Fashion and beauty trends are constantly shifting, fading out and making a comeback. One of the latest is men getting comfortable with wearing nail polish; a beauty standard that is mainly attributed to femininity. Behind this evolution are liberal millennials and Gen Z who have been the vanguard of bending beauty stereotypes, creating unconventional beauty approaches and resuscitating early 2000s beauty trends and aesthetics.
While this might feel like a new concept for some, it used to be normal for men to polish their nails. During 3200 B.C., soldiers in Babylonia devoted hours to styling their hair and getting their nails done and polished before heading out to fight. The nail colour represented their class. For instance, darker nail colour denoted a higher rank while brighter nail colour indicated a lesser rank. It’s believed that in 3000 B.C., the Chinese applied nail paint to distinguish class from the bloodline. In Egypt, men wore nail polish to show their status irrespective of their class.
Men wearing nail polish can also be traced back to the 80s when television served as a window to diverse artists and cultures from different parts of the world. Luminary artists like David Bowie and Prince donned wigs, makeup and polished nails. In punk culture, black polished nails represented a community and eventually, subcultures like goth and hard rock reinvented the meaning behind nail paint. Over time, this beauty ritual has transcended music and can be seen in Japanese anime like Naruto and Hunter x Hunter.
Nigerian Men Wearing Nail Polish: Self-expression Or A Statement?
In Nigeria, which is heavily influenced by the West, this trend is slowly becoming a thing. Nigerian Pop Punk and Rock artist, Deathshouldrest got the idea to paint his nails from the things he saw on TV. “We were the kids our parents left in front of the television to go to work. We saw that there’s more to the world than what we saw,” he recounts. As an adult, he is inspired by Tyler The Creator to continue wearing nail polish. He tells me, “I have always been a fashion nigga. I have always been fashion-inclined. I started painting my nails when I saw Tyler The Creator painting his because it just felt right”.
Hip Hop artist and web designer, Shinx started polishing his toenails for a different reason. A few months ago, he allowed his partner to paint his toenails and that was it. “I started about 3 months ago. My shawty was bored and suggested she make my nails so I let her,” he says.
For non-binary Emeka, the decision behind polishing their nails is all about personal style. According to them, “I personally wanted to express my style in ways that were considered unconventionally masculine and one of those was through painting my nails. I started with clear nail polish because it was hard to clock that it was there”.
Regardless of the reasons, the concept of men wearing nail polish in a country like ours, where homophobia thrives, is mostly accepted by a specific group who are predominantly young or part of the Alte crowd. As a result, a Nigerian masculine-presenting person choosing to do something associated with women often has to deal with the queer label, coupled with mortifying attention, expressions and interrogations. A lot of Nigerian guys find it is almost impossible to disassociate nail polish from queerness or femininity.
Deathshouldrest faced this issue with his family as his mum immediately assumed he was gay while his dad ignored him. In public, people would stare at him in confusion and disgust. The facial expressions he got were enough to let him know that they were questioning his sexual identity. In his words, “My mum thought I was gay but later she accepted it as just fashion. I am a very stubborn person because I do what I want so she let me be when she saw that I didn’t give a fuck. My dad is a naval officer and he is educated. He saw it and acted like he didn’t see it.”
Despite the reactions, the pop-punk and rock artist intends to keep wearing nail polish, wigs, and makeup saying, “Of course, I am going to rock makeup, I’m going to paint my nails, I’m going to rock wigs”.
Hip Hop artist and web designer, Shinx can relate to people questioning his sexuality for choosing to wear nail polish. His mum also did not approve because she thought the act was reserved for gay people. On the reactions from family and strangers, he says, “My mum immediately didn’t like it. She said it was for gay people. I also get questions from random strangers asking, ‘why did you paint your nails?’ ‘Are u gay?’ Or they just stare at my toes and stare at my face like ‘is that guy gay?’”
However, Emeka believes queer people are the mastermind behind straight men painting their nails. For them, basic beauty norms like nail polish provide people with the avenue to uncover their sexuality and queerness. Explaining themselves, they say;
“Polishing nails is one of the ways queer people can express sexuality and queerness but more straight men are loosening up and getting into it, because other straight men they respect have validated the idea that it’s cool for straight men. Cishet or straight men are getting into the culture with just black paint because it’s still masculine, it still connotes seriousness and it’s not girly or feminine or queer-presenting like pink or yellow because of the alte scene and new modern age Afro pop artists. But they don’t realize that the reason why those people consider it cool is because their stylists are queer people who have disasssociated from typical orthodox roles and traits or ideas of what is appropriate normal for men, women and non-binary.”
While Emeka’s views might represent some fraction of the public, more masculine-presenting people continue to adopt fashion and beauty trends that used to be considered gay or eccentric with the ongoing discussions on gender dynamics and identities. Currently, male artists are commonly spotted with manicured nails, especially in black colour. This trend has moved from talented alte artists like Cruel Santino and Odunsi to mainstream Afrobeats stars like Peruzzi, Ckay and Fireboy. On the international scene, we have seen artists like Jaden Smith, Lil Nas X, A$AP Rocky and Tyler The Creator wear nail polish.
With these popular names joining the movement of men wearing nail polish, others including their fans are adopting the trend too. This plain gesture of a masculine-presenting celebrity in public wearing nail polish is gradually helping to brush off the stigma attached to the act and create a massive shift in the culture.
“I’ve seen some artists paint their nails too and I find it to be a fashion statement amongst the newer generation of creatives aka alté kids which I identify as. So, I preferred them painted. Just the big toes though,” says Shinx.
As more popular masculine-presenting and gender-accepting celebrities embrace beauty norms (nails, makeup, hair etc) typically associated with women, more people are starting to accept the fact that men wearing nail polish don’t have to be tied to gender identities or sexuality.