Painting nails: The simple act that changed a man’s approach to masculinity

He realized he was trapped in "The Man Box."

Jennifter Lantigua / Flickr

Anyone who's ever done an ounce of soul-searching has probably wondered what it would be like to live as their true self. But who's this magical being we all have inside of us? Is it the person we've been raised to be?

Are we searching for an authentic self that hasn't been compromised by society's rigid roles cut out for us based on gender, age, country of origin, religion, race, or social status?


Is finding one's self a process of creating ourselves, as George Bernard Shaw said? Or can we get to our self by eliminating all the ways we've been compromised by socialization?

An anonymous writer for Uplift learned a profound lesson in self-actualization after letting his daughter paint his finger nails purple. What seemed like a simple act completely changed how he saw himself and how others related to him.

"I'm a middle age guy, yes I'm a more liberal type of person but painting my nails?! I couldn't possibly paint my nails, that's women's business!" he thought after his seven-year-old daughter made the hard-to-deny request that she paint his finger nails purple.

via Polished Man / Instagram

But he decided to go against his instincts and say yes after thinking about a 2010 TED Talk by Tony Porter entitled "A Call to Men." In the talk, Porter asks men to reflect on how they've been socialized to be violent and see women as "weak."

Porter ends his talk with a powerful call to action to men everywhere:

"I need you on board. I need you with me. I need you working with me and me working with you on how we raise our sons and teach them to be men — that it's okay to not be dominating, that it's okay to have feelings, and emotions, that it's okay to promote equality. That it's okay to have women who are just friends and that's it. That it's okay to be whole, that my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman."

Porter also added this powerful anecdote about a nine-year-old boy.

"I asked a nine-year-old boy, 'What would life be like for you, if you didn't have to adhere to this man box?' He said to me, 'I would be free.'"

The author further described his beliefs on the The Man Box.

"The Man Box culture dictates that boys are taught to be emotionally reserved, brave, stoic and competitive. Those qualities seen as more feminine such as expressing emotions, crying or being vulnerable are typically discouraged. The rules are blindly enforced, with those who do not toe the line, often being labelled as 'soft,' 'gay' or are scolded, 'not to be a girl.'"

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When the author first went out in public with his nails painted purple it was like a a mini social experiment. Women uniformly greeted him with positivity. "Morning, ah wow, I love your nails!" the barista at his local coffee shop exclaimed.

Other women said that nails matched his outfit or that "it's great to see a man with painted nails."

The reaction he received from men was similarly uniform, but decidedly negative.

The author received a "silent appraisal at best, but mostly a look of startled confusion," he wrote. "The confusion that, here's a man, a generally 'normal' manly looking man who's not doing what our culture expects a 'normal' man to do. I had unwittingly challenged the rules of The Man Box. I was intrigued."

His painted nails experiment was the catalyst for a deep inner journey of questioning masculinity.

"Obviously, it has taken time to go through the inner process of slowly deconstructing my learned beliefs of what it means to be a man. This has been an evolution rather than a revolution. As I slowly chipped away, it astounded me just how much I sold myself short. For years I excelled at playing the stoic and reserved male. I literally could not cry and saw this as a good thing. I hated dancing, frowned at overly public displays of affection or vulnerability, and tried my hardest to look like a 'normal' guy.

But underneath this public facade, I was angry and felt very much out of step with the world, not to mention light years away from my authentic self. I would project this anger on to people around me, especially the women in my life, as if it was somehow their fault. I wallowed in being the victim, not realizing I was perpetuating the causes of my own suffering."

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The author then joined a man's group where they learn to be vulnerable and learn how to be outwardly gentle and compassionate.

After putting all this work into himself, he feels he can interact with the other men authentically. "First, simply as a human being and secondly, as my own version of a man. I recognize that I have ultimate sovereignty and responsibility for myself."

Part of becoming our true selves is finding our own ways of authentically expressing our gender. As the author notes, that all begins with realizing we're all in a box. But that box can easily be opened. It our choice to take the first step out.

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Jim and Carol lived an active, exciting life together as husband and wife. But when Jim was struck by a car while cycling near his home, their life changed dramatically. Jim was left needing round-the-clock care, and Carol, a retired nurse, took on the role of caregiver.

Every day, Carol helps Jim through his physical therapy and personal grooming routines. "If we don't do what we do on a daily basis to help him move forward, he'll become more and more dependent," Carol says. "Some days the challenges are very difficult."

More than 40 million Americans are in Carol's shoes, providing unpaid caregiving to loved ones who are disabled, elderly, or otherwise in need of assistance. With baby boomers getting older and people living longer, many middle-aged people find themselves caring for aging parents or grandparents. Others may have a developmentally delayed adult child at home, or a family member who has become disabled due to an accident or illness. From cooking to cleaning to bathing, caregivers help others do everyday tasks they aren't able to do for themselves.

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"My mother got us matching shirts when we were in high school – well, I picked them out — and we've been matching ever since," Rosemary told CBS Sacramento.

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Today, I'm a 35-year-old man with a flame shaved into my beard. If the '80s movies I love so much are any indication, this is a sure sign I'm going through some kind of existential crisis. Next week, when the semester starts and I begin teaching again, it will not be strange if my colleagues start to worry about me just a little. A sports car or a neck-jerking pivot to physical fitness — that's an understandable response to the realization that life is fleeting. But a large meticulous flame carved out of facial hair? What does one do with that?

