Overview:

Colorful and sparkly nail polish is a fun hobby, sure. But nail polish also plays a huge role in feminism and men's liberation.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

When the world is suffering from a deadly pandemic, losses of fundamental human rights, and climate change caused by a capitalistic and Christian nationalist ethnostate, sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is look forward to the little things and engage in self-care. For me, that little thing is nail polish.

Raised on nail polish

Being raised and socialized as a woman, I learned to enjoy painting my nails when I was young. My mom used to paint them with her polishes when I was a kid, and I remember stretches of time in high school when I would repaint my nails every day to coordinate my outfit and get all the boys’ attention. But it was COVID that made me become entirely dedicated to fun nails as a way of life.

A large part of my renewed passion for nail polish came from my recent discovery of the YouTube channel Simply Nailogical, which is run by old-school YouTuber and Holo Taco CEO Cristine Rotenberg and her partner, Ben. It was a great time to start watching Cristine since her content filled a space in my heart when longtime comfort-watch YouTuber Jenna Marbles left the platform to focus on her mental health. (If you know, you know.)

My nail polish craze of 2020 brought me more than comfort, though. It was a challenge to really learn how to create a perfect-looking manicure after years of not-so-polished looks. At-home manicures were the ideal hobby for me as someone who enjoys expressing myself through art. As a matter of fact, I left my comfort zone of keeping my nails as short as possible for as long as I could remember. You can have great nails that are short, but having long nails stirred something in me that I had never thought of before.

  • Rebekah's nails with galaxy polish. Her nails are longer, and it looks like the actual Milky Way is at her fingertips.
  • Rebekah's nails with galaxy polish. Her nails are short and not messy.
  • Rebekah's nails with galaxy polish. Her nails are very short, and the application is pretty sloppy. Her hand is in an awkward claw shape.

Can feminists be feminine?

Having long, holographic nails made me feel more feminine, and in turn more feminist.

(Before I go on, this is only my personal experience. You absolutely do not have to do your nails to be a “true feminist” or even to be feminine. A true feminist is one that accepts and trusts all women and femmes, no matter their lifestyle. At the end of the day, nail polish is a hobby for me.)

Feminine and feminist? Many people today see those two things as mutually exclusive, but they absolutely aren’t.

My journey into living with long nails coincided with my acceptance of, say, proudly drinking and loving Starbucks’ fall drinks like the famous pumpkin spice latte. I find great satisfaction in doing activities and presenting myself in ways that would traditionally get me labeled a “basic bitch” while simultaneously enjoying things like analyzing big books with long words, about topics like paleoanthropology, astronomy, history, and politics.

  • Rebekah is wearing a gradient of a darker and lighter holographic nail polish
  • Rebekah is wearing a purple nail polish with a blue iridescent shimmer
  • Rebekah is wearing a holographic light purple nail polish
  • Rebekah is wearing a holographic magenta nail polish
  • Rebekah is wearing a silver glittery holographic nail polish
  • Rebekah is wearing a royal blue glittery holographic nail polish
  • Rebekah is wearing magenta creme nail polish, with an accent nail on her ring finger which has holographic magenta polish
  • Rebekah is wearing cyan creme nail polish, with an accent nail on her ring finger which has holographic cyan polish
  • Rebekah is wearing a bubblegum pink nail polish with a matte finish

I’ll admit that some of my inspiration for this nontraditional sparkly-nailed intellectual style comes from learning that Cristine Rotenberg started doing her own nails as a way to unwind while she was getting her master’s degree in sociology and criminology before working as a data analyst in crime statistics for Statistics Canada. And being a YouTuber. And, oh, owning an entire nail polish brand. If she can do all that with perfect nails, then I definitely can.

via YouTube / YouTube Canada

Nail polish and men’s liberation

While doing my nails is a way for me to perform femininity, I also see (and appreciate) the contradiction of nail polish being viewed as a feminine accessory in our society and it simultaneously being an objectively genderless activity of coloring one’s fingernails. I’m so happy to see more and more men embracing nail polish.

Having long nails has long been a staple in gender and sexuality performance for gay men, and they have had the nail game down for a long time. But the next great frontier for nail enthusiasts who don’t live in a binary is the acceptance of lacquer on the fingers of straight and straight-passing men.

Even progressive straight men are often uncomfortable having painted nails, which is completely understandable. It’s easy for me to live my feminist nail dreams, because no one who sees me will think anything of it. I’m a femme-presenting cis woman, and no one would jump to the conclusion that my sparkly rainbow nails are any kind of “political” statement.

But when my husband lets me paint his nails, he knows he’s silently agreeing to get weird looks from strangers in public. (And he certainly has.) Weird looks notwithstanding, he still enjoys having painted nails and coordinating with his outfit or his car, no nail art or long nails needed. As Rotenberg says, “Do you have fingernails? Then you can paint them!”

a hand with short nails with dark purple glossy creme nail polish

No place for gender expectations

Cis straight men are typically expected to look a certain way, to a suffocating extent. Neutral or dark colors, identical suits, short hair, no dresses, no sparkles, no nail polish. But why? I don’t mean why as in how did we get here sociologically and historically, but why as in, is there truly any good reason for this? A reason why cis straight men have to all look the exact same? Why does self-expression immediately get flagged as a dangerous deviation from their expected gender performance?

When we are talking about certain genders being stereotyped and criticized, no one gets as much flak (especially regarding their nails) as Black women and femmes.

Nails at the intersection of racism, sexism, and ableism

For so long, Black women have beautifully and creatively expressed themselves with acrylic nails, but as with most staples of Black culture, white people tend to criticize them as “ghetto” while simultaneously copying those staples for themselves, saying that on a white body it’s not “ghetto” but “cool”.

Only last week, TikToker Scarlet May made headlines simply for making her usual content of signing while telling a story, when famous YouTuber Pewdiepie made fun of her because of her long nails. It is one of so many examples of Black women being criticized at multiple intersections. In this case, Scarlet May was made fun of because she was signing with long nails, which is an implicitly ableist as well as racist and sexist reaction, because long acrylic nails are such a common accessory specifically of Black women.

In the video that Rotenberg is responding to here, the whiteness implicit in “high society”‘s definition of elegant nails isn’t lost on her viewers.

YouTube video

The YouTuber constantly calls long, colorful, or detailed nails “tacky”, and it doesn’t go unnoticed that many of her examples of non-elegant nails are on darker-skinned models. The heteronormativity is also a running theme, what with her strong implication that respectable nails are a must for getting a good man to marry you.

Current nail status

Rotenberg’s brand, Holo Taco, released a new collection of dark fall colors just hours before I wrote this. This isn’t sponsored, either; I just really enjoy their products and gender-neutral branding! (Seriously, ask my friends how much I talk about this brand.)

So did I wait all week in anticipation of a holographic dark green nail polish? I absolutely did. Did this new release make my day? Uh-huh. Was nail polish a good use of $98? Probably not. Do I regret anything? Nope. And am I about to write a blog post about whether there is a quintessential conflict between science and religion with my long, brightly colored nails clacking against my keyboard? One-hundred percent.

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Rebekah is a curious atheist, lifelong student, and creative introvert. She graduated from the conservative Christian Grove City College with a bachelor's degree in Communication Studies and a desire to...