The lines that once defined gender norms are blurring fast. So I paint my nails.
When I was in elementary school, we had a day each spring where the students would put up a market. We were encouraged to think of a business idea, create a product or service and sell it to our classmates in exchange for a fake, school-wide currency we received for being good students. There were chocolate covered pretzels, popcorn, movie theaters (which were just old tube TVs with blankets draped over them) and other clever set-ups. One reoccurring booth, a favorite for many, was the manicure booth.
Surprisingly, the booth was frequented mostly by my male classmates, who got their nails done for irony’s sake. I joined them. My father, who was picking me up from school that day one spring, was less than excited to see his son’s nails bright pink and sparkling. I assured him that the other boys took part as well. I’m not sure that made him feel any better about it. Nevertheless, each year I would visit this booth. It made me feel different, more confident somehow. Like some sort of inner desire was manifesting itself on the tips of my fingers for all to see.
When I was in Middle School, I would sneak into my mother’s broken desk drawer where she kept her nail polish. It would grind along its tracks like it didn’t want me to get in. I would paint my nails with clear polish, thinking that no one would notice. I loved the smell, and the heavy, suffocating feeling it left on me. Then I’d take it off with acetone, enjoying the cold sensation, and the clean weightlessness it left. I felt like a queen, fierce and powerful. And rebellious.
I began painting my nails again when I graduated college and moved to New York. I realized that, unlike the Midwest where people stare at you when you look different, New Yorkers just stare all the time, so I’d better give them a reason to stare. At first, it was uncomfortable and even felt a bit dangerous. Who knows what people will do if they see something they don’t agree with. But I felt I was doing myself, and my community a favor by normalizing differences. It was a pious endeavor, and one I realize now was silly. But I felt I was doing good.
Now, I paint my nails because I want to. Thinking back to that little boy with pink nails and how much it meant to him to show off a bit of himself, I feel that way again. My mother gives me the nail polish she doesn’t wear anymore and taught me that the accent color goes on the ring finger, not the middle finger. This came up after I accidentally flipped my aunt the bird showing her my nails.
Nail polish empowers me. It reminds me that I am different, that I am unique, that I have the power to make myself into anything I want. It allows me to find pride in who I am, and to show that pride off. We are entering an age where gender norms are blurring. When I worked selling popsicles, there was a boy around 6 or 7 years old who had his nails painted regularly, to the great pride of his parents. This brought me such joy. It signifies the shifting of uniqueness away from preconceived notions and into our own design. We are special, not because we wear nail polish, but because we are our own creations. And it’s beautiful.