The Surprising Ways Nail Polish Changed My Life
By: Scout Rose
TW: brief description of anti-queer violence
When I was in college, I was a "500-footer." If you've never heard this term before, let me enlighten you. If you had seen me then - whether in the same room as you or from 500 feet away - you would have read me as queer. I had short, bleach-blonde hair, wore thrift store t-shirts and looked like I'd just come from an Ani DiFranco concert. (I probably had).
When I transitioned shortly after graduating, my father aggressively resisted my new identity. In a surprise move, my very conservative uncle tried to comfort him. "Mike, you have to admit, Scout's a lot cooler as a dude." I'm fairly certain he meant I looked decidedly less queer.
Still, in the early days of my transition, I played around with my gender expression. I was also exploring part of my sexuality that I had never before felt comfortable with - namely my attraction to men. And so when I moved to New York City soon after starting T, I got a job at a gay coffee shop in Chelsea. At the time, Chelsea was the epicenter of gay culture in New York. Gay bars, sex shops, and boutiques full of tank tops lined the neighborhood avenues. I bought some sparkly, studded belts at one of them, and turned from androgynous, hipster dyke to full-on twink faster than you can say "Cher."
Over the years though, the playfulness of my gender expression dissipated. I'm not exactly sure when it happened. But by 2010, in an interview in Candy Magazine with Amos Mac, I'm on record saying that I identify as a "completely un-fabulous, boring dude."
The author in Candy Magazine in 2010, Photo by: Xevi Muntane, Styling by: Jay Massacret
Don't misunderstand me, my life was fabulous, and my community was teeming with fabulous people. But my gender expression had become ardently ordinary. A friend once told me that I looked like a "Capital "G" Gay" who runs marathons and writes a sports blog. They weren't wrong.
Then last summer, some of my more fabulous friends invited me and my partner to Provincetown for Carnival Weekend. While we were there, on a whim, I had a drag queen paint my toenails.
When I returned to NYC at the end of the week, I was surprised to find that I was suddenly afraid to take my shoes off at the gym. As someone who had been so visibly queer for much of my life, the fear felt like a little betrayal. Sure, I was comfortable in my ordinariness. But the idea that this outward expression of my queerness was something I needed to hide made me bristle with shame.
When I relayed this to my therapist at the time, they gave me a wry smile. "So... you're ashamed of your shame?"
My fear was like a beacon, pointing me towards something that desperately needed my attention. Together, my therapist and I dug into the question: How did I get here?
Recalling a passage from Thomas Page McBee's book, Amateur, we talked about being "like a plant in the sun moving towards whatever was rewarded."
I hadn't taken a hard look at my own gender in over a decade. In NYC, I was surrounded by examples of masculine-identified folks living fully fabulous lives. Folks who wear embroidered boots, dangly earrings, and make-up. And yet, it seemed clear to me that I had internalized at least some of society's notions of how I should look and behave.
I reflected on how one of my coworkers told me his friend thought I would be hot if I had bigger muscles. And how a woman I had dated told me I looked so much better with more facial hair.
My therapist asked me if I thought my movement might not just be towards the light, but also perhaps away from the dark.
I then remembered a handful of times, in the early days of my transition, when I had been the target of anti-queer violence. The most serious of these incidents had landed me in the ER with blood gushing from my face and a scar that's still faintly visible across the bridge of my nose.
Under this scrutiny, the origin of my fear seemed obvious. The cumulative effect of being rewarded for adhering to traditional masculine appearances coupled with the threat of violence when I strayed outside of those norms. It's no wonder I was scared to let the world see my pretty feet.
Still, the idea that I had allowed these external forces to determine my self-expression sat uncomfortably inside me. Had I clawed my way out of one box, only to find myself caged within another?
The next week, I decided to challenge myself. I went to the salon down the block and asked for a manicure.
"No color, right?" the nail technician nodded.
"Black," I said, much more confidently than I felt.
I walked out of the salon feeling unsure and self-conscious, but also strangely pleased. Having my nails painted added a new dimension to my visual experience of the world. I noticed how my hands looked holding things. How they contrasted nicely against a brightly painted wall. How the shine of them reflected in the sunlight. How droplets of water pooled on them in the shower.
