A Mars – Venus View on Polishing

Differences in How Men and Women Choose to Shine


Polishing is Not Just for Appearance

The whole idea of “polishing” oneself is an interesting concept. It is, of course, about more than appearance. There is a phycological and social aspect to this as well. More on that a bit later, but for now, just keep in mind that people go to varying levels of effort to polish their appearance for a lot of reasons, most of them perfectly fine.

Much of the rest of this posting will address men and women as separate groups. That is largely valid in the context of polishing, but I acknowledge up front this is not always the case. Some men get manicures these days, unheard of for the most part in earlier times. Some women have no interest in things like nail polish. To those somewhat outriders I say, “Whatever floats your boat.” People should pretty much be fine on such personal appearance choices without taking flak from the rest of us.

Still, we do tend to follow our social/gender proclivities for the most part. So, here we go.

 Women and Nail Polish

This is a general topic of amazement to me. The amounts and variety of goods and services devoted to the care of nails on hands and feet are astonishing. Who could possibly sort through all that stuff? I look at the bottles on display and find myself asking “Is that a color? Never heard of it.”

There is even an immigration component to all this. In many places where I have lived or visited in recent decades, it seems the majority of nail solons are owned and staffed by Vietnamese. It would be fascinating to know the background of how this came to be. It is not an unusual trend in the history of immigration, but I bet there is a fascinating backstory.

There is no denying that well-polished nails, on hands or feet, look nice. Still, the amount of time and attention given to this state of being seems very substantial. More interestingly, as we have mentioned in this space before, the phycological effect of having well cared for nails seems very profound in most women. As does the process of having the work done.

It Does Not Transfer Well Across Genders

Imagine a guy walking up to another guy and saying something like: “I am really feeling down today. How about you and I go get our toenails painted?” This likely would be a short conversation, ending in a reply along the lines of “Why the hell would I do that?” But a lot of women have this sort of exchange with some regularity and the outcome works for them.

I will grant you that some men would need to do some work to be able to even look straight down and be able to see their toes, but that is a whole other blog post. For the ladies: drive on and enjoy yourselves. Heck, it helps the local economy, too.

 Men and Shoe Polish

For men, perhaps the closest thing to the polishing phenomena is the high-quality shoeshine. Unfortunately, this seems a dying element in modern life and that is a shame. A lot of men probably never even think about shining their shoes (a lot of women do not as well). Likely this is partly due to the proliferation of non-shinable footwear or materials that keep a low level of shine in permanence.

This is more unfortunate than many realize. There are numerous studies that indicate one of the first and strongest unconscious impressions made upon meeting someone is made by their footwear. If you think about it, you know that is true. If you happen to notice someone with very highly shined shoes, this catches your attention. It projects an atmosphere of presence and attention to detail.

I suppose I come to this with a bit of bias. For most of my 30 years in the US Army, we wore leather boots and shoes meant to be highly shined. Learning how to shine to unimaginable brilliance levels was a coveted skill. Buy me a beer sometime and I will extol on the relative merits of spit shining with a T shirt vs a diaper.

For much of my career, I wore custom boots made especially for paratroopers. Once I had a pair shined to the max, you would need sunglasses to look at them in sunlight. You could shave in the reflection. I’ll speak to the question of why one would go to the trouble of a shine like that momentarily.

The Great Tradition of Shoeshine Stands

Finding a real shoeshine stand is a rare thing these days. I love them. It is a fine experience to have your shoes shined by a pro while you watch the world go by, talk with that person shining your shoes, or catch up on a local newspaper.

A few high-end hotels have them. Some will pick up your shoes at the room, shine them, and return them. But for the most part, airports are the last refuge of shoe stands. Which brings me to one of my personal traditions and one of my favorite conversations.

About That Personal Tradition and That Conversation I Mentioned

I did a LOT of commercial flying in my business life after my Army career. I always allowed time for a shoeshine at my departure airport. For me, it set the tone of my appearance and it became something of a good luck charm. I always texted my wife a picture of my newly shined shoes (sample pic below) as I went to the departure gate.

