I had an encounter with a boy last week; an encounter that I’m sure will resonate within me for a long time.
It was on the train after I’d finished work for the day. I was tired. The carriage I’d stepped into was busy but I managed to find a lone seat next to a window. The train began to move.
“Why does that boy have things on his nails?” I looked up to see a small, curious boy, maybe four years old, sitting on his father’s lap. He had silver sparkly shoes and pink pants. The bright sunflower on his tee shirt was beaming at me. He looked at me for a moment and paused, before looking up at his father with a concerned look.
I looked down at my nails, bright red in colour. I’d freshly painted them that morning before work.
His father smiled at me, “Because you have them on your nails as well.” I noticed the boy’s nails now, adorned with chipped sparkly red nail polish.
His father was gentle, just like mine. Father and son looked back at my nails, smiling. “I want to paint my nails in sparkly colours for the birthday party on the weekend,” said the boy, now relaxed. His father nodded.
As we left the train, this boy and I, sixteen years apart but joined by our love for red nails, we smiled at each other once more. As a goodbye, I told him that he should paint his nails in sparkly colours for his party. I hope he did.
This interaction touched me. When I’d looked at this boy, I’d seen a reflection, albeit briefly, of my own four year-old self. I’d loved the Spice Girls, rode a sparkly pink bicycle, and took pride in my vast collection of Barbie dolls. I too, loved any clothing with sparkles and pink on them. I loved to sing and dance.
I’d always been fascinated by my mother’s nail polish, even envied her for it, but had never thought it was possible to use it for myself. I envied the little boy on the train now as well; I wish I’d painted my nails back then. For some reason, I felt as though I couldn’t.
Last year, though, I painted my nails silver at a festival for the first time. Upon arriving home, I began to paint a nail here and there. With time, I began to build up the courage to paint more, nail by nail, until all my nails were freshly coated. I began to buy new colours. I began to try bright greens, pinks and blues. I realised that I should have painted my nails at a much earlier age. To some this may have seemed trivial but, to me, this was a milestone.
Since then, I’ve been stared at, and questioned, a lot. These interactions don’t faze me; it’s taken me a long time to feel confident in my own self, but I’ve come to that place. I’m lucky. I grew up in a relatively progressive community. I have an understanding family, and friends who encourage my independent self-expression. I’m not weighed down by the burden of masculine expectation. Many young boys don’t have this luxury.
After my train ride, I walked to the service station. At the counter, the attendant looked at my nails. He paused; perplexed in thought. The red was shining under the luminescent light.
“Your nails. They’re painted.” He looked up at me.
“Yes,” I responded.
“I wanted to,” I grinned.
He gave me a strange look, a grimace, as if it was an inconceivable notion for a 20-year-old male to be wearing nail polish. He paused again before giving me my change, thinking. He shook his head. He didn’t look me in the eyes.
To the little boy on the train:
I hope that smile doesn’t leave your face but I know that everyone around you will try to make it disappear. With their looks, their smirks, and their questions. After a while it won’t seem cute anymore and I’m sure you’ll come to realise that your sparkly nails don’t fit; that you’re to blame for it.
But know that, for every boy who paints his nails, there are more who wish they could.
When I looked at your nails last week, I smiled, as minuscule as it may have seemed. I didn’t smile for me, though. I smiled for you, who, for a brief moment during our encounter, saw that it could be okay. I also smiled for my own four-year-old self who wished he could.
The body is an intriguing vessel. For now, those tiny coloured symbols on your hands mean something: they are a victory.
Louis Hanson is freelance writer, student at the University of Melbourne, and LGBTQIA+ youth advocate. Instagram: @louishanson and website: louishanson.com
Image: Lili Steele (Instagram: @ilisteele)