Sometimes if I close my eyes I can picture myself in my mom’s red kitten heel shoes as I danced around the kitchen to Celine Dion. I’d pretend I was a figure skater and twirl my body until I grew dizzy and the clock struck 4:45 p.m. I’d take off her gray shawl and put her heels in the back of the closet next to her belts. I’d mute Celine on the stereo and plop myself down in front of the television. By the time 5:10 rolled around and her car pulled into the driveway I was passively watching The Disney Channel like nothing had happened.
I began my fascination with beauty at a young age. Even before I was 10, I’d try on my mom’s heels while staring at myself in the mirror. I knew that I wanted to look as muscular and handsome as John Stamos in Full House. The gap between my two front teeth and the way I held my body made me an easy target for the other boys to make fun of me. Not only was I the “gay” kid in class, I was also the “ugly” kid in class. I’d go home and stare at myself in the mirror and think one day I’ll be beautiful.
When my sister and mom started getting pedicures together I was jealous. I wanted to go with them, but my mom would rebuff my suggestion. “It’s a girls’ day, Shawn,” she’d tell me. My dad would try to make up for it for taking me out for a drive in one of the many fancy cars he had adopted as projects, but it never felt as fulfilling as the daydreams I had of sitting in a chair getting my nails done.
As I began to grow up and get more accustomed to my body, I still was striving to feel beautiful. I’d work out, sometimes deny myself food, and get my eyebrows done and hair cut every three weeks. The aesthetic I was trying to project to the world, however, was not how I felt on the inside. I still was searching for some sort of reminder that I was handsome, that I was someone to be desired. Perhaps this stemmed from trying to understand my place in this world as a gay man. Perhaps it was because I thought in order to be loved I needed to look good.
This past week my mom suggested we get our toes done together. My sister has since moved out and it was clear my mom needed company on her luxury excursion to the local nail salon. Finally, my moment had come. Sure, I probably could’ve gone at some point on my own—but it meant so much more to me to go with my mom. I had come out to her about two years ago and it was a testament to how far she’s come since that moment.
When we sat down to get our toes done I suggested that I was just going to get clear polish on my nails. “Get a color,” she said, “go for it.” With her approval I opted for a pale blue that’s still on my toes as I write this. Sure, I feel slightly awkward when I walk my dog in the morning in my flip-flops and the neighborhood children stare at my feet, but I wear these nails like a badge of honor. My mother letting go of all the gender expectations made me feel even more at peace with myself. For a moment I felt like that little boy again dancing around to Celine Dion, only this time I didn’t want to feel beautiful; my mother’s growth in the way she viewed me confirmed that I am.
—Follow Shawn Binder on Twitter: @ShawnBinder