On Nail Polish and Looming Trivialities

This didn’t go in yesterday’s post because I only saw it the once, but while we’re on the topic of the terrible arguments that happen when cis feminists insist on using trans people as their springboard for gender theorizing, let’s talk about this:

Bruce Jenner told Ms. Sawyer that what he looked forward to most in his transition was the chance to wear nail polish, not for a furtive, fugitive instant, but until it chips off. I want that for Bruce, now Caitlyn, too. But I also want her to remember: Nail polish does not a woman make.

That’s from that horrible New York Times article that I don’t feel like linking again. Instead, have a link to a piece by a trans man who does a good job of bringing many of the assumptions buried in that article to light.

Why is this argument bad? You don’t have to understand biology or sociology to know. You don’t have to be familiar with political arguments. Frankly, you just have to be a storyteller. Or listen to a storyteller.

The women of Wales came in for special commendation for their work, with Bangor Women’s Patriotic Guild branching out to make mosquito nets and and sunshields for soldiers in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Above all else, women knitted socks; some of them unusual in size and shape.

In the sodden mud of the trenches, on long marches, or even bogged down in training camps, soldiers found clean, dry socks to be a luxury.

They weren’t equating clean socks with peace.

They say it kicks in about 2-3 months after you move abroad. The excitement and newness of where you are wears off. You are hit with the revelation that you aren’t on vacation, but that this really is you’re life. “It won’t happen to me,” I thought. Alas, it hit me almost as hard as John Bonham could hit the drums. When I look back now, with a rational mind, I know it was inevitable that I would feel something other than 100% bliss. But at the time, I just pushed all those feelings to the back of my brain. “I am so lucky,” repeat, repeat….I have no right to feel anything but happy.

One day I couldn’t push the feeling away anymore and I remember rushing home after work because I could feel the tears. The moment I opened the door to my apartment my face flooded. I collapsed on my sofa, put on music and just let myself cry. I cried until the tears stopped, but still, I felt no better. The following 2 weeks weren’t easy. I was homesick, end of story. I wanted a DD iced coffee. I wanted a cheeseburger (I’m a vegetarian.)

She isn’t telling us that New York City is defined by iced coffee and cheeseburgers.

“I miss him so much Sal. I miss his smile, his laugh, I miss his stupid jokes. I miss how he kept telling me to ‘grow up sis and act your age.’ Oh, that used to irritate me so much when he said that…now I would give anything to hear it again. Just the every day things you know?”

She doesn’t miss him because he told stupid jokes and tried to make her act differently.

Clean socks became a luxury because war made them difficult to get. Coffee and cheeseburgers represented home because they were concrete experiences she was denied in China. Being irritated by someone became desirable when everything that person had done and been was out of reach.

Wearing nail polish becomes a dream when it’s a denied act, when it’s dangerous. It’s one triviality that looms disproportionately large in a broader scenario of deprivation. It becomes important precisely because it’s small, graspable, comprehendible by a mind that doesn’t have the resources to deal with the whole situation at once. It becomes a metaphor, not for everything that is lacking in a person’s life, but for being able to control one’s own circumstances again.

It is incredibly human, characteristic of a human being in distress. And if we put that person’s humanity first in our minds, it’s very easy to see.

On Nail Polish and Looming Trivialities

7 thoughts on “On Nail Polish and Looming Trivialities

  1. 1

    Maybe the TERFs need to have the implied “… in public without taking shit for it” that follows the “able to” and “chance to” stated explicitly every time? Maybe somebody could make browser extensions to do that. And a virus to install it on TERFs’ computers, since they’d probably just move on to some other spurious excuse to keep the first two or three letters of the acronym rather than having a coherent version of feminism…

  2. 4

    Wearing nail polish becomes a dream when it’s a denied act, when it’s dangerous. It’s one triviality that looms disproportionately large in a broader scenario of deprivation.

    Oh, yes. It’s not “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, it’s more “death by a thousand cuts” What looks like one little thing to those uninvolved can be a major or even torturous frustration to those affected, like a single glass of water kept just out of reach of someone in a hot box.

    When a problem is always there and a person can do nothing to solve it, it can be maddening, especially when it could be easily solved with the right help or resources.

  3. 5

    Wow, I hadn’t thought of it like that in such concrete terms, but I think you’re quite right. I’ve often asked myself why wearing a skirt or dress was so important to me. I mean, I know the gender association is constructed and in other cultures it might not be coded feminine. I know a good amount of gender theory and all that. But still I’m left with the experience of seeing myself in the mirror and suddenly being seen.

    Part of it is, I think, that I grew up in this society and like other young women that grew up in my culture, I internalized the same bullshit. How I feel about myself is all tied up in the expectations of others and how I fit in. I also think you’re right about grasping at smaller attainable things. I suspect most women go through some version of that growing up, it’s just the denial (from within or without) isn’t usually as sustained.

  4. 7

    This is incisive, and a clarifying way of framing it. Thank you, Stephanie! I’m going to steal it. 🙂

    It misses one aspect, though, which it’s probably easy for people who’ve never been in the closet (no idea if that applies to Stephanie) to miss: She didn’t say she was looking forward to wearing nail polish; she said she was looking forward to wearing it long enough that it chipped off.

    Which is a storytelling way of saying that, having transitioned publicly, she would no longer have to hide, by daily erasing all signs of her forbidden femininity.


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