Danger in the Beauty Aisle
Muir has been living his affirmed gender for two years now. I sometimes think I'm an expert. I at least believe I can anticipate where problems could arise, where potentially thorny gender issues might crop up and Muir could be annoyed or even freaked out. When he notices his birth name, still unchanged, on his medical chart at the gender clinic, for instance. Or he sees old pictures of himself with long, blonde hair stuffed into a pink baseball cap. I shuffle papers out of sight, stash photos in keepsake boxes, try to stay one step ahead. I've got this down. Or, at least, I tell myself I do. The truth is that rarely a month goes by that I'm not blindsided when something completely unexpected threatens to throw him into a tailspin of despair.
Moisturizing sunscreen, for example.
For the past three months, since he was accidentally given a massive overdose of testosterone following the insertion of his puberty blocker, Muir has had terrible acne on his forehead and neck. One day he had the still-baby-pure skin of a child, and the next the angry blemished minefield of a sixteen-year-old. After trying various over-the-counter treatments (plus acne scrubs and remedies made by his favorite, cruelty-free company, Every Man Jack), I asked the nurse practitioner at the gender clinic to prescribe something. She gave us two topical treatments, to be used beneath moisturizing sunscreen. I thought: No problem. This can be solved by a single trip to the drugstore.
Muir loves to shop for personal care products, and the prospect of adding a new lotion to his shelves of hair gels, body washes, and deodorants was enticing. He's been on this kick for the last six months or so and can stay occupied in what I still think of as the “beauty” aisle for ages, smelling different products, scouring labels, trying to determine which are both the most manly and the most environmentally responsible. I now spend more money on stuff for him than I do for myself, but I know it is especially important for him, that having these things helps him affirm his identity and establish his gender publicly, to make it clear to the world that he’s a boy. So I buy more invigorating scrubs and hair pomades. They're a drop in the bucket compared to the expensive razor and shaving brush set that he already has "saved for later" in our Amazon cart.
But as we approached the skin care section at CVS in search of moisturizing sunscreen, I suddenly realized that this might not be a light-hearted personal hygiene experience like so many others. Muir halted at the end of the aisle, tensed like he was about to step into a bio-hazard area. His eyes darted along the shelves: Boxes and tubes in shades of pink and silver, with photos of beautiful, acne-and-wrinkle-free models. Female models. But no bother, we weren't going to get swept up in gender anxiety and agitation about whether these were men's or women's products; no, we were going to get moisturizing sunscreen and get the hell out of there.
I sidestepped him and reached for the first box that didn't have a picture of a woman on the front. “Look,” I said. “Thirty-five SPF, oil-free and It’s unscented. Perfect.”
“I don’t like Neutrogena. It’s for women.”
“Neutrogena isn't for women. It’s gender neutral. No scent, no picture on the box." I showed it to him from all angles. "Everyone uses sunscreen. This kind just won’t make you break out and it will help with the dryness from the acne treatment.”
“I want something different.”
I opened the box, took out the bottle and showed it to him. Yes, it had a small dark pink label on the white bottle, but I reminded him that no one would see it. He’d be using it only at home, and I knew that he despised pink, that it didn't represent him at all. "We can even cover over it with a marker if it really bothers you," I said.
“It’s not that,” he said. “It's not the pink. I don’t like the shape of the bottle.”
The shape of the bottle. I hadn't seen that coming at all. The pink horror I was prepared for--he'd despised pink for years and I was always able to deftly address its offensiveness (we can cover it with a marker! Brilliant!)--but the bottle? I turned it over in my hands. Small, slightly ovoid, with a pump top. “How is this bottle girlish?” I asked, genuinely curious. “It’s just a bottle. Is it the pumper? Is that what you don’t like? There are pumpers on mens’ stuff, too, you know. That's not a girl thing, it's a product delivery thing."
"I don't like it! I want something else!"
Okay. Deep breaths. The compassionate, patient mom inside me said, Just let him take a look around. Maybe he'll find something that he likes that will do the job and it will be a win. The harried, short-tempered mom who occasionally gets tired of doing the gender-danger dance said, It's just fucking moisturizing sunscreen! Completely gender-neutral! In gender-neutral packaging! That it is marketed in the women's skin care aisle is meaningless! We're all just people who need sun protection!
While I was engaged in this inner tizzy, Muir walked off to the sunscreen section in the corner, where they kept the hardcore stuff for swimming and sports. When I caught up to him, he was picking up tubes, checking labels. “This one is 70 SPF,” he said. Plus, there was a cute cartoon alligator on the tube.
“But it has oil,” I said. “That’s bad for acne. The entire reason we need this is because the medication to cure the acne makes your skin much more sensitive to the sun. It's counterproductive to put acne-causing stuff on acne that you're trying to get rid of."
"I know that, Mom."
"And it’s not also a moisturizer. That’s what we need. Moisturizing sunscreen.” He wouldn’t look at me. He was gazing back toward the looming cloud of anxiety that seemed to hover over the skin care aisle, the aisle where he knew he wouldn't find the product that he desperately wanted to exist, and where he was going to have to make a choice from options that he just didn't want, even though he didn't quite know why he didn't want them.
I could see the defeat in his bowed head. "Just let me look some more," he said. "I can find something, I know it." He started to walk away.
"Wait," I said. Just as he turned back to me, a third mom checked into my consciousness. She shows up sometimes, the practical, let's-make-lemonade-out-of-this-bullshit mom, the one who has already made peace with the fact that she and her son are going to find themselves in these situations for the rest of their lives, and it's flat out dumb to even bother with anything other than trying to make the best of it.
"Here's the thing, bug," I said softly. "We're just getting this because we don't want you to get a bad sunburn. I understand why you're frustrated and I'm really sorry. It's not fair and I wish they had a better selection of stuff. What can you expect from a corporate chain, right? But I think we can find something that will work for now, and if you still don't like it tomorrow, we can go to a different store or buy something online. Whatever we buy now will just be temporary unless you say it's okay. All right?"
He nodded. "Okay. That makes sense."
It made sense! "So let's get the Neutrogena one with the least offensive packaging and the highest SPF and revisit the situation later if need be?"
"You can get the Neutrogena one. I'm sorry. I don't know why I care so much."
"It doesn't matter why. You just do." I hugged him tightly. "You don't ever need to apologize for wanting what you want."
He perked up slightly. "Since we're here, can I get a new deodorant?"
Ah, yet another product to clutter up the bathroom counter...but what did it matter, really?
He went off to smell the selection of men's deodorants as I grabbed the moisturizing sunscreen and went to the check out. I realized that my heart was pounding, as though I'd just made a daring escape, which I suppose we both had. We were taking home a moisturizing sunscreen, by god, and Nicholas hadn't fallen into a dark place just trying to make that happen.
Standing in line at the register, I watched him as he knelt by the small "men's specialty" display. He looked so excited and confident and yet so vulnerable there in his bright blue high tops; a boy on the cusp of adolescence, popping the caps off different brands and sniffing them like a connoisseur, trying to figure out which was the most manly scent, trying to decide which was the best smell for a boy just like him.