Sunday, August 12, 2012

Nails and intersectionality

Bisou - who, let it be known, is fine now - timed her worst-yet gastrointestinal woes for just as my husband had to leave to go give a talk elsewhere in Germany. After schlepping a queasy poodle via tram to a not-quite-English-speaking (but oh so effective - what was in that shot?) veterinary office, then spending a day feeding her this special anti-upset-stomach food six times as instructed, and giving her electrolyte powder mixed with water via oral syringe throughout the day, and otherwise watching her intently and taking her on many short walks during which I did nothing but make sure she didn't eat anything bad off the ground (the likely cause of the initial problem), and examining her every movement and sound to make sure she wasn't about to start throwing up again, and getting some work done in the breaks between this, I felt some kind of reward was in order. But what?

I decided the time had come to rationalize a purchase I'd previously deemed ridiculous. 19 euros later, and I have the perfect sheer bubblegum pink, glossy and not peeling immediately despite lack of base or top coat. This pointless expenditure fits with my overall cheapness philosophy, which is to only buy things I've been thinking about for a while. (A pair of ballet flats will maybe require six months to track down, and another six to decide to purchase.) But this isn't about cheapness. It's about nails. Why is nail polish the ultimate treat?

Tracie Egan Morrissey of Jezebel recently argued that the nail industry is a form of female empowerment:

When historically female-centric practices—like cooking, baking, hair styling, clothing design, etc.—have been legitimized into celebrated careers, men typically end up being the stars who dominate those industries. Look at Emeril Lagasse or the Cake Boss guy or Vidal Sassoon or Karl Lagerfeld. Whenever there is money to be made or creativity to be applauded, men have managed to establish themselves as the authority on things that women had been doing thanklessly for centuries. That is, until nail art, the increasingly-popular, rapidly-expanding field that has almost exclusively remained all-girl.
She also notes - and this seems more relevant - that nail artifice "might just be the only form of primping and grooming that isn't rooted in making oneself more appealing to men or exploiting women's insecurities." True enough. Other beautification can be justified as being about snagging or keeping a mate. Nail polish... not really. Maybe slightly - how you wear your nails might indicate your subculture, and numerous choices might turn certain men off. And the choice to do something rather than nothing indicates conventional femininity (yes, even if your nails are blue - remember the gender-bending implications if a man does the same), which is of course a loaded thing to indicate when it comes to male-female relations. But overall, point taken.

It seems even relevant, though, that the more complicated your nails, the more of a statement you're making about your willingness to scrub the kitchen floor, or to bake bread from scratch. It's telling men (or, in this case, miniature poodles) that you take care of yourself, and aren't looking to pick up after them. Which could be why it's so appealing as an antidote to stressful domestic tasks.

"Nail art," though, is its own thing within the nail industry: designs on the nail itself, as opposed to simply painting all the nails one shade. Readers already know that I'm ambivalent about this phenomenon. (If painting your ring finger to highlight your engagement ring is problematic, where to begin with doing so in such a way as to match your iPhone case.) Glitter, metallic, neon, holographic, yes. Shatter or magnetic, whatever that is, no. I appreciate - yeah, I'll admit it - some French manicures, as well as the more socially-acceptable adventurous takes, but because I don't get professional manicures, my own nails tend to be painted a solid color or not at all. I have no interest in using my nails as a canvas.

In terms of why that is, I suspect it's for the same reason as why I don't like patterns or designs on clothing, either, but there's a whole politics to this question as well. As Jezebel commenters and others point out, "nail art" used to be derided as something done by working-class women (with possible racial connotations, although it depends where you grew up), and it's only now that fashion editors are giving rich white women permission to join in the fun. Granted, the new "nail art" is generally done on short, natural nails, but call it "Japanese," and even long acrylics can become part of socialite pampering.

Nails-as-a-canvas seems like a fine example of something some in the upper- and lower-classes share, but that isn't ever going to fly for the middle classes. If you're someone who needs to look appropriate for work, and who has so internalized bourgeois office-attire aesthetics as to only find work-appropriate styles attractive, you're not pressing on three-inch leopard-print nails. If you feel that you're a paycheck or two away from getting a job as a cashier, you may be less inclined to re-appropriate a style commonly associated with women in that profession. Super-complicated nails on a rich woman announce a kind of invincibility; on a woman on the other end of the spectrum, resignation or simply acceptance that no interviews for higher-brow jobs are forthcoming.


Andrew Stevens said...

Love the cheapness philosophy. I adopted a habit that I'd never buy luxuries or purchases I could put off until a year after I first considered it. 99% of the time I don't want it any more by the time the deadline comes up. This habit is still ingrained in me, even though it no longer has the utility that it once did, but it served me extremely well for a long time.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I suppose any reduction in impulsivity helps. Although I wish I'd been a bit more impulsive in terms of getting a car soon after moving to a place where one is necessary, rather than trying to get by with a bike and occasional (but free) shuttle service.

PG said...

I think nail art's middle-class respectability depends on what it looks like. My mom and several of her co-workers and friends who work pink-collar jobs (office managers, secretaries, receptionists, nurses, et al.) have been getting their toenails done with flower designs for years. The big toe is often ornamented with a rhinestone in the center of the flower, or on a petal to look like a dewdrop. It's girly and cute, and thus seems entirely appropriate for their jobs. Three inch fingernails with leopard print would probably scare clients and patients, however. I don't think I would like to have anyone touching me, whether in a medical or cosmetic capacity, who had fingernails that long. Seems unlikely that they'd be entirely clean.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Pedicures are another story entirely, for the obvious reason that business attire tends not to include visible toenails, regardless of how tastefully polished. Once you're in a toes-can-be-out-there situation - the beach, the bedroom, and various less-formal work environments - there's no reason for them to be the same sheer beige as the fingernails of a woman in a no-toes-visible situation. One difference with the new nail art is that it's about saying that fingernail polish can be what used to be reserved for pedicures.

The issue of which fingernails work in the medical professions is its own question, and one that I certainly couldn't answer. I suspect that with acrylics, and even nail-painting, the issue is more that you can't see for yourself if the hands are clean, than that they're in fact dirty.

PG said...

business attire tends not to include visible toenails

I suppose it might vary by workplace. I've worked in offices where you could wear peep-toes with suits, and others where you could wear all-toenails-showing shoes with business casual (i.e. slacks and blouses but no jacket required). But in most of the offices where I had to wear a suit, I was making a more-than-middle-class income, whereas the people making less money had more freedom to dress more casually. I don't know of a middle-class-income job for a woman that wouldn't allow her to show her toes, other than certain medical ones where you need to wear closed-toed shoes for safety but they can be and often are sneakers.

Anyway, my mom wears open toed sandals all summer because it's too hot when you're outside to fully enclose your feet, so people see her toenails and can admire the rhinestones.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think the key here, however you wish to argue about this, is that toes are different from fingers. They're less visible, and not getting into anyone's food, medical procedures, handshakes, etc. It's long since traditional for a woman with sheer nail polish (or none at all) to have dark red toes, a woman with red fingernails to go more out-there with her toes, etc. Pedicures thus pose very different nail-art-politics questions than do manicures.