Paint My Life

Paint My Life

June 29th, 2014
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(For readers who don’t know me, or those who do but don’t assume, or those who do assume but shouldn’t, I’m a mostly-cis-gendered mostly-heterosexual white male. That might matter for this piece; it might not. In general I think my identity doesn’t matter much, but I am very invested in the idea that everyone, no matter their identity, be able to feel similarly—that their identity isn’t important. And for that people like me need to stop privileging their identities over any others.)

I went to a friend—a friend I trusted—and I said, “I’m ready to ask a favor of you.”

She painted the nails of my left hand black, and oversaw my attempt on my right. As it was happening, I wondered: is this what I want? The cool black fluid splashed beyond the boundaries of my nails, enveloped my fingertips. It quickly began to dry, and a stiffness spread over my skin. My fingers felt heavy.

“The bit on your skin will come off the next time you wash your hands,” she said.

The next morning, I shed black flakes in the shower and emerged with what I had wanted: painted nails.

“Unleashing your inner goth?” my mother asked when she saw me. Goth? I know next to nothing about the subculture, don’t mean to mispresent. “I just painted my nails,” I said, “it doesn’t mean anything.”

What I meant was that it didn’t mean what my mother thought it meant. Of course there was some meaning. But I hadn’t pinned it down yet, didn’t want to pin it down yet. I wanted to live with my choice for a few days, reflect on the processes that had led me to it. Was it my first step toward a larger shift in my superficial gender? Was it representative of shifts in my actual gender? Was it purely cosmetic?

A week later, the paint began chipping. I went to the store and bought nail polish of my own and a bottle of nail polish remover. Sitting on my balcony, swabbing at my nails with an acetone-soaked Qtip, I commented to my roommates, “this takes forever!” My male roommate didn’t respond, as he hadn’t to the fact that my nails were painted in the first place. Our female flatmate, on the other hand, offered words of wisdom:

“Being pretty is hard work.”

Do I care about “being pretty?” Not especially. With the exception of my nails, I don’t think anything about me is “pretty.” Good-looking without the valence of pretty is also a stretch. I do very little to enhance my appearance. Minimal grooming, new clothes once in a blue moon. My favorite outfit is still a pair of jeans and one of a dozen ragged colored tees my mother bought me in high school—I’m a firm believer in function over form, and while some might say that the function of clothing is the form, I’m an adherent to the comfort school. For whatever reason, I’ve either never considered myself worth the effort, or never considered the effort worth the effort. So no, I don’t care about being pretty.

But “being pretty is hard work?” That I care about.

I don’t like work. I especially don’t like work done to hit the goldilocks zone between double standards for women’s appearances—you have to look good, but you can’t look too good. The amount of work that goes into this endeavor could probably be an industry in itself. And I’m not talking about the beauty industry; I’m talking about its consumers and the untold, unpaid hours of work they do in the service of the patriarchy.

Doing some of this work myself doesn’t save anyone else time. It doesn’t in itself ease any burdens. I could pour ten, twenty hours a week into beautifying myself; I wouldn’t spare a single feminine-presenting person a single minute of cosmetic work. But there must be some solidarity, some value, in the reverse-strike, in wearing, even if for a measly hour a week, chains similar to those worn by one’s sisters. If everyone felt these chains, maybe we would band together to break them. Maybe we’d just make them of lighter materials. If nothing else, everyone would be in the same boat. I recently read a comment on the internet to the tune of “anyone who opposes raising the minimum wage should automatically be forced to live on minimum wage.” I guess I have similar feelings about the taxes our society imposes on gender categories.

I wouldn’t say this is why I painted my nails. I wanted to paint my nails because I wanted to paint my nails. There was no conscious political decision. That interpretation came later, after the fact, as I walked through my life with a new weekly time sink and beacons on my fingertips that signaled something, even if that something was inconsequential in Berkeley, California.

The first time I painted my nails was not activism.

Measuring the reactions of my friends and family, however, told me a lot. Some noticed, some didn’t. Some asked me questions—what brand did I use? Did I do them myself, or did I go to salon? Some complimented me, some were brusque in their acknowledgment. I could have almost predicted the responses, if I’d thought about it: people who present female were more likely to inquire and actually discuss the details of the process; my more progressive friends were more enthusiastic about my decision. The distinctions that became apparent disappointed me. My nails were, in a sense, polarizing. Thankfully, none of my friends is reactionary enough to respond with worse than silent discomfort. Still, the disappointment lingers, a realization. If the Westboro Baptist Church hated my nails, I wouldn’t care. I’d throw it in their faces. The subtler distaste expressed by friends—many of them radicals in their own way, if less than progressive in some matters—was disquieting.

The first time I painted my nails was a cosmetic choice, one of very few I have ever made. It was like a haircut. I wanted to change the way I walked. I’ve continued painting my nails because I like my new stride—the choice is still definitely cosmetic. But appearances, like everything, are a text, a thing to be read and interpreted. I derive joy from my nails, from how they look. How much of that enjoyment is actually aesthetic? How much of it is rhetoric?

My nails are blue, now—ao, the color code of Angels sent to destroy the NERV of heteronormativity.

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