Graphic by Vi
Summer break after my sophomore year of high school. It was the first time my parents left me home alone while they went on a trip. I was going to be alone for about a week, and on the first night, as curious teenagers do, I happened to stumble upon a bottle of whiskey in my fridge and thought, “Why not?” After feeling its warmth travel down my throat and make its way into the deepest parts of my head where the joyful fuzziness resides, something came over me. I filled my house with some of the most exuberant and flamboyant music in my Spotify library and blasted it so loud it drowned out every other sound that echoed through my house. It muffled my father’s so-called harmless jokes that reek of gross masculinity and homophobia, and my brother’s blatantly transphobic mockery of the woman who works at my favorite restaurant. None of that mattered anymore. The only things that mattered were me, the whiskey, and my favorite trio: Gaga, Florence, and Rihanna.
My clouded mind then led me to stumble into my parents’ bedroom, where I found a bottle of nail polish on my mother’s nightstand. The paint’s beauty stopped me right where I stood. It was a red so radiant and bright it seemed to resonate with a mystifying and elegant power; it looked exactly like how I had always imagined a love potion. I couldn’t resist. I drunkenly, and quite terribly if I might add, lathered my nails with the color and continued my dance party for one. It might seem insignificant or arbitrary to some, but to me, dancing with red-covered fingertips was one of the best feelings in the world. I felt so light and free; I felt like me. I had always admired the way my mom’s nails used to glisten and shine when she wore the color, and finally I knew what it was like. It felt similar to flying, like soaring above social norms and expectations and finally existing the way I always wanted to.
Flying became a regular thing for me. Every time I was left home alone the first thing I would do was turn on my favorite tunes, put on my favorite outfit my parents would always criticize, cover my nails in just about every color my mom kept in her medicine cabinet, and dance. I was so excited for when my parents would leave, but not because I wanted to throw a party like most of my friends at the time wanted me to do, but so I could just be. Even if it was only for a night, the feeling of simply existing in a space, my space, without any pressures from the outside world was euphoric. During those nights nothing was ever “too much,” “too girly,” or “too gay.” It was just right.
However, even these blissful nights of pure joy had to come to an end eventually.
The mornings after my nights of flying were both dismal and discouraging, yet somehow feelings of hope and liberation still lingered in the air. The impending return of my parents and the fear of their judgement and disapproval brought me to scrubbing off the color and watching it rub off onto pieces of cotton. Yet, even with the help of my mom’s nail polish remover, its overwhelming scent piercing my nose like an invasive reminder of my insecurities and fears, I could never get all the color off my nails. More like, I never tried that hard to get it off. The little smears of color that were left on my fingers reminded me that one day I would be able to leave the color on and wear it with pride. The practically unnoticeable dots of color on my cuticles and in the cracks around my nails were my way of telling myself that the feeling my nights of flying brought me did not have to end when my parents got home. Maybe it did for the time being, but very soon I would be free to be however I wanted, whenever I wanted. I would get the feeling back and finally let it stay for a while.
Since coming to college I have finally gained that little bit of autonomy that I needed, and with it, my nails have very rarely been without a little color. While I have been living on my own here at UCLA, I have discovered a new freedom of expression. I can now present myself in whatever way I want without much fear of what others might think. With this new freedom has also come a lot of questions. Questions about my identity, my gender, the way I want to express myself to others. My mind is constantly questioning my own actions and decisions, trying to unravel all of the lies and misconceptions that have been so deeply ingrained in me by my surroundings, in hopes of maybe finding my true authentic self. When I was in highschool, I always thought that as soon as I was on my own it would all make sense. I used to tell myself that as soon as I was free to express myself, I would finally know what being me really looked like and felt like; but it has not been that easy.
Freedom sometimes makes me feel guilty. I live in one of the most progressive and welcoming cities in the country, but yet I still get filled with anxiety every time I step out of my room wearing a little makeup, or my favorite pair of “girl’s pants” that flow behind me when I walk. Why do the judgmental glares of people I pass by on Bruin Walk still bother me? Why can’t I just ignore them and hold my head high and embrace my differences? Sometimes I can muster the courage to do these things, but other times the joy that they bring me do not overpower the anxieties… and that’s okay. I am learning that discovering yourself, especially as a queer person, is a very long process, and a quick change of scenery is not going to make it happen in a day. Yes, I might be in one of the most welcoming cities in the country, and for that I am very thankful, but that alone is not enough to drown out my own insecurities. In order to do that, I am going to have to work everyday at learning to accept and love myself as well as welcome and embrace my identity with open arms.
Painting my nails has become a crucial part of this process for me. The bright, colorful paints are the perfect balance of visibility and validation, without flooding my mind with worries of what others are thinking. It is subtle enough where I am not too overwhelmed or uncomfortable, but still enough to make me feel like my insides are one step closer to matching my outsides. Because of this, nail polish has become so much more than just paint to me. It has become a part of my identity; a part of what makes me, me. In this sense, that ruby red nail polish that I first covered my nails with really was like a love potion, but it was unlike any love potion I had ever imagined. Its magic empowered me to take my first step in discovering myself, and it embarked me on this journey of love and acceptance. With every nail I painted I started to fall in love, but not with the next person I saw. Instead, it was with someone I have always wanted to love but somehow have never had the courage to until then: me.