Opinion: I got my nails done at a salon; a middle finger to gender norms

By Whatitiri Te Wake

I’ve always wanted to paint my nails but never had the confidence to do it for fear of being judged.

Coffin-shaped nails with a matte maroon tone and a feature nail with diamantes, a classic look that exudes sophistication and style - I remember that being exemplified by my mum who to this day continues to be a nail art enthusiast, glamorous and fabulous.

But for me, I opted for navy blue on one hand, a lighter blue shade on the other hand.

It's easy to sit back and say it's 2022 and men painting their nails isn’t a big deal because of freedom of expression - right? 

Wrong.

If you’re like me and have experienced some form of homophobic slurs in your lifetime, then fully expressing yourself and dancing along the gender spectrum is often met with reservation and bigotry. 

The saying, 'Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me' doesn’t really apply when you have been called a poof, fag, or any sort of derogatory slur name. 

Staying resilient

I’m not taking the position of a victim, e hē! It was these experiences that taught me resilience.

For centuries, the lines of what's considered a gender norm have often been crossed but there's a lot of self-assessment and reflection that happens to reach that place. 

Am I ready for the reactions? The slurs? The shame?

Growing up in rural Te Tai Tokerau was a blast, having to create your own fun using next to no money but a hāngī crate load of creativity and imagination abound. 

From mud cakes in winter to daisy chains in spring, or my favourite - making piupiu out of anything, as we watched the biennial Kapa Haka National competition. 

Māori kids brought up with nothing know how to create something for their own fun.

Safe space

I wasn’t really keen on hanging out with my brothers and boy cousins to hunt and ride horses. Instead, I enjoyed staying at home and listening to my grandmother talk about her upbringing in Hastings, and doing cool things like painting our nails.

My nan created a safe space for me to explore my femininity. 

She was a woman who enjoyed the finer things in life, fashion and makeup. Image was everything. How you presented yourself in public was paramount. 

We would sit for hours talking about life. 

Manicures and pedicures were the norm, and being across the latest fashion trends according to the Woman’s Day or Woman's Weekly magazines.

We’d always paint our nails and tutu with makeup. This was one of our favourite pastimes. 

But when I left the safety of her home, I’d often feel that cloak of protection come off, and so too did the nail polish.

For a while now, I’ve become more expressive in what I wear and in how I present myself.

I’m now 33 and, for the first time, I have been to a nail salon on Lambton Quay and asked for gel polish nails. Walking into the nail salon was kind of like walking into a barber shop; uneasy, uncomfortable, people staring for longer than five seconds. Just breathe.

Freedom

The nail technician was not phased at all by this 6’2 male with a mataora asking to “get his nails did”.

In 2020, American rapper A$AP Rocky took to Instagram to show off his nail art, causing huge fanfare and a ‘trend’ men took to, hook, line and sinker. 

Why is it that when so-called ‘straight’ and ‘normal’ celebrities play around with gender expression it’s considered bold and edgy but when a non-binary person walks freely down the street with a beard and a dress, they’re weird?

Society has done the most to ensure we remain in boxes, doubling down on the idea that blue is for boys and pink is for girls. Unpopular opinion; gender reveal parties are weird.

I am hopeful though that society is changing and that Gen Z is doing its bit to ensure that freedom of expression is just that, freedom. 

Lucky me to have a nan like mine who would encourage me to be me, pretty nails and all. And while we're here, why don't you take yourself to get your nails "did" too, and make sure you ask for a pretty shade that makes your heart sing.