“Can I ask why you’re wearing black nail polish?” I turned to see one of my advisees, a member of the Middle School Rock Band, walking toward me as we prepared for dress rehearsal for a show. “Sure, I said, “In order to make people think about why I’m doing it.” She burst into laughter, and said, “You’re the only person I know who would answer that question in that way.”
There are other reasons too, of course, several of which I’ve written about here before. Solidarity with my students in showing that I value the feminine. Breaking gender stereotypes and supporting other people who do the same. Ensuring my nail polish does not clash with my skin tone (granted, that’s mostly about the colour). And, as I have noted to those of my students who share a love of black nail polish, because I just like the way it looks on me. It took me quite a while to realize that, as I had to break a few internal gender stereotypes of my own. But I do.
I remember five years ago, sitting with a group of students and female faculty members having a “Day of Awareness” discussion on a gender-related issue, when one of the women turned to me and said, “Well, Bill’s here. Bill, what is the male perspective on that?” After a moment, I said, with maybe just a slight wavering of my voice, “I have no idea what ‘the male perspective’ is, but I can tell you what I think.” In so doing, I anticipated my current Humanities 7 students’ personal definitions in response to the question “What is a girl?” Ultimately, the majority (if not all!) of them felt that anyone who identifies as a girl gets to decide for herself what that means for her. My own sense of self was similarly unique to who I am and had (and still has) nothing to do with how anyone else identifies.
Six or seven years back, when my hair began thinning on the back of my head, my stepfather remarked on it and asked me if I’d have to cut off my ponytail one day and, if so, if I’d have to change my personality. The question struck me as both odd and insightful, and took me back several years before then when I’d told a colleague I had made an appointment to get a haircut. She said, genuinely alarmed, “But you’re not cutting off your ponytail!” No, I told her, just a trim, wondering why she’d care that much. I can only guess that, for both my stepfather and my colleague, there was something about my long hair that symbolized my way of being. Many of my virtual friends have told me that my online persona seems feminine to them. I’ve even had people tell me face to face, “Sometimes, I forget you’re a man.” And I can happily live with that, with people looking beyond gender to who other people really are deep down. In fact, my own search for identity has been largely shaped by my continual efforts to look past gender to my true authentic self, and my gender expression has reflected that ongoing search in the context of a heavily gendered culture.
To me, then, the whole concept of gender is ambiguous, individual, and personal. For some, a fixed, binary vision works perfectly well, and more power to them. For others, not so much, and more power to them as well. So what if we all were granted the sole power to determine our own gender identity, and other people simply respected that? It’s crazy, but it just might work.
If my own personality is a blend of what society currently calls feminine and masculine, along with other traits that don’t necessarily fall specifically into either gender box, so be it. And if my appearance - hair, nail polish, and the occasional skirt included - reflects that blurring of traditional concepts of gender, so be it. I am not female, though I am (conventionally) feminine in many ways. So I’m not (conventionally) masculine either. Except when I am. Which makes me... just... me. Husband, father, son, brother, son-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, nephew. Cousin, friend. Teacher, adviser, colleague. Person.
Those who see me around but don’t know me may nonetheless find their conceptions about gender stretched, and as a gender activist, I’m all over that. And those who do know me may take the combination of my appearance and my way of being as a means of reflecting on not just what gender means in our society and what they think about that but also on how we each ultimately determine our own gender identities and gender expressions. And I’m all over that as well.
How we conceive of the idea of gender identity was one of the questions Ms. Durrett’s sophomore English class wanted to discuss with my Humanities 7 students when we met near the end of Fall Term. While we didn’t quite get to it, not directly anyway, having gotten deeply involved in the topics of feminism, girls schools, and sports culture, both classes wanted to get back together for more discussion. When we do, I’ll be fascinated to see what they have to say.
And maybe, as my own contribution to the discussion... I’ll wear black nail polish.