Growing out my nails started as an experiment. Five months ago, I was in Boston for the weekend to give a talk at Harvard. The evening before my talk, I spent some time with an old college friend I hadn’t seen in a few years. When they answered the door, the first thing I noticed was not my friend’s new haircut, but their new nails: long, claw-like lavender acrylics that came to a dramatic point at the end — the kind of nails I’d only ever seen on Lady Gaga. I was fixated.
The nails totally changed the shape and movement of their hands, making them seem so much longer, daintier, and more elegant. I left Boston that weekend curious about growing out my own nails, just to see what would happen.
My nails had always been pretty short. When I was a little boy, every few weeks my mom or dad would look across the dinner table, notice that my nails had gotten a little too long for their liking, and ask me to cut them. They’d reassure me that it wouldn’t be a big deal, that I could get through it.
No matter what they said, I always fought back. I hated the feeling of cold metal against sensitive skin. I hated the pressure on my cuticle. I hated the sound the clippers made. I hated the rough edges that lingered for days after the process was over. I hated it so much that, despite being a pretty self-reliant kid, my parents had to cut my nails for me until I was 7 or 8.
When I was around 9 or 10, I started challenging my parents, asking them why it was so important that I kept my nails short. Each time I asked, they gave me the same answer: Long nails were “dirty.” In hindsight, I don’t think their objections were purely hygienic: They cared because long nails were feminine. That was the problem my parents wanted to fix.
Long nails were only one of the things I never really got to try as a child. I was discouraged from wearing tutus during dress-up, or high heels, or much of anything pink. It wasn’t that my parents deliberately tried to stifle me or that they wanted me to be unhappy. It’s just that there were rules about what boys and girls were supposed to do.
Because a doctor told my parents that I was a boy when I was born, and because I have a male body, my parents assumed that they were doing what was right for me by choosing blue instead of pink, sports instead of ballet, and Legos instead of Barbies. No one took the time to ask me what I wanted.
Today, I describe myself as genderqueer — someone who doesn’t identify as a man or a woman, but as a person outside of conventional binary gender roles. And for people like me, learning to express gender in a way that feels comfortable and authentic can be a lifelong struggle.
I’ve spent years of my adult life learning to reclaim my femininity. I’ve grown older, studied feminist literature, and found the courage to explore parts of my gender that used to be off-limits. And looking back, the decision I made on the train back from Boston to stop cutting my nails for a while — which didn’t feel very significant at the time — has been an important step in that process.
For the first month or so, I think people thought I was just too lazy to keep my nails trimmed. But as one month turned into three, things started to get interesting: Women and other feminine people in my life began to take notice.
It first happened when I painted my nails gold. I went to a rooftop party at a friend’s apartment, and in the middle of pouring a drink, a girl I’d never met before came up to me.
“Are those your real nails?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’ve just started growing them out,” I said casually. She looked back down at the hand on my cup in fascination.
“How do you do that?” she blurted out. “My nails always chip before they can get that long. I’m so jealous!”
It had honestly never occurred to me that my nails could grow into anything special. But as they got longer, those interactions happened more often. People would stop me at work, on the subway, at parties, and in bars to look at my nails.
My mother, who has spent the past few years learning to embrace and celebrate my newly reclaimed femininity, took notice, but not in the way that I expected. When she first saw my long nails, she was shocked — not because they were feminine, but because she’d never had nails that long in her life. She wasn’t surprised by my femininity anymore: Instead, she was impressed by it.
What started out as an experiment became a kind of a personal challenge: If people were fascinated by my nails, I would see just how long I could grow them. The process hasn’t always been smooth. Over the past few months, I’ve broken my nails more times and ways than I can count: bowling, latching a bathroom door, opening a can of soup.
And the praise I get comes at a price. Having long nails changes how I interact with the world. I have to take out my contacts differently. I have to fasten the clasps of my necklaces differently. Typing texts on my iPhone can take ages.
I can’t afford to navigate the world as carelessly as I once did. I’m compelled to move my hands in a way that emphasizes grace over strength, sensitivity over brute force. And through those alterations in movement, I appear to be more gentle, more dainty, more sensitive.
For me, feeling gentle, graceful, and sensitive is empowering precisely because those are all of the things that, as someone who was assigned male at birth, I’m not supposed to be. Through wearing my nails long and polished, I assert my right to be my own person, outside the expectations of masculinity.
But like so many feminine beauty norms, long nails are a contradiction. They make your hands look simultaneously elegant and ferocious. They make your fingers less capable while also making them more dangerous. You have to be careful not to chip them, but you also know that you could scratch the shit out of someone in a fight if you needed to. You have claws, but you know that with great claws come great responsibility.
To me, nails are also about contradictions of class and status. Long, perfectly polished nails signal to the world that I can afford the time it takes to make them look that way, and that I don’t have to engage in the kinds of physical labor that would make maintaining them impossible. But I’m also able to play with the idea that long, brightly colored nails are trashy, flashy, or over-the-top. A pale pink nail suggests affluent, elite femininity. Take that same nail, cover it in gold glitter, and suddenly it’s a (small) way to give propriety and bourgeois beauty norms the finger.
While they may be difficult to maintain, and while I may spend too much of my life polishing and re-polishing them, I am proud of my long nails. To me, they are not only beautiful: They signify my right to express my genderqueer identity on my own terms in the face of a patriarchal and transphobic world. And even if they’re not a revolution, even if they are just pretty, they still make me feel great about who I am.
Last week, I managed to seriously break multiple nails while opening up the cabinet below my bathroom sink. At first I was livid: My gorgeous nails were ruined and I’d have to grow them out all over again. But the thing about nails is that no matter how you break them, no matter how badly you mess them up, they’ll always grow back.