The Vagenda

Why Getting Your Nails Done Is Downright Weird




I adore having my nails done. Nothing makes me feel more smug than when I’m tapping away on my keyboard at work, my freshly-painted claws glistening and winking at me. When Boots have those 3-for-2 offers on I find myself scooping up Barry M pastels like pic’n'mix, only to discover I’ve already got several of them in my (embarrassingly extensive) collection at home. I also possess a long-held fixation with finding that elusive perfect red: bright, with a dash of orange, but not coral (Essie’s Fifth Avenue is the closest I’ve found, if you’re interested).

And clearly I’m not the only one who’s overly enamoured with her scratchers. The beauty industry’s remarkable weathering of the recession has been well documented – nail bars and salons are booming, and makeup sales are ever on the up. When you can’t afford that Chanel handbag, a visit to their beauty counter will do instead – or so the theory goes. Polished nails are an ‘affordable treat’; a touch of luxury for the same price as a Big Mac and fries.

But, when you stop to think about it, isn’t the fetishisation of our fingertips just a little bit odd? Long, painted talons are an essential item in the sexy lady toolkit – along with the big lips, pushed-up tits and cinched-in waist – yet they’re not a remotely sexual part of the body. Most other sexy-signifiers have some kind of grounding in human biology, as well as various evolutionary theories regarding their appeal – which, while probably being a load of pseudo-scientific bullshit, at least make a bit of sense. But nails? They’re not even living flesh. They’re just a cluster of dead cells. Who decided that decorating them was attractive?

Personally, what I really love about having polished, preemed fingertips is how they make me feel pampered and luxurious, as opposed to sexy. A manicure is a signifier of money and leisure. The woman with the long, exquisitely painted nails is the one with enough spare time and cash to sit around on her arse while her digits are attended to. She doesn’t take on heavy or physical work, as that could cause a chip or – even worse – a break. She probably doesn’t do anything unfeminine, such as play sport or go on adventures – she’d get too much dirt underneath her fingernails. And she certainly doesn’t do the washing up (the number one enemy of the new manicure) either. She most likely has a maid do that for her. The woman with the perfect nails is the woman with a shit-tonne of time and money on her hands – quite literally.

So often we believe that what we find attractive is somehow innate and biological. We think someone’s pretty because our brains somehow, naturally, ‘recognise’ pretty. But really, our ideals of female beauty are so interlinked with signifiers of wealth and status that it becomes near impossible to separate them. As well as nails, see tanning: in ye olde days, pale skin was the ultimate desirable. It showed you were from the upper classes rather than a lowly commoner who had to labour away in the fields. But, since the invention of air travel, our super-rich are more likely to be found lounging around in tax havens in the south of France rather than rotting away in castles, and thus the tan became the new signifier of wealth. Us peasants may not be able to own their yachts or diamond jewellery, but we can mimic them with a spray tan or a manicure instead.

Couple this with a hefty dose of ideas about that aforementioned ‘feminine’ behaviour – not partaking in physical or strenuous activity; generally just sitting around looking pretty – and it becomes easier to understand why these collections of dead cells, whose original function was simply to protect our fingertips, have become so central to ideas surrounding female beauty. Right now my nails are painted a deep cherry red, and all this pondering is making me look at them slightly differently. I’ve never particularly aspired to ultra-feminine ideals, or to make loads of money (just ask my bank manager), so I guess my love of everything nailcare-related shows just how strong the pull of society’s beauty ideals are. However, I’m not quite ready to chuck away those brightly coloured pots and go au natural just yet – I’ve heard there’s another 3-for-2 on at Boots right now, and I’d really love to try out those Model’s Own neons.

-JB, @jessicabateman

12 thoughts on “Why Getting Your Nails Done Is Downright Weird

  1. How extensive are we talking? Bearing in mind I am a woman who has over 600 polishes in her IKEA Helmer.

    Taking feminism out of it, for me, doing my nails has been about having a part of me look pretty that I can see all the time. I don’t sit in front of a mirror all day (more’s the pity) so my make-up and clothing tend to be quite middle-of-the-road; but my nails are always immaculate and usually very sparkly, because *I* get to look at them. My nails are for me!

  2. I’ve honestly never seen the point in doing your nails, and I swear I just never, ever notice other people’s manicures. As a red-blooded bisexual I’ll probably notice other women’s chests, hips, hair etc, but it’s never occurred to me to check out someone’s fingernails.

