Take one look at social media these days and it’s clear that nail polish for men is big—like, really big. Even before pandemic-induced lockdowns, the trend was growing in popularity thanks to style icons and celebrities like A$AP Rocky, Harry Styles, and Evan Mock. It was so big that we dubbed 2020 The Year of the Menicure way back in January (which, frankly, feels like ancient history at this point).
Since then, a lot has happened—to say the least—but dudes and their nail polish haven't gotten any less visible. In fact, their ranks have only grown, buoyed in large part by platforms like TikTok and the willingness on behalf of more men than ever to experiment with once sacrosanct grooming habits after months of being cooped up at home. The #boynails hashtag has 1.2 million views on TikTok alone—on Instagram, there are entire social media accounts dedicated to male nail art, including the aptly-named @boysinpolish.
Perhaps surprisingly, men wearing nail polish is not an altogether new phenomenon (warriors in Ancient Babylon allegedly painted their nails before battle). But the combination of a year spent on lockdown and growing discussions surrounding the nature of masculinity have helped usher in a new era of dudes polishing their digits. “It’s become a catalyst for self-expression,” says Umar ElBably, co-founder of men’s grooming brand Faculty, which launched its first product‚ a dark green nail polish, this past summer. “When you’re isolated, you’re looking for things to help express yourself, have fun, and be you.”
With social media as your only gauge, it’d be easy to forget that there are plenty of people out there who aren’t quite ready for a new world of lacquered man hands. But for some men, a fresh ‘cure could still have real-life consequences.
When Trevor Wilkinson walked into his Texas high school with painted nails, he didn’t realize it would be an issue. He had started getting his nails painted as “a way to express myself,” he says, without knowing that the public school’s dress code specifically forbade male students from wearing nail polish or makeup. His act of self-expression caused a stir that eventually landed him with an in-school suspension.
Like anyone of his generation, he took to Twitter. Wilkinson, who is gay, noted that restricting something like nail polish by gender was a sexist (and homophobic) idea that limited his means of expression. “If the rule didn’t only apply to males, I think I would have just dropped it,” he says, “but my school is being discriminatory and I couldn’t sit back and watch it anymore.” His tweet led to local, and then national, news coverage and a petition with over 347,000 signatures to date. “I never anticipated that it would blow up as much as it did,” says Wilkinson, but he’s happy to be the de facto poster boy for change.
https://t.co/DA9ZvSBDc9 YALL GO SIGN MY PETITION!! homophobia and sexism are NOT okay and should not be tolerated!! Every signature counts!!
— trevvvv;) (@trevvowilkinson) December 1, 2020
Wilkinson’s generation, Gen Z, is much more willing to reject existing gender norms and “is really focused on authenticity,” says ElBably, the Faculty co-founder. “If authenticity for them means wearing nail polish then they, thank God, have the courage and comfort to go out and do it.” And while Gen Z might be on the front lines of the fight against rigid gender norms, he notes that men of all ages and backgrounds have been buying Faculty polish and the brand's distinctive nail art stickers. Nail polish, as minor as it may seem, has become a critical weapon in the fight for a more expansive understanding of conventional masculinity because, well, it's so obvious. You don’t paint your nails if you don’t want someone to notice them.
If nail polish wasn’t so powerful, reactions to men wearing it wouldn’t be so visceral—and institutions like Wilkinson’s high school wouldn’t work so hard to stop it. It was only after Wilkinson’s story became national news that his school moved to retract his suspension. Last week, Wilkinson spoke at the annual school board meeting to argue his side of the case (there was also an emergency board meeting to which he was not invited). The result? A bland statement promising a review of the dress code, but no actual commitment to change.
Depending on what happens, Wilkinson knows the fight may be far from over. Federal law prohibits public institutions like Wilkinson’s high school from implementing policies that discriminate based on gender or sexual orientation and the American Civil Liberties Union, Equality Texas, Texas GSA, and Lambda Legal have all reached out to him and promised to help him continue to fight the good legal fight should it come to that.
No matter what the outcome of Wilkinson’s case, though, if the outpouring of support for him is any indication, the tides are indeed changing. Maybe one day soon, the gender codes associated with wearing nail polish will disappear completely, but that all depends on us. Wilkinson may be the face of the movement, but we are its well-manicured army. So on that note, I say, paint on my brave brethren. And remember: polish is power.
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