Nailing Gender

Starting over the summer, I began doing my nails a lot. Like most things bound to wind me up in trouble, I blame Marianne for it; she’s the one who got me started with the whole thing, encouraged me to be adventurous, and provided me with endless tips as I fought with the early stages of learning to use, and love, nail polish. She taught me cuticle cleaning methods, how to remove stubborn polish, and so much more, and pretty soon I was off to the races.

Soon it got to the point where my nails looked weird without some kind of polish. And where I found myself besotted, intrigued, and fascinated with my hands every time I tried something new, whether it was a sparkly polish or an attempt at making ladybugs or something else altogether. My nails had become a form of expression, and as someone who has never been very good at visual art, it was intensely rewarding to find something I was actually okay at doing, and could have fun at.

Painting my nails became a soothing ritual; taking off the last coat, making sure my hands were clean and dry, applying base coat, applying polish, maybe adding a crackle finish or glitter, topping it off again. I started talking about nail polish with people. Clerks noticed my nail polish and sometimes complimented me. An entire new world opened up to me that I never would have thought about before, a place where nails are painted in every shade imaginable and people love talking about it.

my hand posed on an orange typewriter, nails done in orange and gold

There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to talking about cosmetics and gender. There are, as always, extremists, like the people who think that wearing any kind of cosmetics at all is a capitulation, and there are moderates. There are those who think, like a summertime letter writer to Dear Prudence, that nail polish is for girls only. Sadly, Prudence agreed with the letter writer, reiterating a common social attitude: That the only people wearing nail polish are women or ‘sexual deviants.’ There is room here only for women and crossdressers, and judging from Prudence’s transphobia, I think we can guess that she, like many other people, thinks that only cis women are allowed to wear nail polish without being slotted into the social deviance category.

Because obviously being trans, or being a crossdresser, is gross and wrong. And there’s no earthly reason that a regular guy would like wearing nail polish. Or that a gender beyond male and female exists, and that some members of that gender might enjoy flashing colourful talons now and then. Or even all the time.

As someone who is frequently read as a woman, the inevitable consequence of painting my nails is more misgendering, because unless I’m specifically telling someone otherwise, they assume I’m a woman. The painted nails only serve to reinforce their assessment of me, because when flicking through their mental list of options for ‘nail polish+gender identity,’ that’s what they come up with.

my hand grasping a bottle of Wet n Wild I'm Ba-roque polish, nails done in the same shade

Which means that my nail painting has inadvertently created a lot of gender dysphoria for me, and a lot of thinking about gender and gender presentation. I want to keep wearing nail polish because I love it, really fervently. I love the process of applying it, I love looking at it, I love talking about it with friends. I love that my nails are growing stronger than they were before, that they are less prone to shearing off and breaking. I love that I’ve stopped chewing my nails because polish is a powerful disincentive to chewing. I love that for the first time in a long time, my nails look neat and even, professional.

I love being able to create something visual and interesting in my hands, and the way the light plays over my nails. I like clicking them on hard surfaces at home, listening to the crisp tapping. I enjoy the sensation of gently running them along the skin of a melon to test for ripeness, I like being able to open an orange without a struggle. Having nails is awesome, and one reason I’m able to have longer nails is because I’ve been painting them.

And I have to say that having painted nails makes people view me with more respect, which says a lot about the society we live in; I think it’s gross that I get more respect for applying a little polish to my hands when nothing else has changed, and that’s something that speaks of the need for a larger conversation, but there it is.

Even though most of my manicures aren’t very subdued. I’d have a hard time putting something conservative together, but at least I’d know how to do it, now, and I could go to the drugstore and pick up a bottle of a more mellow base colour and I could use that, and then apply it to more nefarious purposes in the future.

my nails done in mint with sparkles. I'm grasping a bottle of Milani Gems and Don't Mess With OPI, the shades used for the polish

And yet, every time I strip polish to paint my nails again, I have a moment of pause. I wonder if I really want to do this, or if I should just stop. I wonder if I want to continue to reinforce attitudes about gender presentation, and I wonder if I’m ‘undermining the cause’ by not being a good little queer with the ‘right kind’ of gender presentation; you know, the ‘ambiguous‘ one. I want to sport my nails and be proud of them, but there’s still that nagging sense of wrong in the corner of my mind when I look at them, and see other people looking at them, and know exactly what they are inferring about me.