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  • Stephen G. Krueger

Nail polish and gender euphoria

This afternoon, I took a few minutes to touch up my nail polish. I’m not particularly good at it yet; there are edges that could be smoother and blotches on the skin that will probably stay until I do the dishes tonight. That’s fine, especially now, when nobody will see it unless I get particularly enthusiastic in a Zoom meeting. That’s actually kind of the question: Nobody will see it, so why am I bothering?

I would say that I’ve always put a lot of thought into my presentation and how it relates to my gender, but I actually haven’t. For a while before and after what I used to think of as my transition and now think of as the time I started taking testosterone, I tried very hard to look like A Man. At the time, I had a vague idea of what that meant: I was trying to pass, to reach a point where people called me “him” without prompting. This wasn’t too difficult, relatively speaking. I’ve always been tall and flat-chested, and I’d been hearing “This is the ladies’ room” for a decade before I fully identified as male. Button-downs did most of the work, and after a few months, facial hair and a voice change did the rest. I didn’t spend a lot of time analyzing how I felt about my presentation because passing was the only thing that mattered.

I remember a moment, several months pre-hormones, when something clicked. I looked at the short-haired, plaid-clad man in my bathroom mirror and thought, Oh. It’s you. I think this sensation is what is called gender euphoria. The opposite of gender dysphoria (the feeling of wrongness, of disconnect between body and self), this is the sense of rightness, of connection between who you are and the person in the mirror. I didn’t know the term at the time, but I think that moment of recognition was the closest I’d then come to gender euphoria.

By the time I finished grad school, it was all done: name change, hormone levels set (as long as I do my weekly injection for the rest of my life), a wardrobe entirely from the men’s section. Going by a whole lot of fictionalized trans narratives, that should have been it. I had switched, woman to man, and that part was over.

Except that now, I wear nail polish every day (unless I’m going to visit my parents, but that’s a topic for another post), eyeliner as often as not, and more jewelry than ever before. I have the stereotypical queer conflicting desire to buzz my hair and also to grow it very long and dye it purple. My work shirts have unicorns or peacock feathers, and I love a good high-heeled boot. This is all new: before I transitioned, I hated my hair long, and the few times I’d worn makeup had triggered the powerful dysphoria I’d ever experienced (though I didn’t recognize it as such at the time). I still unquestionably identify as male, and I don’t think of any elements of my current presentation as drag. Nail polish and heels and all, it is part of a male presentation because I am male and this is how I like to look. Eddie Izzard said it perfectly: “They’re not women’s clothes. They’re my clothes. I bought them.”

For years, I was fascinated by people like Eddie and Adam Lambert and Johnny Weir. I could never place why, but now I finally have: their brand of masculinity is what gives me gender euphoria. This doesn’t mean that what I felt that first time wasn’t just as euphoric: then, what I desperately needed was to be seen as male rather than female, so that was what clicked. Pre-hormones, many elements of my current presentation would have felt and read as feminine. Now, with my beard and voice removing the risk of misgendering, I’m no longer fighting for basic recognition and safety. When I wear makeup, it’s my interpretation of masculinity, not an acknowledgement of my womanhood.

So back to the original question: Why do I bother touching up my nail polish (Abundance by ILNP, if anyone is wondering) on a day when nobody but my cats is likely to see it?

For me, gender euphoria isn’t how other people perceive me, though this wasn’t always the case. What with social isolation, I could easily go days or weeks with the most effort I put into my appearance being a button-down for an important Zoom meeting. But when that happens, I start to lose myself. More than a few times, I’ve put on eyeliner for the first time in days and looked in the mirror to find the same sense of joyful recognition that I did years ago: Oh. It’s you.

Possibly for the first time in my life, I feel fully in control of my own presentation. When I take the time to turn the person in the mirror into someone I recognize, I feel the difference in my mood and self-confidence and energy level. Alone in my apartment, I know that none of it is for anyone else. Perhaps that’s the second part of that moment of recognition: It’s you. I like you.

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