My relationship with my fingernails is complicated. Before it even occurred to me to have a sexuality, I loved drawing attention to my nails. Every weekend I painted them a hue of blue — on the spectrum of summer-wash denim to midnight sky — which looked entirely punk-rock. The blue was a tiny rebellion that made my small, late-to-puberty self somehow larger.
In high school, my obsession with CVS brand’s too-big-for-nail-bed, stick-on-acrylics coincided with my first kiss (on the bleachers, with the hockey team captain). At 15, I thought the French manicure aesthetic made me seem older, more mature, more ready to “experiment” with a girl so much more sexually-advanced than myself. We never did more than kiss, so I never had to confront the question of whether or not I’d be able to touch her with those nails. But now, that I’m older, I realize that I’d adopted this high-femme signifier because of the messages I’d absorbed from the world around me about what a girl-girl couple looked like. If she was more-masculine presenting, I needed to up my femme-ante — and I did so with my nails.
By high school graduation, I’d ditched the fake nails. But in college, my relationship with my fingernails evolved as I comfortably took on a lesbian and queer identity. I’d never come out in high school nor talked in detail about “the meaning” of my romance with the hockey captain. So the first time I ever outwardly signaled that I was something other than “Straight Girl” was during my first week of college when I attended my school’s LGBT club.
My first meeting (the first meeting of the school year) the members who clearly knew each other buzzed about their summers while taking inventory of the “fresh meat” — the equal parts endearing and appalling nomenclature given the first-year queers at my college.
What happened next resembles a scene from The L Word, which up to that point I hadn’t watched, but seemingly every other queer girl had.
In The L-Word when the crew is trying to figure out whether or not Dana’s crush is into girls or not. Shane’s first word of advice is to look at her fingernails: “Are they long or short?” she asks. “They’re long and polished. So she’s…” Dana trails off. “Leaning to straight. But we still need more info,” Shane says.
In my IRL scene, one of the in-charge queers asked, “Do we think she’s gay or an ally?” “Ally. Look at her nails,” said another. Three impeccably dressed queers looked my way, took the new found information, and moved me into the “Ally” bin.
Sure, what I’d overhead was slightly more crass than The L Word scene, but equally telling about how fingernails are embedded with meaning (in queer spaces). At the moment, my feelings weren’t hurt, per se, nor was I struck by how problematic it is to imply you could tell a person’s sexuality by looking at them (let alone by looking at their fingernails). But I was embarrassed. I’d missed the memo. But now I know: short nails are very much a low-stakes way to signal queerness.
For me, cutting my nails down to nubs became a way for me to signal my budding queerness. Over my college years, my queer fashion-sense oscillated between “Long Haired Sporty Dyke” and “Well-Muscled Femme With No Fashion Sense.” So while my constant guise of fitness gear was too non-specific for me to become and embody the androgynous, thin, and high-style mainstream stereotype of a queer person, I could at very least be the athletic girl with nubby nails—the girl whose hands would signal, “Yes, I’m a girl who is into girls” if a crew of queers was ever to wonder.
I started cutting my nails short, short, short, and kept them free of paint after that meeting about seven years ago and hadn’t stopped. That is, until about a few months ago.
After identifying as a lesbian for close to a decade, I fell in love with a cisgender man, which then led me to re-examine my own sexual identity, the way I’m seen in the world, and — what I’ve realized is — an internalized femme-phobia that kept me so thoroughly nail-polish-averse.
Part of that unpacking was to figure out why I went from one extreme (long, fake acrylic nails) to another (nails so nubby, they regularly bleed). Why did I buy into the belief that my nails must be short in order to find a lover or partner? And why did I also rule out nail polish when my dates with the nail-clipper became almost obsessive?
I don’t want to be the kind of person who believes that you can tell a person’s sexuality by their nail length and color; I know that’s problematic. Queer women shouldn’t have to groom and style their nails into one particular way to signal to other queer folks (and the rest of the world) that they’re queer.
I also don’t want to be the kind of person who changes her nail aesthetic because she started having feelings for a cisgender man. Yes, I can have these love feelings for a cisgender man and still identify as a lesbian (or queer). Yes, I can assign a new label to myself so that there’s room for him. But quite frankly, a label is much less interesting to me than exploring why I feel suddenly drawn to painting my nails.