At this moment, though, I'm showing my face proudly to a woman wearing a swimsuit with a taco cat on it. We have only recently met, but she's telling me that she's so into my "fade" that she wants to kiss it. Then she does, blowing a raspberry into my cheek so hard that her hat falls off. Neither of us can stop laughing.

"Live Mas!" she yells with the excitement of someone who's never had trouble fully seizing the moment.

"Live Mas!" I shout back without any irony. There is no irony here in Palm Springs, where, for four days only, hundreds of people celebrate their love for Taco Bell.

Here, there's only swimming and hot sauce-themed leisure wear, and the warm pleasant feeling that comes from eating too much and knowing that you're with your own people. Even if the only thing that connects you is a love for a fast food giant that feeds you when you're hammered and shameless at 2 a.m.

We drank the Baja Blast! My Taco Bell fade and my friend's specialty manicure!Mark Shrayber

What does it mean to Live Mas? This is a question I am forced to ask myself over and over during my 24-hour stay at "The Bell," where I have stowed away as a friend's plus-one. We are, of course, both politely pretending that I'm a full-on guest with all the perks that entails, but we also both know that I wouldn't be here eating unlimited quesadillas poolside without her.

So maybe that's the first thing Live Mas means: To build strong lifelong connections which you can, with some luck, exploit to your benefit. :) :) :)

But this is too cynical an interpretation, because everyone here is so happy. Happy that they've gotten a reservation; happy that they can cool off in a room themed after an iconic Mountain Dew Drink, and happy that they can share their own personal story of what Taco Bell means to them. (Though there's no formal essay contest — I've checked.)

Me: This room won't be that cool. Also me: OH MY GOD, THIS IS THE COOLEST ROOM I'VE EVER BEEN IN!!!Mark Shrayber

Snatches of this story float around the "Fire" pool, where all the entertainment is concentrated: One couple canceled their trip to Prague because "Prague will always be there" — a brave stance considering climate change; another met last year on Tinder after the girlfriend's Taco Bell senior photos went viral; at the opening ceremony on Thursday, where sauce packets were cut instead of a ribbon, a city official brought others to tears with both her Taco Bell fashion and a memory of how her parents would feed an entire family with 19-cent-tacos from the first-ever Taco Bell in Downey, California.

Oh, I forgot one: The guy who skipped out on Prague? He got a giant bell shaved into the side of his head, so he might have to miss out on a black-tie event happening later this week. But it's all good. Bring on the nacho fries.

I make fast friends with four women who are here for a bachelorette party, the bride overwhelmed with good vibes and prosecco. This year, for her 30th, she rented a party bus. Inside? $100 worth of Taco Bell that her fiancee was worried might not be consumed.

"But little did he know," she shouts in the hot tub where we're "cooling off" after a long day of 108-degree sunning, "we ate it all!"

A bachelorette party and a birthday! We're really living it up (but also staying hydrated.)Mark Shrayber

Others whoop it up at the twist, but we all get it. Though there's no essay contest, I don't mind telling you that when my first boyfriend dumped me 14 years ago, I stuffed my face with chalupas. When I lost a job I really loved four years ago, I once ordered so much Taco Bell that the delivery app of my choice informed me I'd exceeded the maximum number of items they could comfortably fill in one order. We get it — though none of us can truly explain it.

There are, if you look at the The Bell from a literary perspective, many other writers who deserve this experience more than me. They could talk about the blue of the pool. Or the insouciance of youth. Draw parallels between marketing stunts such as this and the end-stage capitalism. Or envision a "Demolition Man" future where Taco Bell is fine dining and none of us know how to use the three shells in the bathroom to get ourselves clean.

And I wish these writers could be here to paint you these landscapes, but what you've got is me, a literal Taco Bell super-fan, and what I'm doing is eating and getting sunburned and taking a synchronized swimming class with the Aqualillies, who refer to themselves as "the world's most glamorous water ballet entertainment," but have very little idea of what to do with 10 eager recruits who can't stay afloat or on beat.


G-L-A-M-O-R-O-U-S!!Photo courtesy of Taco Bell.

"It's okay," one of the instructors comforts me just before the Tacolilies (the name of our "team") are invited to perform our watery version of "Senorita" — which was supposed to be two minutes long, then 1:15, and has now been judiciously cut down, due to talent, to about 45 seconds — in the bigger pool. "We regularly teach five-year-olds. And you're doing much better."

Usually, I would take offense at such blatant reads, but today I'm unbothered. I'll continue to be so right until I get home and discover that I've left all my electronics on United Flight 5223 (if anyone wants to get them back to me). And even then, I rage at myself for all of five seconds before checking that I've still got what's important: A certificate that says I did not drown while doing water ballet.

It's still there. As is my phone, which is blowing up with messages from people who took pictures of me in what Taco Bell calls its "power suit," and which is best described as "cult outfit, but kinda make it fashion." I bought my husband one, too, and I look forward to the argument we're going to have about holiday cards later.

This is "Live Mas."

I've never been so happy to match with someone else in my life. MaMark Shrayber

Or maybe it's the moment another stranger tells me that we'll be friends forever. Such friendships are forged quickly when you've got less than 24 hours to make lifelong connections and I'm pleased to get the full experience.

"We may never meet again," he says while we're swimming, "but we'll always have this time together."

Then we establish that he lives just across the park from me in San Francisco.

"Aw, man," he says, floating away to take pictures of the people he came with, "I've got lots of close friends I never see because they live across that damn park."

But the sentiment holds.

We Live Mas it on.

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