    I mean, if it makes you feel good by all means go ahead. It’s not something I’ve personally done in a long while because of the impracticality mentioned in the article (and because, if I’m honest, I can’t be arsed), but I know plenty of women who do enjoy it and that’s totally cool. But is it really considered “sexy”? If so, that’s news to me.

  3. I have my nails done every 2 weeks at a salon I have been going to for 14 years in September. I have spent over £7000 having them done, BUT I love the luxury of having someone doing my nails for me. I started having my nails painted and looked after when I stopped smoking, a good trade off I think!! I have had so many different colours, styles and nail art designs and they have become my ‘trademark’ now, always an ice breaker with people who LOVE to know about them. Nothing wrong in having beautifully painted dead cells

  4. Hair is also dead too and invites probably far more money from the cosmetics industry.

    I would argue that nails are sexual part of the body – hands and fingers are a very large part of intimacy. Nicely cared for nails draw more attention to the hands and how they might hold and touch you.

  5. My nails are stupidly soft and brittle. If I dont have them done they look ghastly. And working in the corporate world means looking presentable. So manicure every 2 weeksis the price I pay. Lucily theres an amazing and affordable nail salon around the corner from where I stay. And I love having lovely looking nails. Plus no man has yet complained about running nails down doen their bodies ;-)

  6. Yeah, this. Pretty, colourful nails cheer me up, because I can actually look at them. Though I can’t always be arsed to have them painted. But that just makes it more exciting when they *are* shiny and sparkly :D The rest of the time, I do try to keep them neat, oiled and buffed, so they are at least presentable. The only people I might be trying to impress really are a couple of my friends who are nail art nerds, because they are the only ones who will notice!

  7. Nails ARE living flesh … at the attachment point. Try tearing one off she screams wincing having just done the same

    Hair, nails, teeth are all indicators of health and/or breeding so isn’t doing our nails just responding to a basic biological need to show that we are basically in good nick, worth breeding with etc. I’d say the interesting question is why some of us (including me) DON’T do this……biological deviancy no less :0)

  8. It seems that what you’re saying here is that we have no self control or mind of our own when it comes to us deciding what we consider to be ‘pretty’. You say that, we don’t make up our own minds on deciding what’s attractive or not, but that ‘I guess my love of everything nailcare-related shows just how strong the pull of society’s beauty ideals are’. Do you really believe that you and no one else has any control over what they consider to be attractive, and that your love of nail care is determined by society? And how far does this go exactly, are all our opinions on beauty controlled by society? And why stop at beauty, do we have any free will or opinions of our own on anything? Because this article seems to be saying that, no you don’t have any opinion, everything you do and like and say is determined by society.

    And furthermore, if what I consider ‘pretty’ is determined by society, how does this equate to, say, picking one outfit over another because i think one of them is ‘prettier’ than the other? I’m actually interested in where you draw the line on having your own opinion and having ‘society’ determine your opinion for you.

  9. I don’t ever paint my nails because a)school rules b)im lazy and poor and c) I just find it weird??? Something about it seems very unnatural to me, which is weird because the oddness of make-up doesn’t ever even seem to cross my mind. So i’m left wondering what about putting colour on your finger tips is more weird than putting colour on your face?

  10. I’m no biologist, but I wonder if nails are a sexual trait in the same way as hair – are they not a good indication of how healthy a person is?

  11. My love of nail polish is really as simple as liking to be colorful – the same reason I enjoy dying my hair “interesting” colors (granted, I’ve only been burgundy so far, but I’d like to do purple, blue and green sometime as well). For me, there’s just something satisfying about walking past a mirror and seeing shocks of rich red hair, or looking down at my hands and being treated to a glimpse of some dazzling bright color. I suppose everyone has their own reasons, but it’s always been for my own personal benefit.

    I also enjoy the accomplishment aspect … maybe it’s because drawing and painting has long been a hobby of mine, but it’s been satisfying to learn to properly apply nail polish and develop the dexterity to do free-hand nail art. I feel the same way about learning to cut and style my own hair, too!

  12. So no one else does it for reasons of pure self-expression? What I like most is that nail varnish does not discriminate in the way that clothes can- it looks awesome regardless of shape, weight, skin tone, age or sex or ethnic background. Thus, my collection will continue to shamelessly grow…