Growing Up Female: The Tale of the Teen Who Dared to Paint Her Nails


My name is Katie, and my pronouns are she, her, and hers. But there was a time when I wasn’t so sure about that. Not that I thought I wasn’t a girl, but I didn’t fit what a girl was “supposed to be.”


I have always known I was a girl. However, growing up female in the 90s, there were not many variations on socially acceptable ways to be a girl. Being a teen in the early 2000s, if you weren’t wearing the tightest hip hugger jeans and have the swoopiest side bangs, you were probably doing it wrong. For me, the outward expression of my gender never felt like it fit the ideal perfectly, and I am glad that society is expanding its idea of what it means to be a girl, even if the expansion is happening at a glacial pace.

I can remember vivid details about the first time someone questioned how I presented my gender. The year was 2003 and I was 16 years old. A friend and I were in the Rutland High School library, working on papers for our English class. The tables were long and partitioned into individual desks, each of which held a large, gray, desktop computer. The windows were about two stories tall and it was a sunny day. I was there with a friend, who said to me in a tone filled with shock and mockery,

Did you paint your nails?

Yes, I did paint my fingernails. But I lied and said my mom made me do it for some fancy family dinner. This was a big, fat lie because I painted my nails because I felt like it and wanted to try something new. And my mother would never have made me paint my nails, especially for fancy dinners that we didn’t have. I painted my nails because for pretty much the first time as a teen, I wanted to be shiny and be seen.

This comment from my friend was not entirely out of line, regardless of how uncomfortable it made me. You see, I have always had a touch of the traditionally masculine in my clothing choices. I identified as a girl, but my interests were polarizing, neither swaying traditionally “male” nor “female.” As a teen, I detested anything pink, wore cargo shorts, and kept my hair relatively short. I could be seen wearing baggy clothes one day and a short denim skirt the next. I also spent hours each day in a ballet studio, from an early age loved the Disney princesses and the very idea of being in love, and drove a magenta car.

Growing up female, I longed to be a strong, independent feminist, but it would be another decade before I learned that feminism comes in many forms. I had to learn that I could believe in equal rights for women, while also enjoying a good day at the salon. Now I know for a fact that being a feminist has nothing to do with the clothes you wear.

I have unpacked a lot of this in therapy. I can tell you that hiding my body in oversized men’s clothing was a defense against body shaming and a fear of rejection. Growing up female, from a very young age I learned that the less of my body that people saw, the less they would have to comment on. I was always uncomfortable in my body and wanted to make myself appear as small as possible. I did this by hiding it. I couldn’t hide my body in the dance studio, but it didn’t matter, because none of us could. But everywhere else, I hid. I hid my body in oversized shirts and baggy shorts. I hid my freckles and acne behind the biggest sunglasses I could find. My hope was that if I hid enough, people couldn’t comment on my appearance, or reject me because of it. But, always a true contradiction, I also really liked the way I looked in those cargo shorts.

By trying to avoid people commenting on the size of my body, I created a self-image I saw as neutral. That day I decided to paint my fingernails with clear nail polish and put on some mascara was a big day for my friends. It was also a big day for me.

After that day, little by little (and it took me about 10 years) I came into my own self. I found the perfect (for me) combination of comfort and glamour that feels just right. I landed slightly on the girly side of neutral, and it feels good here.

Woman using a nail gun

Over the years I have become more comfortable with experimenting with fashion and beauty as a form of expression. As it turns out, I really love a bold, red lip and floral prints. I also still really like a good pair of men’s jeans and oversized band t-shirts. I like bad reality television (has anyone seen the train wreck of a season that is the Bachelorette right now?) but I also like renovation and construction work. I think that these seemingly polarizing pieces of me make me a complex and interesting human being. I am more than okay with not being a “traditional girl.”

Also, I should note that as a cis white person, I had a lot of space and privilege to experiment. This privilege is not extended to far too many young people out there, and as a society, we need to do better by them and provide the space for each and every one of us to come into our own. Adults, I urge you to do this by celebrating the children, teens, and young adults in your life, exactly they are, without projecting expectations on them. Let them decide who they are, give space for that to change, and create ground for them to grow in.

At almost 34 years old, I am finally comfortable with not fitting into the traditional idea of what it means to be a woman. I wish I could go back and tell tween and teenaged me to hang tight. I would tell tiny me to experiment with my outward appearance unapologetically because someday, I would find my sweet spot and find comfort in not entirely fitting the norm.

cheetah in a cage

If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend reading or listening to “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle. While at times it can be heavy-handed, it was an uplifting listen. Glennon’s memoir-style book is filled with rich quotes about everything from parenthood to love and she speaks a lot about what it’s like growing up female in the USA.

One of my favorite chapters is the very beginning, where she talks about Tabitha the cheetah. After performing her tricks for a crowd, the cheetah goes back to stalking the perimeter of her cage. While she was born in captivity, she can’t deny her wildness. Glennon pushes the metaphor and goes on to say that amazing things can happen when we recognize our cage, and then work like hell to never be put in it again.

That’s what happened the day I tried on the nail polish. I was taking a step outside of my cage.

Earlier this year, I made a resolution to model compassion and kindness, and one of the ways I do that is by letting my children be themselves freely, without any expectations to have certain preferences or characteristics. My wish for my children is that they never feel the need to hide their true selves from me or their dad, or from their peers, or from society in general. I hope that growing up female, they don’t hide their bodies behind clothing or their opinions behind societal pressure to be “good girls.” I hope that they feel comfortable experimenting with many forms of self-expression and that no one gives them flack on the day they try something new. I hope that when they do experiment, they are met with cheers and applause and never spend a day sitting on their hands, hiding their shiny nails because change makes other people uncomfortable.

Wear the cargo shorts, girls. Paint your nails and then hang drywall. Shut the cage door behind you and don’t ever look back.

Growing Up Female: The Tale of the Teen Who Dared to Paint Her Nails


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