Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
March 30, 2023

What I learned from painting my fingernails

By RUDY MALCOM | December 5, 2019


Unlike Macklemore, when I was in the third grade, I didn’t think that I was gay. During my childhood, I was instead a mouthpiece of heteronormativity. While in kindergarten, a friend declared that she would one day marry a woman. I argued to her that this was impossible. Even earlier, when a boy in my preschool class showed me his navy-blue fingernails, I insisted that his hands resembled a girl’s.

Lately on campus I’ve noticed an abundance of queer men sporting painted nails. “I’m not like other gays,“ I’ve told myself, straightening out my fingers — literally and figuratively — in front of me. 

This semester I haven’t been too preoccupied with my sexuality or how others perceive it. Why might this be, you ask? Firstly, I actually had a (somewhat) healthy summer fling to whom I admitted, “Aside from any unrequited love affair, you’re the person I’ve liked the most.” No longer being turned off by guys who like me — that’s self-growth. 

Secondly, upon returning to this hallowed campus, The News-Letter has essentially become my beloved boyfriend. I used to worry about people pigeonholing me as the gay guy; now I worry that people see me only as an overzealous editor and reporter. 

I haven’t had much time or energy to think of romance, and the closest thing to love that I’ve encountered so far this semester is when a stranger offered me her phone charger in the Reading Room at 3 a.m. (I don’t know how she knew that I needed it. I think she was my soulmate. Should I crawl back into the closet?)

On the eve of fall break, having almost completed a particularly demoralizing week, I confided in my friend Milly — you may know her as Editor-in-Chief Amelia Isaacs — that I desired some sort of change, perhaps a wild haircut.

Ever the voice of reason, Milly suggested painting my fingernails, knowing that I’d been contemplating the idea. A dramatic hair makeover would be unoriginal, I decided, and schlepping to the barber shop seemed like a great deal of effort, whereas Milly could paint my nails that very night. I, ever the advocate of instant gratification, accepted her generous offer.

She presented me with a spectrum of nail polishes. I first chose matte black; I imagined myself myself wearing my cherished pleather jacket, exuding sultry angst from every lacquered fingertip. Alas, I depersonalized a wee bit after Milly applied the coating to the fingernails on my left hand; it didn’t feel like my left hand was my own. 

Let’s gloss over (ha) certain details, like me being compulsive about the order in which Milly painted my nails. Ultimately, she painted my right hand fingers gold and my left hand fingers a dark blue-gray — a melancholic periwinkle, if you will. I was quite pleased. “Is this self-care?” I asked myself. 

The next morning, I decided I hated the gold and obtained some nail polish remover from another friend to get rid of it. For one week, I kept the paint on my left hand fingers. At first, I buried my hand in my pocket, but I quickly overcame my internalized homophobia. Contrary to what I’d expected, only a handful (I’m sorry) of people mentioned anything about my painted nails. And the offhand (I hate me, too) comments I received from peers were all positive. 

I’d been looking for a change, but having painted nails wasn’t doing much for me. It didn’t provide me with much attention or somehow help me type more quickly, and it didn’t make transcribing interviews any more enjoyable. Shockingly, not one person praised me for deconstructing gender.

Eventually, the polish on my left middle finger chipped, causing my entire hand to become absolutely hideous. I began scraping the polish off all my nails while sitting in A Century of Queer Literature. How apropo! Later that night, I finished the job in the shower and emerged from my bathroom the pinnacle of masculinity once more (In case it isn’t abundantly clear, I am entirely kidding).

I feel compelled to write something profound, to proclaim that by painting my fingernails — really by having my fingernails painted (I have no agency) — I unchained myself from the confines of toxic masculinity.

I don’t think that I was dismantling the patriarchy, but perhaps I was. My painted nails didn’t allow me to better express my gender or sexuality; they just looked nice. I wasn’t trying to make a statement. Why should five or even 10 dollops of nail polish have to be political? 

Ultimately, though I briefly worried that people would pigeonhole me, no one seemed to really care that my nails were painted. For the most part, we are too busy worrying about ourselves to give a damn about relatively microscopic changes to others’ appearances. People didn’t see me any differently because my nails were painted; only I did. 

For now, I’m relishing in the restored nudity of my fingernails. But who knows? Perhaps I will one day have them painted again. Perhaps I will even paint them myself. 

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