Allowing myself to give in to that desire to see color on my nails felt like a benign step into exploring how my identity has evolved since I sat in that LGBT club circle all those years ago. Wanting to shed myself from the arbitrary no-paint, very-short rule and to explore my sexual identity and gender presentation in a new light, I decided to get a manicure.
I’d be remiss not to at least mention that there could better-for-the-world things I could have done with that money, and I acknowledge that I’m am privileged to have the means to so frivolously drop cash on my new nail painting experiment.
My first visit to the nail salon, I showed up with nails with four days of “nail growth.” The nail technician spent a few minutes shaping them into squares but otherwise left the length. In honor of my middle school routine, I opted for blue. Honestly, going from naked nails to denim-blue nails was a little jarring on the eyes. But once I got used to seeing my fingers topped with dark-hues (which took only a few hours), I felt pretty comfortable with my new “accessory”.
However, about a week and a half in, my nails were longer than they had been since high school. And I hated the way they looked, they kept getting caught on my sweater, and I kept having to fight the urge to bite them shorter. So I cut them. And I cut them short.
The next day, I went back to the nail salon—this time with my nails the length I’d grown (pun intended) used to. This time, I decided to go for a more stereotypically feminine color. The pink ended up looking fine, but feeling a little like I “tried too hard”.
For the two weeks that I sported this color—yes, I lasted two weeks and only took the clippers to my nails after a week—I felt like I was trying a little too hard to be beautiful in the traditional sense. And whether it was my queer or not-queer friends who commented on my pink-tips, I felt embarrassed. I felt like I wasn’t really being me. I felt like it seemed I was trying to be read as straight (even when that was the exact opposite of what I was trying to do).
I showed up at the nail salon for my third paint-job—nails pre-cut, as I learned was the only way to get my nails the short-short length I preferred—and this time I chose a subtle nude color.
Honestly, I loved it. It was less noticeable when the paint-color chipped (as it often did, thanks to my frequent use of barbells in the gym) and I liked how clean my nails looked. I liked showing off my fresh coat to my boyfriend, queer friends, and coworkers alike. I didn’t feel like I was making a statement, I felt like I was just being me. And I liked looking down at my hands and seeing this deliberate act of self-exploration (and dare I say “self-care?”).
As the weeks went by, I fell in love with my bi-monthly ritual and developed a routine around it. I’d cut my nails the morning before I was planning to go to the salon, and then once at the mid-way point — to keep them at my preferred length. Then, I’d get them painted a neutral color.
Developing a ritual that is equal parts fashion and hygiene around a part of my body that ignored and shaped based on other people’s expectations feels empowering. Through it, I’ve learned that I really love having short-short-short nails… that are painted.
Just like in middle school where I did my nails with what I wanted to do with my nails, I now know how I like my fingernails as a queer woman in her mid-twenties.
Truth is, this isn’t going to be a routine that I will ultimately continue over long-term. As I mentioned, it’s not an inexpensive habit, and painting my nails is something I can do at home (both cheaply and more quickly). But the last three months of experimenting with nail length and color made me realize how I can groom and fashion my nails to fit me — no matter how they may or may not inadvertently signal.
Painting my nails pink felt like going against some intrinsic part of myself. Keeping my nails long felt — at the most basic level — like an inconvenience. But keeping them short, while adding a coat or two of nude polish made me feel more (not less) like me.
It can be difficult to find a nail polish color — or any beauty or fashion ritual — that doesn’t feel its pushing you towards the beauty ideal or saying something about who you are as a person. Not everyone attaches meaning to their nails the way I have, but for me, the stress was because for almost a decade I stopped grooming my nails how I wanted. I was grooming them how I thought I was supposed to.
Sure, sometimes the nail technician questions my uber-short nails, but why would I keep them long just to look more like all the other customers they see in a day?
As of today, here’s where I’m at: crushing on a cis-guy doesn’t change my sexual identity, nor does my nail length or love of a good mani. My queerness is one that includes short nails and some nude-colored nail polish. So while sporting short plain nails may not feel revolutionary to others, to me, they’re a way to be my most me.
And for those who haven’t ever experimented with nail length or color, my recommendation would be to try it: it’s a thrill that only comes first-hand.
Feature image by Victoria Morris