I started painting my nails in college, the place where lots of experimenting happens. A girl in my residence had a bag of nail polish she was going to throw out so I took it off her hands, so to speak. (First thing I learned about nail polish: the bottles last forever.) I liked the smell of it when my hands were close to my face. I didn’t need drugs to kill brain cells. The toxic fumes of my quick-dry Sally Hansen were good enough for me.
Emerald. Fuchsia. Florescent orange. Sea foam. I gravitated towards bright, Kool-Aid colours. In fact, I don’t think I ever had red nails. Nor did I paint my right hand, partially because I was only good at painting with my right hand but mostly because having only one hand done became my thing.
When I painted my nails I felt a connection to the old-school glamour of the classic films I grew up on, the Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis movies which turned me gay. I pictured the scene in the camp classic The Women (1939) in which noble Norma Shearer finds out her husband is having an affair with Joan Crawford from a gossipy manicurist, who keeps interrupting the tale of infidelity with the direction “Rinse please.” All Norma wanted were nails painted ‘Jungle Red.’
I stopped painting my nails when I graduated and I entered the overrated ‘real world.’ I got a job at a café and assumed a boy with painted nails would be breaking uniform. I had boring hands for years.
Last January, I was in New York interviewing drag queens for my article in WORN’s forthcoming Hair Issue (start getting excited). Something about the queens’ bravery and flamboyance inspired me and, at a pharmacy by Times Square, I bought a small bottle of pumpkin orange nail polish. When I came back, my boss never mentioned my nails and I decided his silence was indirect approval. I’ve only received compliments from customers, especially from women who happen to be wearing a similar shade.
But I have a problem. While I enjoy picking out colours and the act of painting my nails (again, the yummy toxic fumes) I have absolutely no patience to let them dry. I’ll do one coat, and by the time I get from thumb to pinkie, I’ll start a second one. It will look dry but then I’ll touch it and create a giant smudge. I’ll then try to cover it up with more polish, which turns my nails into a goopy mess. By the time they are actually dry and hard, instead of being proud of my acid yellow nails, I am ashamed of my lacquer’s lackluster appearance.
Then it hit me: the time to have your nails professionally painted and to wait for them to dry was the luxury that meant you were a lady. That old school glamour I interpret as camp took a lot of work. That’s why women went to the manicurist, despite all the gossip about Joan Crawford. Nail polish is a completely impractical invention which demonstrated a woman’s commitment to being pretty. Shaving legs, tweezing eyebrows, wearing overnight hair curlers, putting slices of cucumber on the eyelids—women have always had to devote more time and energy than men in order to meet society’s standards of beauty. Men are never asked to put in the same amount of effort. We don’t shave for a couple of days and people compliment our ruggedness.
By messing up my freshly-painted nail polish by impatiently pulling on my sneakers I discovered the gap between female and male beauty. Just as every man at some point should try walking in heels, guys should discover how long it takes to paint one’s nails.
There’s plenty to think about while you’re waiting for them to dry.
photography // Serah-Marie McMahon