “My Princess Boy,” a book about a 4-year-old who “happily expresses his authentic self by enjoying ‘traditional girl’ things like jewelry, sparkles or anything pink.” Kilodavis’ preschool aged son would rather go to school in a sparkly pink tutu, a habit that both his parents allow. “Why does it have to be categorized as gender confusion?” she asks. “We just have to get to a place of acceptance.”
But in a gender-bending world, even these innocent habits don’t seem quite so disconnected from an androgyny-loving culture. We’ve all seen the female wrestlers, the unisex fashion trends, the male models who look like women, and the dainty-featured starlets who rock the boyish pixie cut. The trend toward aggressive girls and effeminate boys isn’t just encouraged, it’s celebrated. Whatever your opinion on the issue we’re all trying to answer the same basic question: Is there more to our gender differences than just biology?
It’s true that certain colors or habits aren’t really gender-specific. But what specific colors or habits represent “over there or back in that time” is the wrong question. The real issue is “what does it communicate here and now?” It’s not that trends, or habits like wearing nail polish mean something feminine, but they do communicate something feminine. John Piper describes the mature man as being someone who recognizes and is sensitive to cultural expressions of what is considered masculine. And, mature masculinity adapts its behavior to fit what is culturally masculine. While these gender expressions will change with cultures and eras, masculine leadership will use these expressions to communicate healthy, complementary patterns in his relationships. (“Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,” page 43.)
Today, can a man wear a pink dress shirt, and avoid confusion about his masculinity? Culturally, yes. But can he wear pink nail polish with the same effect? Culturally, no. Today, can a woman have chin-length hair and avoid confusion about her femininity? Culturally, yes. But can she sport a full beard of facial hair with the same effect? Culturally, no. Mature masculinity and femininity adapts to send a message within its culture. Perhaps this is what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15. We’re not called to be fashion-Pharisees but we are called to express our God-assigned genders in culturally appropriate ways.
Is there more to our gender differences than just biology? Is there a purpose to our creation as male and female beyond cultural norms or traditional family values? According to Ephesians 5:22-33, yes! When you and I express our gender within our culture, we’re mirroring the Gospel to our culture. When we mirror Christ’s relationship to His Church within our male-female relationships and interactions, it puts the Gospel on display and brings glory to Jesus Christ. As the Psalmist said, “For You formed my inward parts, You knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13). We were intentionally created to be male or female so that we would intentionally portray the Gospel.
The current trend toward androgynous “gender-bending” isn’t a sign that we’re overcoming unfair stereotypes, creating a more tolerant society or becoming better human beings. It’s a judgment for suppressing the truth and denying what God has revealed about Himself in His creation (Romans 1:18-27). When gender is reduced to reversible hormones and roles are reduced to changeable traditions, it’s the result of God permitting the fullest expression of self-loving idolatry (Romans 1:26-27). Gender-bending — and all of its cultural manifestations — is the subtle symptom of an outright rebellion. As we become comfortable with terms such as “pre-assigned gender roles” and questions like “what gender were you at birth?” we’re hearing the false message that we are the gods of our sexuality. “It’s just a lifestyle. It’s just a trend. It’s just nail polish.”
Today’s young men need to hear the words of King David to Solomon, “Be strong, and show yourself a man,” (1 Kings 2:2) and today’s young women need a generation of modern-day Abigails to emulate (1 Samuel 25). And in a world of pink nails and princess boys, God’s people need to know that there is far more to our gender differences than just biology.
Katie McCoy is graduating with a master of divinity in Women’s Studies from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and writes for UnlockingFemininity.com, an online magazine for women, where a version of this column first appeared.