Why I Paint My Nails

Early in the pandemic, I hit rock bottom. I was stuck in the house surrounded by a world in despair, and my own came to feast. Years of charging around and over my darker shadows ended abruptly. My decades-long depression, by then deeply entrenched in its well-worn gullies and grooves, demanded attention. Like for many folks, it was hard for me to see a way forward.

But I was fortunate, and slowly, I made it through. A mix of help, privilege, experimentation, and really hard work helped me navigate those tough days, and I started to emerge, from the pandemic and my hazy depths, altered and stronger. Like any kind of healing from the ground up, it’s been an uneven and complicated journey, one that’s required a laundry list of new skills and tools. Many of the wellness crowd pleasers have made an appearance at one point or another, and in some cases, they had real impact (meditation, therapy, art projects, horticulture were added; alcohol and meat were ditched). More unusual practices made their way to me as well. But two years into this universal, seismic change in the world and me, I find myself reflecting on a tool that’s proven to be among the most surprising (and powerful): I started to paint my nails.

I’ve always existed in the liminal space between the insider and the outcast. A lawyer with a kid and a mortgage on the one hand, unapologetically queer and unorthodox in gender and dress and thought on the other, I’ve spent much of my life in spaces filled with the discomfort of others. My various traumas called me to these spaces, captured by the need to please and seek acceptance where it was unlikely to be found. One of the gifts of this horrible time has been to draw me out of this dynamic, in part because I wasn’t in any space but my own for such a long period of time. As the pandemic marched on, I found the structures of self getting stronger and the grip of society loosening. I started to experiment, and eventually, among other things, I found my way to nails.

It started out with a few at-home jobs, which usually ended in scenes of polish-fueled lawlessness, acetone-stained surfaces surrounded by broken cotton swabs, drips and splats of pigment, cowering fingers wandering around like confused extras. (I used to make truffles, and for weeks afterward chocolatey CSI-worthy fingerprints would appear in any place, at any time. This was like that, but with chemicals. Messy and fun, but not sustainable.) Eventually, I moved into the press-on nail scene, which seemed like it would sidestep the chaos of polish plus allow me to have a try at some length. But the chaos just shifted from polish to glue, and what was left when the smoke cleared was a series of oversized, crooked triangles of plastic jutting from my hand at ghoulish angles, oozing with sticky bits of adhesive and exasperation. A queer I am, a nail artist I’m not.

The itch wasn’t scratched. So I took the counsel of a wise colleague and finally went to the salon. Not one to try things halfway–and still sensing the untapped power nails could bring–-I craved the full experience and summoned the courage to do it right.

Hard gels, for the uninitiated, are a kind of nail extension where thick glue-like gel is sculpted on top of your nail and beyond so that it lengthens it. The gel is hardened under UV light, and then layer upon layer of base coat and polish and glitter and top coat are applied and dried until, poof, you emerge 1.5 hours later with long, nearly indestructible nails built on top of your real ones.

My first gels were green. Chrome. The color of a horsefly’s eye as it zips out over the fence, piercing the dusty browns of the Arizona high desert I used to call home. When I got home — my current one, in Los Angeles — I buried my hand in a bright patch of moss I have hanging on my wall, snapped a pic, and posted it online with the caption “green witch 🌿,” which is exactly what I was.

The beginning was bliss. I felt so powerful, so free, so beautiful. Hooked, I spent the next year exploring different colors and designs, lengths and shapes. I chose colors that reflected my mood, or aligned with the weather, or otherwise jibed with how I was feeling at any given time. They became a companion, a canvas, and over time, a whole lot more.

One of the first things I noticed was how they extended the sensation of my fingers, upgrading my interface with the physical world. If I touched something, even if only gently, I could feel a vibration on my nail bed that otherwise would have gone to the top of my fingertip. Objects felt more alive when I touched them, and I felt a closer connection with my environment. After 37 years, my weary fingertips–now a dull instrument–finally got a rest. I think they needed it. In their place, the nails channeled in a different kind of way, on a different frequency. Suddenly, the world felt a little more textured and a lot more interesting. I tapped on a table; the room echoed and my body shivered. It took me weeks to re-learn how to type.

