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

Photo: Jason DeCrow for United Nations Foundation

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