INSTAGLAM: the quiet gender revolution of Boys in Polish

Nail artist Jess Young is broadening the horizons of masculinity, one manicured finger at a time.

Throughout the 2010s, much was done to expand what it means to be a womxn but less was done to broaden definitions of masculinity. However, as we enter the 2020s things are beginning to shift. Not only are we having important conversations around male mental health but ideas around how men “should” look are changing for the better. Makeup, dresses and skirts, once thought of as exclusively feminine attire, are being embraced by more and more men. 

One person celebrating these changes is Jess Young, the creator of Instagram platform Boys in Polish. Combining her skills as a professional nail artist and photographer, she dedicates her page to helping men explore their feminine side through polish and documenting it on camera.

We caught up with Jess to talk about the rise of genderless beauty, A$AP Rocky’s role in popularising male nail polish and what she has planned next.

How did you get started with the project?

I started the project three years ago during my art foundation, and I was inspired by a friend I met who liked painting his nails. I thought it refreshing to see a boy embrace such a ‘feminine’ thing and make it appear masculine. It made me question why men feel like they can’t paint their nails and I wanted to make a radical statement by shooting my male friends at the time that summer, and so I began the project by shooting six of my friends and I wanted to showcase their individual personalities by allowing them to self-direct their own shoots and pick the nail art they wanted. 

How did Boys in Polish develop from there?

The project attracted the attention I wanted it to get, so I kept Boys in Polish as an ongoing series and over the years it has grown into an Instagram platform dedicated to the cause! One thing I should say is that I have learnt so much about the purpose of this project through shooting and meeting all kinds of guys around London, and how much it resonates with speaking out about toxic masculinity and the struggles that men go through. It’s more than a visual statement; it’s therapy, and a creative outlet.

Do you like experimenting with your own nails?

I love what I do, but I’m very much the same as the fashion designers who create amazing colourful and extravagant collections and then walk onto the catwalk at the end of their show wearing all black! Personally I dress quite minimal so like to keep my nails a single colour to match my outfits.

Do you think that beauty is becoming genderless?

Definitely and this is a great change happening in our generation. Beauty for me is more about feeling good rather than looking good but of course it’s both. It’s a self care ritual and we all need to make time to look after ourselves and feel beautiful. To assign that to a certain gender is stupid. We are seeing more men are wearing makeup and more guys are painting their nails which encourages me to keep doing what I am doing.

What do you see as the role that nails can play in gender expression?

Nail art is a creative and emotional outlet. The same way we pick the clothes out of our wardrobe we wear for the day, we can pick the design we want on our nails for the next few weeks. I could compare it to retail therapy but getting your nails done is more fulfilling because it comes with conversation and connection. It’s interesting to see how men view nail art differently to women. Although it’s great that men are still taking the step to get their nails done, I guess the deep-rooted aversion to standing out too much still plays out in their choice of nail art. Guys tend to go for a subtle look compared to girls who’re not afraid to go for louder, more colourful designs.

In particular, it seems to be rappers like A$AP Ferg and A$AP Rocky who are at the forefront of the nail art for men trend; why would you say this is?

I don’t know their intentions for painting their nails, but I think the media and society in general are always on the lookout for celebrities doing radical things, especially musicians. I think it’s great they are using their platforms to inspire men to just go for it and to open up about conversations around masculinity and identity.

Do you think there’s still a taboo about men experimenting with their nails?

Yes, but at least we are getting somewhere and for that I am happy. Three years ago it was hard for me to find a straight guy who enjoyed having his nails painted and now I have straight men in my clientele! I think then men who are reluctant to get their nails done are afraid of getting in touch with their femininity, though of course there are also guys who just don’t identify with it.

What are your future plans for Boys in Polish?

I would like to continue collaborating with brands and coming up with new concepts and I’ve just come back from doing a shoot in Australia, which is great as I always planned to take Boys in Polish international! I would like to do more of that and just want to continue spreading the message in interesting ways to a wider audience.

You can check out Boys in Polish on Instagram.

29 January 2020