Nail Art as Feminist Resistance

By Megan Sims

Right now my nails are drying. They’re currently a brassy color with a cornucopia of reds and pinks and purple dotted on the tips. In the past few weeks they’ve ranged from stark black to elegant black-and-white water marble to a glittery blue and bronze gradient that looked like the night sky.

I don’t remember when my fascination with nail polish began. But since I’ve gotten to college, it’s become a strange sort of catharsis. When I’m sitting in lecture, frustrated with the people asking inane, repetitive questions, thinking about when I’m going to finish the reading for section later, and wondering where my meeting tonight is going to be, I begin to pick at my nail beds. Soon enough, there is a snowfall of pink glitter or black matte flecks piled around me like last month’s dirty snowfall.

And then at night, when it’s approaching 2, or 3, or 4 a.m. — bedtime — I relax back into my pillow with several bottles of nail polish, a dotting tool, an extra brush, and makeup sponges and begin to drop Technicolor on the tips of my fingers.

Chip. Paint. Repeat. And so on.

But nail art is not a private endeavor. Barring your face, your hands are the most frequently visible part of your body. Therefore these are the places that people, often women, choose to decorate most frequently. Makeup has already for years been a source of controversy — from heterosexual male fears that women are “lying” to them, to comments that women don’t need it “to be beautiful” — which could be addressed in an entirely different article. Nail art, on the other hand, has been a pleasantly innocuous form of expression.

Nail art’s feminism is a quiet one. It’s not striking like the shock of a big woman loving her body, nor loud like women speaking out against the men who have assaulted them. I imagine most nail artists on Instagram do not even consider their videos set to pop songs any form of resistance. But in art there is power, and in art done by women, for other women, and for themselves, there is a strength of community that transcends the superficial.

This isn’t to say that nail art is a solely feminine undertaking. For male and masculine-presenting individuals, it subverts a standard of masculinity, claiming and reclaiming the beauty of bodily art.

And this bodily art is the beauty of nail art. To paint one’s nails, to put painstaking design into small creations, involves a recognition of the body as art and the body as canvas. It takes a certain self-ownership to undertake such creations. Nail art cannot be done for men, or for anyone. It is done by oneself, for oneself. In a world which so frequently tells women that their bodies are built for consumption and should be displayed and designed as such, nail art is a highly personal resistance in which artist and canvas merge in a flawlessly manicured middle fingernail to a patriarchal society.

But it’s ephemeral. I’m lucky if my nail polish lasts three days. This art is fleeting, constantly changing, chipping away. And every day, there is another chance to change it, to improve it, to choose to continue fighting the good fight or to rest instead. Every day, there are new chances. And on as many days as I can, I paint my nails.

Chip. Paint. Repeat. And so on.

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