I saw the ritual as a talisman of good luck and a safe flight.

On a connection stopover in Dallas some years ago, I had a pretty good layover and so went in search of a shoeshine, as i had missed getting on at the departure airport. There were a number of shoeshine stands to choose from. I chose one staffed by two gentlemen who had been doing this work for more than a couple of decades. It was a slow morning, with no one else in line for a shine. I not only got a shine worth writing home about, but we also had a great conversation.

We talked for almost an hour about the arts and crafts in shoe shining, about the changes in shoe design and material, about how their customer population had changed over the years. I was in the presence of real craftsmen and I reveled in it. These were people who took pride in their work and were studious in their craft.  What a treat they were! And my shoes never looked better.

A footnote on men and polishing. It occurs to me that waxing one’s car could come under the discussion of men and polishing as well. But that, too, is a whole other conversation. Maybe later.

Reflections on Do It Yourself Polishing

I mentioned earlier that I would address why one would go to the trouble of detailed polishing. In my Army days, of course, it came with the job. This was an expected thing of all ranks, and although there were plenty of places to have this done, most of us did it ourselves. We did so for four reasons, the last two of which are still with me today.

First, it was part of the institutional culture. One needed to know how to do this well. As an officer or NCO, it also came under the heading of leading by example in a small way.

Second, it honored a tradition that went back many years. It was a gentle bond we shared with those long gone who proceeded us in the profession of arms.

What Still Applies for Me?

Well, third, this was a process that emphasized the importance of self-discipline and attention to detail. You do not have to be a sociologist to understand how those traits are valuable in people who occasionally find themselves in armed conflict, but it is a valuable mindset for anyone.

And fourth, the whole process of the shine has a powerful Zen effect. One focuses on the task at hand in very small-scale detail. The process is both mental and mechanical. I usually find at the end of such a session I am rested, my head is clearer, even my pulse is slowed. And hey, my feet look great!

How About You?

So, how are your shoes looking? Time for a little TLC perhaps? Go ahead, step up and apply a little polish and some elbow grease. You will be glad you did. And I will notice approvingly those highly shined shoes when I see you.

                   Bill Clontz

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6 replies to A Mars – Venus View on Polishing

  1. This is a great post, Bill! I have never had a professional shoe shine which probably is not unusual for a woman but I always like to see those stands at airports, though in this culture of running shoes and crocs, I wonder how they survive. I remember my Dad (career Army) polishing his shoes.As a child, I loved the smell of the polish and the brushes and cloths he used. Your post brought back some wonderful memories. Thank you.

  2. Love the picture of you sitting with the sculpture of Doc Watson in our previous hometown of Boone, NC.

  3. I have to admit I have not shined a pair of shoes in years and years as I mostly wear Crocs and Keens these days. But having grown up in a family, on my mothers side, that owned a shoe store I did know how to shine my shoes and would often as a child help my grandfather and my uncle shine their shoes. It was fun as a child seeing who could produce the best shine and hearing the conversation. But these days I do not even own any shoe polish or brushes. Could I even remember how or is that like riding a bike?

    And in an aside the amazing and talented sculptor who made the statue of Doc Watson you are sitting next to on that bench in Boone died this past week. May he rest in peace.

    • I did not know the sculptor had passed. Thank you for sharing. Ironic time to have chosen that photo, eh?

  4. Yes ironic for sure. His name is Alex Hallmark and he lived and worked in Blowing Rock, NC.

  5. we had offices in Bloomfield Hills MI, the wealthiest square mile in the state filled with auto execs. I shared a barber with many of them and always got a shine with my monthly haircut. This was my most relaxing 30 minutes of the month. Fast forward 20 years and about a month ago cleaning a closet I pulled out my old wooden shoe shine box with foot rest and sent it with other stuff to Habitat. I retained a small kit for touch-up polishing but very little need now. End of an era.

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