Imagine, walking down the streets, getting stares after stares, people whispering thinking you cannot hear them. Being on the verge of covering your hands and for what? Because I had painted my nails.
Nail Polish. That’s all it was.
It goes without saying that men wearing nail varnish attracts attention simply because it has been traditionally understood as for women. Although it has become more and more frequent nowadays, wearing nail polish for a man still seems to be about transgressing some kind of norm, about going against traditional masculine ideals, or about signalling your sexuality. Because if someone who identifies as a man plays with objects typically ascribed to femininity, people almost directly assume queerness. Researchers even created experiments based on nail polish usage for men to tackle gender norms and their underlying homophobia. Now, don’t get me wrong, nail polish or any other behaviour can be an excellent door to explore one’s queerness but do we need to make that association every time? Does it actually matter?
Nail Polish. On men’s ‘male’ fingers. Unbelievable, apparently? Not so much, actually.
Did you know that historians trace men and women alike using nail polish as far back as 3200 BC Babylonian times, where individuals would paint their nails with kohl or henna to signal social status (darker tones indicated a higher status). Similarly, in Ancient China or Ancient Egypt, nail polish was used to indicate class, rank, or dynasty. Hell, Greek warriors would paint their nails red (and lips) to prepare themselves for battle. So when did it become taboo for men to primp and polish their nails? When did we define nail varnish as unmasculine?
While the turn to nail polish being slotted as feminine is difficult to pin-point, by the 30s, marketing campaigns solely targeted women. It’s only in the 80s with the punk scene that we saw the re-emergence of nail polish for men, where black painted nails were a sign of group membership. Later on after punk, movements like grunge, goth, and hard rock also redefined what nail polish signified. In other words, the counter-culture brought it back to life! Thank you Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, and nowadays, Harry Styles, Lil Nas X, or Maneskin for breaking away from traditional standards. Yes, the genderless nail art movement is rising and we couldn’t be happier. Go on, paint your nails!
But wait, what colour are you wearing?
Looking more closely, the colours of nail varnish and the marketing strategies behind them may sometimes perpetuate a more gruesome agenda. For instance, the Colombian firm Masglo names its colouring palette with derogatory words associated with ‘slut-shaming’. The lighter the shade, the more respectable and lady-like name the colour receives. What is more troublesome is that a study showed that most women customers actually enjoyed the company’s strategy, highlighting deeply entrenched gender norms within Colombian society. On the other side, the Italian brand Wycon Cosmetics named the deepest shade in their line of gels: “Thick as N****”. Yes, they seriously did that. This goes beyond appropriating names from hip-hop subculture for marketing purposes (already faulty if not coupled with representation), this is simply racist. Since the controversy, the brand changed the names to numbers.
As you can see, the meanings ascribed to nail polish go beyond being a simple accessory, showcasing underlying racist or gendered prejudice. We must hold corporations accountable for perpetuating gender stereotypes. And we must rejoice in the liberty that is painting your nails, and hopefully walking down the street without being gawked at.
Now, what are you waiting for? Will you mani up with us? Life is too short not to wear nail polish!