Like the canals in Venice and the air over Beijing, my fingernails have cleared during the pandemic. No longer stained by red polish or suffocated into fungus or splitting from the astringent polish remover, they are simply there, white crescent moons bright above smooth pink nail beds, the ends gently curved. Why did I think I had to swipe lacquer onto them every week? They look gentle this way, nothing garish flitting into peripheral vision as I gesture. All those hours of my life carefully selecting the right shade, often mixing a few at home, then priming with base coat, as though for the rough walls of a fixer-upper. Then the silliness: painting, smearing, cursing, blowing on them, making my husband fetch things so I did not mess up my nails, going to bed too soon, pulling up the comforter with a careful thumb and pinkie, smearing again, touching up, falling asleep and stamping a linen weave onto at least three nails. Even with the quick-dry topcoat. And then, inevitably, they would chip, and I would dollop a bit of color on top and pretend it did not look embossed. Once they were past due for fresh polish, I scraped off the old stuff in big satisfying flakes—as much compulsive fun as peeling a layer of glue off your skin, an odd habit that became fashionable in fifth grade, or peeling that watery skin, translucent as an onion membrane, from a sunburned shoulder.
I suppose I thought nail polish was feminine.
As it happens, modern nail polish was inspired by the tough, glossy lacquer sprayed on cars. And the first nail polish was worn by men—Babylonian warriors were painting their nails green and black in 3200 BCE. Given the human propensity to find violence sexy, I suppose it was natural that women would eventually follow suit. Queen Nefertiti favored ruby-red nails, and it is said she occasionally used blood to color them. Also Cleopatra’s favorite, blood-red was reserved for the upper echelon. Those living less colorful lives were restricted to pale pastels.
We recaptured the glamour of red polish in Golden Age Hollywood, thanks to Rita Hayworth, and Uma Thurman reminded us all over again in Pulp Fiction, her nails tipped in a dark red the color of (thank you, Nefertiti) dried blood. Chanel’s Rouge Noir, later renamed Vamp, came out the following year, the same dried-blood hue, and outsold all other Chanel products.
Blood-red nails are not the sort a demure bride-to-be wears to show off her diamond. They are the nails of a mistress, ready either to seduce or to claw the face of a man who has betrayed you. (His blood—again with the blood!—will not show up.) Reading about various types of polish, though, I realize that most of us are not out for blood. We only hope to sparkle a little, catch someone’s eye with our shimmer, glitter, frost, lustre, crème, iridescence, opalescence, or translucence. Or our nail art, that clever little craft project, with its miniature patterns and slippery decals, that a lot of us should never have tried at home. I only ever managed polka dots. Thank God I did not live in the Inca empire, when fingernails were decorated with tiny handpainted eagles.
The most obvious motive for polishing your nails today is that everyone else polishes their nails—and now men are back in the game. Watching a professor from the London School of Economics interviewed for a documentary, I blank on what he is saying, eyes locked on his blackish-purple nail lacquer. Which goes nicely with his lavender polo. Which reminds me of even more time wasted. God help me, I used to plan what I wore that week by what color my nails were painted. That sounds a bit Versailles, post-detox. But if you have ever had carmine nails and slipped on a peach sweater, you will wince in sympathy.
This matchy dilemma is what prompted the invention of French polish, which I was dismayed to find was invented by a guy here in the States in 1976. In my mind, Madame de Stael had worn it to host literary salons in the 1790s. Instead, a makeup artist named Jeff Pink (perfect!) was tasked with finding a shade that would match all a movie star’s outfits.
I suppose my painted-lady years were not for naught. Clear nail polish is a whole book of Heloise’s Hints all by itself, stopping runs in the pantyhose one used to wear, waterproofing garden markers, holding a wobbly screw in place, smoothing frayed shoelaces, preventing cheap costume jewelry from tarnishing, preventing rust rings in the shower (just paint the bottom of the container), sealing envelopes, and allowing you to thread the tiniest needle. Okay, I have tried only three of those—I found the rest on the internet—but still. Handy.
And toxic. The EPA suggests treating nail polish as hazardous waste.
So for decades I have been slicking toxic chemicals onto the ends of my fingers, at considerable expense and inconvenience, for no good reason except that they are ten miniature canvases and it was satisfying to paint them. You often read of someone “admiring her nails,” because that tiny narcissistic gesture is inevitable. You feel the pleasant frisson of artifice, having transformed an otherwise odd, exoskeleton body part. For the few moments that your freshly polished nails are shiny and smooth and the perfect color, they are art.
An art I am not sure I will resume. Except (my mind adds all by itself) for special occasions. Or if I can replicate the ancient Chinese method, which used natural dyes made of orchids and roses. And I cannot give up my annual late spring pedicure, that pampered celebration of bared feet and sunshine. It, too, has a worrisome subtext: I sit awkwardly in that fancy chair when a woman who is working harder than I have ever worked in my life bends over my callused feet, rubs my calves, taps directions to my foot because she does not yet speak English. Then I tell myself she needs the money, and I give that obnoxious American thing, a big tip, as a sop to my conscience. My consumer demand has forced her into an intimacy she never would have suggested spontaneously—“Hey, you look nice, want me to file your toenails?”—and subservience is written into the work’s very posture. Jesus made a point of foot washing for a reason.
This is when language plays its redemptive role. The women in the nail salon chatter among themselves, and their secret (to me) language restores their power. God knows what they are saying about us, the passive ones on the thronelike chairs, stressed in ways we enjoy talking about while these women quietly swallow their unpaid bills and sicknesses and fear. But when I talk with the woman who is giving my pedicure and listen hard as she triumphantly strings together new English, I learn about her kids and where she is from and what she eventually hopes to do with her life, and language works a different magic. The scales level. We are two women talking, and the transaction between us no longer feels icky. We deliberate together on the color, enact the ritual.
My mother, less self-indulgent and more sensitive than I, could never bring herself to get a pedicure. She polished her own nails every week that I knew her. We laughed for years about her dragging her IV stand to a chair so she could restore her nail polish the minute she regained consciousness after gall bladder surgery. It was not vanity; her nails, too, were clouded by fungus, and she did not want anyone to find them gross.
The irony—I now know firsthand—is that all she would have had to do is stop polishing them altogether. We let ourselves be lured into habits that become so relentless, we forget why we began.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.