Man-icures are becoming less taboo, and many men are letting out a sigh of relief. Thanks to artists like Lil Yachty, Harry Styles, Post Malone, and A$AP Rocky, styled nails are being rocked loud and proud. Get the full story from Maura Judkis at The Washington Post.
The first time he got his nails done, the thing that surprised “Top Chef” judge Kwame Onwuachi wasn’t how they looked but how he felt.
“It felt empowering,” he says.
Onwuachi had taken his young nieces for a manicure. He had always wanted to try polish on his own nails, and he finally had an excuse to do it.
The black nail polish boosted his confidence. It represented “being comfortable with yourself,” he says.
“Like, you don’t have to prove yourself to anyone.” It quickly became his signature look. Sometimes, he and his fianceé get their nails done together. These days, “If I don’t have my nails polished, I feel kind of naked.”
The chef and author is launching a nail polish line later this summer. The four polishes, Onwuachi says, represent different aspects of his personality — there’s a slate blue, burgundy, a matte topcoat and his usual black, which he named “Chef’s Kiss.”
“Hopefully I’ll have 16, 24 colors eventually,” he says. “Like lipstick red. I would definitely do a chrome.”
His agenda: to “normalize men wearing nail polish.”
The popularity of male polish — or, if you must, man-icures — is on the rise. Onwuachi is one of three male celebrities releasing nail polish lines for men this year, joining rappers Machine Gun Kelly and Lil Yachty.
Getting his nails done is simple self-care, “kind of just like getting a haircut,” says Yachty. “It’s just my thing, you know?”
Singer Harry Styles regularly shows off candy-colored nail polish, and fellow pop stars Lil Nas X, Bad Bunny and Troye Sivan have all been spotted with colorful nails. Rapper A$AP Rocky regularly decorates his nails with small designs, such as logos, letters or eyeballs.
“Men should be able to do nail art without feeling feminine,” Rocky told Vogue in 2019.
Yachty says his nail polishes are about “just wanting men to feel a little more comfortable. All men aren’t as comfortable with certain things,” he says. Though his line is unisex, “I wanted to make it a little bit more male-friendly.”
And so we come to the paradox of male polish: The more men get comfortable with it, the more it may chip away at the stubborn lacquer of gender norms; but to get more men comfortable with coloring their nails, those gender norms end up back in the mix.
Back in the late 1800s, after a woman named Mary Cobb opened America’s first nail salon in New York City, manicures were genderless; the people filing, buffing and shining the nails were usually women, but many of their customers were men.
“There were actually songs and even an early movie about men who would fall in love with their manicurist,” says Suzanne E. Shapiro, a fashion historian and author of “Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure.”
As nail care became more decorative, it took on a greater association with femininity and fashion rather than simple grooming, she says. Tinted nail polish was developed in the mid-1920s, and “it was a pretty risque statement at the time,” says Shapiro. “There was this real stigma of cosmetics as, you know, for so-called fast women.” But when socialites and actresses began to paint their nails, other women followed suit, and nail polish became seen as an affordable luxury. Meanwhile, the care of men’s cuticles was left to barbers, who would provide a simple trim.
In the late 20th century, glam rockers, goths, skateboarders and punks were among the subversive men who wore nail polish despite their (acquired) feminine associations. David Bowie was photographed taking a drag from a cigarette with his middle fingernail in teal. Lou Reed favored black polish, and he let it chip. Freddie Mercury wore black polish, too, but only on his left hand. Kurt Cobain covered his short, stubby nails in glossy red.
Those men “set modern society on a journey towards greater and greater self-expression and individuality, kind of showing us that there’s a much broader range of ways to be a man that’s open to us,” says Shapiro. “One of the things that I think is so important about the manicure is that it allows you to play with identity in a really low-stakes way.”
Shibli Rahman, 30, a designer in Birmingham, Alabama, revels in the pure aesthetic pleasure of having colorful fingernails. He remembers the first time a friend painted his nails, in college, and used glow-in-the-dark polish.
At first, he was nervous to debut his painted nails in class. “I would only paint them on the weekends and then take them off for school,” he says.
But his colors got bolder, and so did he: He stopped worrying about what others would think. Now, he owns hundreds of nail polishes and posts his nail art on Instagram as @Brown guynails. Despite living in a conservative state, “The only comments I ever get are positive.”
It’s the same for 24-year-old Tuguldur “TJ” Erdenejargal — @nailboii on Instagram — who moved to Los Angeles two years ago to become a nail technician, specializing in hand-drawn designs, such as cow patterns and Dali-esque melted smiley faces. He estimates that about 15 percent of his clients are men. Many of them start out getting a manicure with clear polish, he says, but, “I tell them, like, ‘Why don’t you try this sticker on it?’ Or, ‘Why you don’t you just try polish on your nails?’” They’re already in the chair, so it doesn’t take much convincing. Some of them come back the next time with ideas for even more elaborate designs.
