For most of my twenties, I equated beautified nails with anti-feminism and materialistic bourgeois time wasting.
This was just another way for rich people throughout history to show how little work they had to do and to encourage women to prettify themselves for men. Calling your grandma and writing that novel can wait; spend your time painting your nails instead! Nail art has run so rampant in this world that it’s become a 250 billion dollar industry—surely this is a waste of everyone’s time.
I hate you all…but I am one of you.
If you have ever covered smudged nail polish with a Band-Aid (so resourceful!) or used a spare Lee Press-on pinky nail to replace a missing thumbnail (stealthy!) then you, too, have been bewitched by the nail arts.
We keep good company.
The Incans decorated their nails with images of eagles. Portraiture from the 17th and 18th centuries features shiny, manicured nails. In the early 19th century, nails were tinted with scented red oils and polished or buffed with a chamois cloth.
My mom didn’t embrace the nail arts in our house. When I was about 10, I found a bottle of clear polish but it was not glossy. (Can clear polish be lusterless? That’s how I remember it. Whatever is the least provocative polish in existence is what I found.)
I looked around, blushed, coughed, got an excitement rash and quickly put it back. It must have been in my house for some other reason; surely my mom was going to use it to stop a run in her nylons or seal a hole in a screen.
Another time I sneaked to the corner store and bought Lee Press-on Nails.
I ran home, locked my door and put them on my little fingers. As I was about to glue a rhinestone to my left pinky nail, my mom knocked on the door and I ripped them off feeling as if I had just killed every baby lamb on earth while high on meth. I don’t even know if she would have been upset with bubble gum pink “Glamour Length” nails but I tore them off (and little bits of my young skin in the process).
In my mind, spending money on nail stuff was somewhere up there with driving drunk and teenage pregnancy.
It wasn’t that my mom was a no-fun-crazy-conservative (I’m pretty sure I have memories of her with some flesh-colored polish on). She never explicitly outlawed caring about the appearance of nails but she didn’t encourage it either; she wanted us to assert our intelligent and artistic selves through what she thought were smarter endeavors, like reading the Wall Street Journal and taking ballet.
We were not to spend time on boys or drugs or MTV or nails. Had I known at the time that the mighty Incans engaged in this act, I would’ve mentioned this to her.
Fast forward 25-ish years.
My mom has a progressive form of Multiple Sclerosis that has left her wheelchair-bound. She is not the most hopeful. She is not the most present. She doesn’t talk much.
But, it seems the highlight of her life is when I paint her nails in bat sh*t crazy colors during my weekly visits.
We enter into a psychedelic zone as soon as I open up the fresh bottle of paint; Age of Aquarius fills the air and tiny crystals dangle from our eyelashes. We hop from cloud to cloud in slow motion, wearing shiny bright red unitards, busy with peacock feathers. Together, we swirl towards ultimate liberation with each tiny brush stroke.
But how can this meaningless exercise transport us?
As I coat her nails with bright hues, she softens and seems to be at peace. I become infected by the serenity as well. It’s quiet. We don’t feel the need to talk because there is a task at hand. We can hear each other breathing. She sits up taller. I lean in closer for the pinky nail.
For a solid hour after the paint has dried, she continues to bask in her refined new look. When I glance over at her, I see her checking out her sweet new talons with a smirk that borders on mischief and pride.
Pre-manicure, she’s slumped in her chair with an over-sized t-shirt and sweatpants; post manicure, mom’s got swagger.
Figuring out what it does for me has been more complicated.
I’m sure I like this ritual because it is one of the few times I see my mom serene, engaged and almost happy. It used to be that our afternoons together were filled with struggle and silence, but now we have our moments of color and peace.
It also makes me feel successful because it’s a simple task I can actually accomplish; the rest of the time spent together involves managing hopeless requests, like “get me out of this wheelchair,” that I can’t really deliver on.
So, when she asks me to do her nails it’s with complete joy and relief that I say yes.
I will never hate on the nail arts again; I might even venture to call the act empowering, nurturing and meaningful.
I would be lying if I said that sometimes I don’t imagine that I am an Incan daughter (after wiping the blood from a battle off my hands) peacefully sketching elements of the Incan calendar on each of my diseased Incan mom’s nails.
We breathe softly together under the warm Peruvian sun.
Rebecca Ketchum is a dancer and yoga teacher. She tends to think about disease, mountain ranges, love, anatomy, and motivation. Find out more on her website.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
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