One surprising effect was how suddenly women I didn't know started to talk to me. The change was swift, and it wasn't subtle. Baristas chatted me up about whatever nail color I'd chosen that week. Women next to me on public transportation talked with me about their partners and showed me pictures of their children on their phones. One time, a cashier at a shop working two registers down yelled over her co-workers to tell me she liked my necklace.
When I relayed all of this to one of my friends, he was skeptical. "Are you sure it's because of your nails?" he asked. Then we went to grab a coffee. The barista, who had been cold and unfriendly with the customer in line ahead of us, gave me a warm smile. Pointing to my nails she said, "the matte black is so good and extra witchy." I raised an eyebrow in my friend's direction and he nodded in acquiescence.
It seemed I had disarmed the masculinity bomb just enough to be seen as "safe" by a certain segment of the population.
Women weren't the only folks who related to me differently post-nail-painting. I began getting noticed more often by queer folks who weren't gay men. And a certain strain of straight man started bonding with me too. A very stylish, handsome clerk with long dreads braided into two gorgeous plaits confided to me that he always shops in the women's section. He told me the secret is to size up two sizes. "You get that boxy silhouette without the extra length," he said. I bought a women's sweatshirt in XL and walked out feeling giddy, basking in this new and foreign version of connecting with men.
The surge in warmth and connection from all these different folks was significant enough to feel like my whole world had shifted. If I had to quantify it, I’d say my experience became approximately 30% friendlier. It felt like the universe was giving me a genial nod, encouraging me to keep going.
Of course, not everyone found pleasure or safety in my painted nails. It would be remiss of me not to recount the negative attention I received from another strain of straight man. In the months following, I got a handful of "faggot"s thrown my way. And one guy literally stopped me on the street to yell, "But WHY do you have that color on your nails?" His phrasing was awkward enough that I momentarily considered whether he took issue with my nail polish in general, or with the specific color I had chosen.
On the whole, however, most men continued to ignore me. And if I’m being perfectly honest, this suited me just fine.
Moreover, the change in how others related to me was a sideshow. If I was a plant, I was interested in finding my own light. And I was delighted to discover that I loved how my hands looked now. And I loved how I felt.
The rebellion snowballed.
The simple act of painting my nails had made me feel brave. And in feeling brave, I began to act more bravely. I started to examine other choices I'd made through a more critical lens. What else was I doing or not doing because I was scared? What other pleasures was I denying myself?
After I painted my fingernails, taking off my shoes in the locker room became a non-issue. I started wearing jewelry again and decided that this was my year of crop-tops and short shorts. I also let my hair grow out a bit and started trimming my beard down to a softer-looking, George Michael stubble. All of these changes pleased me immeasurably.
Eventually, I stopped going to the gym altogether. I realized I actually didn't give any fucks about having big muscles. I had just internalized over the years that I was supposed to want them. I also had been praised and validated by others when I had them. I started doing yoga instead and felt my body begin to heal from years of working hunched over at a desk.
I'm not exaggerating when I tell you I lost almost twenty pounds of mostly muscle. But being yoga-strong felt good in a way that being gym-strong never had for me. In the gym, there was always the push to do more, lift heavier, get bigger. Where I was at any given moment never felt like enough. And in the rare moments I did feel good about my body, the results were always so fragile. A week away from lifting was enough to crush any inkling of self-confidence that I had constructed.
This new, softer version of myself wasn't just physical. I started crying from time to time during yoga sessions. At first quietly, and only during savasana. Then shamelessly during any heart-opening pose. For those of you who haven't had the glorious release of crying in a while, let me assure you, it feels fucking awesome. And allowing myself to show that kind of vulnerability in a room full of strangers made me feel oddly powerful.
Ok, the therapy was helping too. I can't fully credit nail polish with the emotional awakening happening inside. But the nails were a constant reminder of my self-determination. Of my ability to create my own light. Today, my nails feel like my superpower. Every time I look at my hands I am reminded that my body is mine. Mine to adorn how I see fit. Mine to express. Mine to live in, and to love, and to create, and to shape.
Maybe painting your nails isn't your thing. Maybe wearing the suit and tie you weren't allowed to in your youth makes you feel a special kind of liberated. Maybe lifting weights brings you lasting, inner joy. Perhaps you don't need to wear nail polish to be your fully-actualized self.
You just need to find your own light and to move towards it. I hope you do.
Scout Rose is the founder of Transguy Supply. They live, write, and paint their nails in Brooklyn, NY.