Eugene Kelley, a 37-year-old artist in Mountain View, California, describes his current shade: “It’s called ‘In a Flash.’ It’s almost like a skin tone, but it’s got, like, a pink and green iridescence to it. So it’s kind of subtle,” he says. “I don’t always go for subtle. I’ve got another one I really like to do. It’s this kind of cool gray, and I’ll throw a matte coat over it. It almost looks like wearing a suit for your nails.”
Any time he encounters another man wearing nail polish, “I just make it a point to tell them it looks good,” says Kelley. “It almost always does.”
Some makers of male polish don’t prefer to call it that. Maybe there’s something too delicate about the word “polish.” Instead, they’re “paints” — Lil Yachty’s preferred term — or “lacquer” or “ink.” Most of them tend to be matte, too. Shiny is too flashy, too feminine.
The male polishes mostly come in colors we code as masculine: black, gray, army green, blue. The color names convey a rugged outdoorsiness (“Moss,” “Nemophilist”), or physical or emotional hardness (“Concrete,” “Asphalt,” “Sheetrock,” “Black Like My Heart”). The physical shape of the bottle is different in Lil Yachty’s line, Crete: His polishes, er, paints are designed to look like the acrylic markers that graffiti artists use. (Bonus: It also makes them easy for newbies to apply.) One brand, ManGlaze, leans all the way into the juvenile bro jokes (polish names: “Butt Taco,” “Lesbihonest,” “Fuggen Ugly”) and decorates its bottles with busty ladies and skulls.
The anxiety behind all of it is almost palpable: You can be a man who paints his nails, they seem to be saying, but not one of those girly men. Topcoat may be strong, but masculinity is fragile.
“It’s kind of funny, because the more they’re selling themselves as being about intentionality and choice and new types of masculinity, the more traditional the color lines seem to be,” says Cáel Keegan, an assistant professor of gender studies at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, who added, with a hint of sarcasm: “Because no man should choose pink.”
In 2011, then-J. Crew designer Jenna Lyons produced an ad that showed her painting her son’s nails pink, prompting derision from Fox News’ Keith Ablow, who called it “psychological sterilization.” But these men’s nail polish lines stick to cis-masculine tropes: well-dressed dudes in suits or expensive sneakers. Manicures that don’t necessarily look professional.
“They’re not like, soft guys,” says Keegan. “These are active men, and their nail polish is chipped. And that’s attractive, right?”
The marketing messages nail polish brands send to men subtly convey “who can and who can’t safely engage with this nail polish” and “reinforce those very strict boundaries around masculinity,” says Ben Barry, an associate professor of diversity and inclusion in the fashion school at Toronto’s Ryerson University. “For queer men, many trans men, often nonbinary people, people of color — this play with the feminine or play with nail polish leads to much more significant social and physical consequences.”
When 18-year-old Trevor Wilkinson, a gay man in what he describes as the “very, very conservative” town of Clyde, Texas, walked into his high school with blue and green flames painted on his nails last December, he was promptly sent to the principal’s office. The school punished Wilkinson with an in-school suspension for violating its dress code, which permitted women to have painted nails but not men.
“I was sitting there crying, about to take my nail polish off. And then I was like, ‘You know what? No, I don’t want to do that,’” says Wilkinson. One of his friends “jokingly was like, ‘Hey, you should make a petition.’”
Wilkinson thought his Change.org petition would get maybe 100 signatures from his classmates, but it soon attracted the attention of local news channels, then “Good Morning America.” The American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ public interest legal organization, reached out to support Wilkinson. After three days, his suspension was revoked, and he was allowed to keep the polish on. In April, the school permanently changed its dress code to be gender-neutral regarding nail polish, makeup, jewelry and piercings.
Wilkinson was showered with nail polish from companies that heard his story, including Crete, and some asked him to be a brand influencer. But he’ll be pursuing a different line of work related to his experience.
“I do want to fight issues like this for people in my community and people like me,” he says. He’ll be attending Texas Tech in the fall and hopes to become a civil rights lawyer.
In liberal cities, Onwuachi suspects that men’s nail art will soon become as common as long hair or tattoos. Male makeup and nail art influencers command large audiences, and nail polish maker OPI created an ad campaign just for men in 2019 with a short film about men who paint their nails, encouraging others to “Mani-up.”
“In L.A., it’s pretty normal for men to have their nails polished,” says Onwuachi.
But Erdenejargal and Rahman — avid nail polish consumers — aren’t necessarily more inclined to buy nail polish aimed at male customers. There aren’t enough color choices, for one, and they don’t believe that nail polish should be male or female, to begin with.
“The nail carries no gender,” says Erdenejargal. “Color doesn’t have a gender. On my Instagram, I polish my nails bright, and all kinds of colors.”
Male polishes, Rahman says, are for scared nail polish novices. And that’s okay.
“I can empathize with the people who feel like this is right for them, because this is how they want to control how they want to be perceived,” he says, calling the polishes “training wheels.”
Onwuachi, too, suggests that polish-curious men start small.
“Do one pinky,” he says. “See how it feels.”
In the end, how it feels — not what other people think — is what’s important, says Lil Yachty.
“It’s for you,” he says, “not anyone else.”