The Nail Polish Issue

pale pink polishE has a friend whose mom is a hippie. She teaches environmental science, doesn’t own a cell phone, and I’m pretty sure I heard her say that she doesn’t eat gluten, meat, or dairy. Somehow she manages to make patchwork skirts look good. In short, she’s a little intimidating.

She’s also a very nice woman, and I love her daughter, but when they came over for a play date last week, I wasn’t sure what we’d talk about. (When she said ‘no thanks’ to a cupcake, and I knew I was out of my league.) And then she turned to me and asked, “Where do you come down on the nail polish issue?” [UPDATE below]

Well, as it happens, I’ve given a lot of thought to nail polish lately. And, even though I was sure my new friend was going to be horrified, I admitted to her that we’d recently taken E out for a mani/pedi.

By “we,” I mean my sister and I, and it was a one-time, celebratory event for my sister’s birthday. Originally, I thought we were just going for pedicures, but when my sister walked into the salon and, grinning from ear to ear, proudly said, “We’re here for mani/pedis,” I didn’t have the heart to correct her. So, with a little guidance from me, E picked out a pale lavender for her toes and a sweet baby pink for her fingers. Then she spent the next three days telling everyone she saw that she’d been in a “water chair.”

The thing about E is that we indulge her in girl culture. She often wears dresses and skirts, as per her wishes. She has three (THREE!) pairs of sparkly shoes, one of them being official Wizard of Oz ruby slippers. Nearly everything in her room that isn’t pink is purple, and most of it sparkles. She even has three or four pairs of fairy wings and several official Disney Princess dresses. That many, if not most, of these things are second-hand is lost on her–so all that’s left is the indulgence part.

I love that she has all this stuff because… well, partly because I wanted it so badly when I was a kid, and I never got it. I also grew up thinking of “girl stuff” as, in many ways, sub-par. The princess culture, for all its inherent issues, certainly does not suffer from confidence issues. I love that E celebrates girl stuff. That she loves sparkles and pink and purple, that she wants to know how to braid hair, that she prances around in ballet shoes and tulle and wings and wands, that she wants to be like Mommy and paint her nails.

But I also hate it. I worry that, instead of being celebratory, all of this crap will end up weighing her down. That, instead of being fun and innocent and brimming with imagination, it will end up strangling her with a skewed and unhealthy understanding of “femininity” as a shallow, sparkling mess of huge boobs and tiny waists–a world in which all the glitter and color is intended only to snag a man and feel superior to other women. That E, whose brain is so quick and whose potential seems limitless, will internalize the vapid expressions on the faces of the Disney Princesses and actually take their story lines to heart.

Nail polish somehow symbolizes all that is great and problematic about girlhood. On the one hand, it’s harmless–just a little spot of color, not permanent–an activity a girl can share with mom, and a privilege that is largely girls-only. Or at least girl-centric.

On the other hand, nail polish also represents the hyper-sexualization of young girls. The toddler beauty-pageant insanity of fake tans and bleached hair. The acceptance of the idea that girls and women can and should slather their fingers with paint and then take pains to keep it from chipping–it’s hard to join in on healthy kid activities like digging, gluing, and painting when one is worried about one’s nails.

In the end, what I decided, and what I told E’s friend’s mom, is that nail polish is OK with me as long as it’s an activity E and I do together because it’s fun for its own sake. The second I hear her say, “I can’t play that, because I don’t want to ruin my nails,” or ask another girl why she doesn’t have nail polish, or in any way behave in a way that suggests that the nail polish itself has become the point, we stop doing it.

And wouldn’t you know–my new friend looked at me and said, “I completely agree.”

It’s not a perfect solution, I suppose, but how many perfect solutions are there? I hope that E doesn’t equate femininity only with bright colors and frivolity, but I don’t want her to eschew these things simply on the basis that they are feminine, either.

Anyway, it’s probably moot. The other day she told me, “I love sparkles because girls love sparkles. But boys don’t love sparkles.” Then she contemplated her sparkly shoes for a moment and amended her thought: “Well, some boys don’t.”

I guess, if she already knows that some boys like sparkles, she’ll also pick up that some girls don’t. And be perfectly OK with it.

*UPDATE: I realized, belatedly, that this might make it seem as though she were grilling me, but she wasn’t. The question was very relevant because our girls are both in the same preschool, where an intense nail polish trend is currently gripping the Star Room.

You think you understand language. Then you have a kid.

Red Eye

She freaks when I say “eyes peeled,” but is perfectly comfortable putting THIS in the world.

When she was 2-and-a-half, I told E to “keep her eyes peeled.” She responded by bursting into tears. It seems she didn’t want to peel her eyes.

These days, she understands figurative language a bit better. At four, she can already tell when G is being sarcastic. He’ll say, “Honey, please ask me ‘why’ a few more times. I haven’t heard it enough yet today.”

She’ll respond by squinting up at him and saying, “Daddy, is that a joke?”

Unfortunately, now that she’s figured out that things don’t always mean exactly what they seem to mean, she’s got a lot of questions. Especially about music. Music that I used to enjoy.

“Mommy, how did her heart break?”
“Mommy, did he really lose his head?”
“Mommy, what’s a virgin?”

OK, I made that last one up. I am cagey enough to avoid Madonna. Though, that might only be due to the fact that my mom was cornered into telling us about sex when my sister and I started singing “Papa Don’t Preach” in places like the grocery store and the school playground.

The two land mines that are the most embarrassing are also currently the most common:

1. When she asks me what a word means–a word that I’ve just used–and I don’t know.

Examples include irony, death, attitude, money, country, electricity, and year.

It’s not actually that I don’t know what these words mean. (With the exception of “electricity,” I do.) It’s that I have absolutely no idea how to explain them to her in a way she finds satisfactory. She’s┬árelentless. If I can’t provide her with an easy-to-read pictographic flow chart of the exact definition and its etymology, and do so using only words that are already in her vocabulary, she’s never. done. asking. questions.

You try explaining what a year is to a person who has no concept of “yesterday” or “one minute.”

“A year is… a long time.”
“How long?”
“Longer than a week.”
“What’s a week?”
“It’s… wait. Let me back up. You remember Christmas, right?”
“Yes.”
“And you remember that it was a long time ago?”
“Yes.”
“Well, that was about six months ago. So that’s half a year. Christmas was half a year ago, so in another half a year, it will be Christmas again.”
“What’s ‘half?'”

2. When she asks me why I just said something, and I don’t even remember saying it, let alone have an answer for why I said it or what I could possibly have meant by it.

It’s not that I don’t want to listen to her. I do. But she never, ever stops talking. Not unless she’s eating or sleeping. And sometimes not even then. So sometimes–for instance, when we’re barreling down the interstate in bumper-to-bumper 80 mph Jersey traffic–I listen with half an ear.

“Mommy, I think I have a booboo on my finger. I need a band-aid.”
“OK, honey. I’ll get you one in a minute.”
“You will?”
“I will what?”
“Get me one in a minute?”
“Get you a what, honey?”
“A band-aid.”
“I don’t have any band-aids.”
“Then why did you say that?”
“Say what?”
“That you would get me a band-aid in a minute.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Oh. Umm…”

They say the teen years are worse, but I find it hard to believe that anything could be more exhausting than an illiterate, clever four-year-old.

What do you think?