The Nail Polish Quandary: Why Do We Privilege Certain Beauty Routines Over The Rest?


The fashion world has been sniffing nail polish fumes for quite some time now, relegating what was once the afterthought of a woman’s external routine to the forefront. Together, the infinite style-minded websites and print publications fawn endlessly over new colors, with the latest Chanel polish debuts received in the manner of sneaker-heads stumbling upon rare sets of kicks on EBay. Today these lacquers are collector’s items—badges representative of one’s fashion in-the-know-ness. The oft-lauded collections by Essie and OPI are practically basic now in light of more niche brands like Jin Soon and Deborah Lippman.

The Internet, of course, makes it even easier for us to treat small corners of the beauty market like spheres worthy of endless investigation. With our expectations for faster change and speed in all areas of life, it’s pretty much required that these products are constantly transforming, with new versions regularly introduced in order to keep our interests eternally piqued.

Though I’ve flirted plenty with the product myself, I’ve never understood how it ends up, for some, in obsession territory. Many of my friends fetishize it aggressively, refusing to be seen in public without a perfect coat, or constantly researching what the “on trend” colors are. Ironically enough, they often ask me for the answers, assuming my interest in all things aesthetic implies that I give more than a fuck about what’s on my nails. Fortunately, unfortunately, or neither: I could care less about the little keratin canvasses, preferring bare nails or, at most, nail polish that is barely there (i.e. nude).

“Fact”-shilling Wikipedia tells me this partiality for notta lotta on one’s fingertips was synonymous with being lower class back in Ancient Egypt. Might that explain a certain subset’s need to constantly keep coated (or should I say #coasher?)? Are some of us simply acting on the detritus of antediluvian standards? Perhaps, though we could probably make that case for any and all of the beauty routines we’re tethered to.

Non-fashion or beauty junkies might deem these pursuits simply frivolous, which is not what I’m getting at here. We all have individual hierarchies of beauty and hygiene importance, which often read as superficial on the—BaDumTsh!—surface. But leaving it at that is shortsighted–for my writerly ass, at least. If we really consider what it is that we privilege over the myriad other options, our choices tend to spell something out about our larger values or interests—our personalities.

Nail polish, in my eyes, is too abstract to get deeply entrenched in. When I think of other beauty products, like perfume or foundation (both of which I am more partial to), I find more there there—which is to say depth, nostalgic significance (scent-memory, anyone?), and the ability to convey a certain attitude (“I woke up like this” says great foundation, even when you didn’t). None of this is based on logic, of course, but, rather, feeling—feelings which I’m by no means trying to change, as I’m pretty set in terms of “stuff to fuss over.” And my lack of interest in the nail game is also due to me being equal parts lazy and perfectionistic: polish just takes too much effort to perfect, and in a very dull span of time at that.

However, beauty is one of the few arenas in life that we have a generous amount of control over, which could explain why we find the repetitive management of certain phalanges so comforting. I guess mine just happen to fall elsewhere on the body-as-map. I’d be curious to know what the rest of you privilege in your beauty arsenal? What’s your weapon of choice? And if you want to take a stab at explaining the psychological underpinnings of it all, that’s cool too. 

2 replies »

  1. I’m with you. Can’t seem to master nail polish. I don’t have the patience to sit still in a salon and find the whole thing a bit too snobbish having someone do my nails and feet. And I can’t do it at home either and use my hands way too much for knitting, cooking, biking, etc. to really care. And let’s not even begin to talk about my bike shoe feet, upper 50’s feet. xo (And this post works for the antho w/ a few edits. )

    • My feet are a wreck too from running! I’m also too ticklish for comfortable pedicures, ha. Would love to include this in the anthology–let’s talk edits when you have a chance. XO

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