J. Crew, Jenna Lyons, and the Pink Toenail Polish Controversy

J. Crew President and Creative Director Jenna Lyons. Image via Style File Blog

If you’re a fan of all things J. Crew like I am, you’re probably already familiar with the name Jenna Lyons. The J. Crew President and Executive Creative Director is the ever-visible face of the classic American clothing brand. She has been a guest on Oprah, and if you’re on J. Crew's email list, you’ve probably received Jenna’s Picks, a newsletter featuring items hand-picked by the “Commander-In-Chic” herself. Lyons goes the extra mile to put a personal touch on what goes out to the shopping public, and with our endlessly stylish First Lady Michelle Obama a J. Crew devotee, many would say she’s doing a pretty good job. Jenna openly shares her own wardrobe choices for inspiration, so shoppers can get some creative ideas of their own.
Spread from J. Crew's Spring 2011 catalog

A recent J. Crew catalog spread called Saturday With Jenna featured Lyons and her son Beckett engaged in some weekend bonding time. Mother and son gaze adoringly at one another, as she holds Beckett’s tiny feet which are (gasp!) adorned with pink toenail polish. The accompanying text reads, “Lucky for me, I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.”

Let the media firestorm begin.

Lyons received harsh criticism from conservative Fox News commentator Dr. Keith Ablow, among others. Ablow writes, “This is a dramatic example of the way that our culture is being asked to abandon all trappings of gender identity -- homogenizing males and females when the outcome of such 'psychological sterilization' (my word choice) is not known.”

Since when did a little pink nail polish lead to a complete breakdown of our society’s gender roles and this so-called “psychological sterilization?”

Many have come to Lyons' defense against the conservative attacks. Author and family friend Dr. Peggy Drexler writes, “It is moms, it seems, who hold the power over a son’s sexual orientation. One misstep, and there he goes -- over to the wild side.”

I will tell you what I see when I look at this picture: I see a mother who not only loves her son, but knows him, and is not afraid to let him express his individuality. How lucky he is to have a mother who listens to him and celebrates his uniqueness, rather than prescribing what he should or should not enjoy because he’s a boy. Beckett is learning valuable life lessons about respecting and valuing his own ideas, which will in turn teach him to respect the ideas of others.
Jenna and son Beckett. Image via New York Social Diary

If Jenna’s son did grow up to be gay or transgendered, it certainly wouldn’t be because his favorite color was pink, or because his mom painted his nails. “Unfortunately anti-gay activists are exploiting a new controversy to portray gay and transgender people as confused heterosexuals who are different because their parents let them play with the wrong toys as children or dressed them in “non-gender-conforming” attire. Nothing could be further from the truth, but this hasn’t stopped the right wing from trying to further stereotypes and misconceptions in an effort to foster discrimination against LGBT people,” writes Wayne Besen, founder of Truth Wins Out, a non-profit organization that fights anti-gay religious extremism.

Jenna and son Beckett. Image via shutupilovethat.onsugar.com

Jenna Lyons adds a personal touch to her creative direction, and that is a large part of what makes her so successful. She celebrated her son’s individuality, even though the mode of self expression was not considered socially acceptable based on his gender. Maybe she thought that was part of what made it so cool. She was right.