The Grooming Journal
Why Shouldn't Men Paint Their Nails If They Want To?
When Harry Styles won big for his album Harry’s House at this year’s Grammys he held aloft his trophy with fingers adorned with pearlescent nail polish – proof that the trend for men sporting painted nails is here to stay. So why do some people still find it taboo asks Lee Kynaston?
“Real men don’t paint their nails.” So says Nick Adams – a best-selling author endorsed by Donald Trump, and a man whose Twitter handle includes the words ‘Alpha Male’ after his name – presumably in case anyone doubts his XY chromosome credentials. His view, proclaimed in a tweet recently, echoes a commonly held belief, of course, along with notions that men shouldn’t experiment with make-up, take care of their skin or wear anything outside of jeans and plaid shirts.
As someone who’s written about men’s style and grooming for years now, I’ve heard all this before, countless times. It’s part of a trope that seeks to label those men confident enough to play by their own rules and express their individuality through clothing, skincare and cosmetics as somehow not ‘proper’ men – whatever a ‘proper’ man is in 2023 (to me, there are just men – we come in all hues.)
The thing is, those that perpetuate the myth of the ‘real man’ not only fail to acknowledge that masculinity is an ever-evolving thing (only a few years ago men felt unable to discuss their emotional wellbeing remember) but also the fact that guys have been wearing things like nail polish forever. Harry Styles, A$AP Rocky and Lil Nas X donning it is not new, nor is it pearl-clutchingly transgressive in terms of gender norms.
We know, for example, that ancient Babylonian soldiers used ground minerals to colour their fingernails before going in to battle (black for noblemen, green for commoners). Now, I can’t say for certain how those Babylonian warriors’ opponents reacted to this sight because I wasn’t there (I’m old but not 3500 BC old) but I very much doubt it was ‘Oh, get her with her painted nails!’ More likely, they were seen as FIERCE because of their nail art, scaring and confusing their enemy in much the same way ancient Britons, painted blue with woad, terrified Roman invaders.
Then, of course, there’s rock royalty like Lou Reed, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong – all of whom have sported painted nails as a way of flashing their rock ‘n’ roll outsider credentials. Seal, Johnny Depp and Dennis Rodman are all fans of nail polish too, with the latter once proclaiming positively, “I love to paint my nails. Nothing wrong with that. Be you. Always."
Most recently, England rugby player Ollie Hassell-Collins came out as a fan, sporting patriotic nail art featuring the St George’s flag. “Previously I’d thought about it but never actually did it. My girlfriend gave me a lot of confidence to try it. She’d say: ‘Just do it.’ And I kind of liked it,” he told The Guardian.
I myself first painted my nails at the age of 17 (black, since I was going through a bit of a goth phase) though I’d wipe the polish off after a night out so I didn’t get sent home from school the following day or attract the ire of my parents, who were exasperated enough at my dyed hair and penchant for eyeliner. Years later, I’d leave it on for longer and longer, learning that the more chipped it became the cooler it actually looked.
Over the years I’ve experimented with lots of different colours (black and metallic blue are favourites) and have painted both my fingernails and toenails. Sometimes I’ve painted all my nails, sometimes just a couple or one, which in a way can be even more eye catching than a whole handful – in the same way wearing one, carefully considered, piece of jewellery can be. As with anything, practice makes perfect, of course, and I’m much better at applying it than I used to be (see the tip sheet at the end of this piece for some handy application advice).
Question is, what are people like Adams so afraid of? I mean, it’s only a bit of nail polish. An increasing number of men are already incorporating makeup in to their daily routines (see my article about that here) so why not nail polish too? Rappers, especially, seem to love playing with it, with some even launching their own ranges. What’s more, it’s not effeminate, unmanly or a ‘gay thing’ (many of today’s painted nail icons identify as heterosexual after all).
Sure, it challenges ingrained gender norms but then, so did guys using moisturiser twenty years ago and few men think twice about applying it today. To me, it’s just a fast and effective way to have fun with your look – something an increasing number of men are discovering for themselves, by giving it a go.
“Men are definitely feeling more confident about wearing products such as our Limitless Nail Ink,” says Carl Gough, founder of BUG For Men, who’s range of polishes features a number of shades, including Babylonian soldier favourites black and green. “That’s mainly due to more men wanting another way to express their individuality and because they see guys like Post Malone and A$AP Rocky painting their nails, which makes it feel more in reach.”
In a nod to the nervous, though, he branded his products as ‘Nail Ink' rather than polish to make them more accessible to newbies. “Nail varnish or nail polish has a long-standing association with being a female only product so we wanted men to be less intimidated and to feel confident and comfortable buying and wearing our products,” he says. There will always be naysayers of course. People like Adams just don’t like change. Change is scary. Change is about the unknown. It upsets the comfy and familiar status quo and forces us challenge what’s ‘normal’. But change is happening, whether they like it or not. That train already left the station.
For me, perhaps the most encouraging thing is not that men are investigating nail art but why they are. When salon reservation app Nailbook asked Japanese men who painted their nails why they did it, for example, the most common reason wasn’t to attract a partner or garner popularity – it was simply because they wanted to. It sounds straightforward enough but it actually represents a significant shift in what’s driving men to take care of their appearance. Today’s man primps and preens for himself – because it makes him feel good and because he can.
Thanks to a plethora of products available to them, the breaking down of traditional gender sterotypes and some amazing public role models, men are increasingly confident in using all the tools available to them express their individuality. “I would encourage every man to try painting their nails at least once,” says Gough in a message to the undecided. “It’s surprisingly empowering.”
In the grand scheme of things it might not seem the bravest act in the world but, given the fact there are still people objecting to it, I reckon guys who do paint their nails are modern day warriors.
Instead of fighting it out on the battlefield like those immaculately manicured Babylonians, though, they’re fighting stereotypes in the modern-day style wars; railing against outdated and, frankly, constricting notions of what makes a man a man. And more power to their elbow, I say – or, more appropriately, more power to their beautifully painted fingertips.
Polished to perfection – 6 tips for perfectly painted nails
1. Create a clean canvas.
For a neat and tidy finish and to avoid streaking and peeling, nail prep is essential. Wash your hands with warm, soapy water, cleaning your nails with a cotton ball and a small amount of nail varnish remover to remove any grease from the nail surface. Raggedy cuticles can be pushed back a little with a cotton bud.
2. Roll, don’t shake the bottle.
It’s always a good idea to mix the contents of the bottle before applying but shake too vigorously and you can create air bubbles that can ruin the paint job so roll the bottle between your fingers before opening instead.
3. Don’t overload the brush.
Always wipe off any excess polish from the brush on the insides of the bottleneck.
4. Hold your nerve.
Start at the base of the nail just above the cuticle and apply using straight, single strokes towards the tip. If your nails protrude beyond your fingertips swipe the ends with a little polish to prevent chipping.
5. Layer up.
It’s always better to apply two thin coats than one thickcoat. The thicker the coat, the longer it’ll take to dry and the more likely it’ll chip at the tips. Apply a base coat, leave a few minutes to dry, then apply again. If you mess up don’t panic – simply remove with nail varnish remover and start again. Remember, practice makes perfect!
6. Let things dry naturally.
Waving your hands around in the air likethey’re helicopter blades risks creating ripples in the polish so keep hands still until everything dries.
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