Sometimes I felt like a bird. A roving, unstoppable, apex predator kind of bird. I would stand on my porch against the warm wind and watch the red-tailed hawks glide over Laurel Canyon and think, I’m like you. I cannot be taken, I wear my strength on my body, I do as I please, I am who I am. With a twist of my nimble limp wrist, my talons could pop an eye from a socket, tear flesh with a swipe (and did, as I quickly learned: scratches appeared out of nowhere in those early days as I adjusted to them). Maybe they connected with something older inside of me; after all, human nails evolved from claws. They protected me like armor, and not just emotionally. One time, in a rush, I slammed my right middle finger in the car door. My body had misjudged its finger’s new length. Completely closed in the door, it ached and bled for days. The finger wasn’t broken, but the hard gel served as scaffolding for my nail underneath to heal and repair. I probably would have lost the real nail, but instead, it healed behind its lemon yellow shield.

As Covid restrictions relaxed, I ventured out of my house more often. My nails came along, and pushed me to heal on a deeper level. They asked me to expel my shame at being queer, to stop making myself small, or afraid, or apologetic about who I am. There were times — especially at the beginning — when I would look down or steal a glimpse in the mirror and think my hand looks too feminine, that’s not my hand, I hate it. These thoughts and feelings caught me off guard, and so I dug into them. I explored the tributaries of gender norms, and patriarchy, and toxic masculinity, that still moved within. They became fodder for therapy, they pushed me further into the work I needed to do. Ultimately, they brought me to a more authentic love for myself (it is my hand; I love it and myself). They allowed me to integrate the trauma of my queerness, and plant a flag for myself and the world. I exist here. As I am. I will not look away from myself, and neither will you.

This work impacted my family and those around me. My husband grappled with his own internalized norms and feelings about them, which I know because he was brave and vulnerable enough to share and face them. They allowed my son to feel more comfortable being the fullest expression of himself, however that may look, which I know because I see the way he wears himself so freely every day. They impacted colleagues and friends, which I know because they began to trust me with their own moving stories and struggles.

My nails also fueled a creative practice. Not just in their design, but in what I could create around them. I would dye my hair, change my clothes, build different kinds of altar spaces, burn different kinds of incense. Gold encouraged me to smile, have more fun, and spend more time in the sun. With a dark nail I might wear more cloaks and jewelry and purples and blacks, exploring more difficult topics in my life and at work. Vermilion would launch me into action, new projects and ideas. They became a vehicle for constant creation and shape-shifting, of myself and my surroundings. Every month!

Every. Month. Hard gels have a time component dictated by the need for infills. The nails keep growing but the gel does not, so over a few weeks a gap starts to grow between the bottom of the gel and the nail bed. Infills fill in the gap, and require a pretty hardcore maintenance process, drilling off the layers of hardened material (yes, with a drill), after which gel is re-layered onto the nail along with a new color. Nails grow at different paces, and everyone has their own preference for how often they want the infill. I didn’t mind going a little longer; others prefer to run a much tighter ship. My monthly time frame was roughly aligned with some of my other practices — paying close attention to the phases of the moon, to the lessons of nature’s various seasons — in a way that plugged into larger cyclical motions, something that could renew and change. Every infill was a chance to rejuvenate much more than just my nails.

Because you can’t take them off or fill them in at home, the act of going to the salon also necessitated that I take a break, during the day, usually during the week, completely disconnected from devices. There’s no way to use a phone when both hands are taken and subject to the rigorous infill, so once a month I’d sit in the salon with my nails, thinking quietly about the power I was building in them.

They became a protest. Gender norms have been oppressive in my life, and in the lives of so many others. Going about the quotidienne as a man with bad ass nails — people tend to notice. On video conferences, at the grocery store, picking up the kiddo from school. People reacted differently. Some would comment and compliment, others would stare or pretend not to see. They all saw. It’s too jarring of an image in this society to ignore. Compliments were divine, of course, and healing in their own way (they only came from women, and the very, very occasional gay man). But the reaction that remains most powerful to me is when a stranger says nothing but settles into a tilted, puzzled look when they see them, like their brain is trying to absorb and make sense of this new kind of image, of something that doesn’t feel familiar. I love that. It makes me feel like I’m watching the violently binary world we live in corrupt itself in real time. The glitch in the matrix, the redirection of neurons: I can see it in their faces.

They’re also an act of love to my community, like I’m casting my queer image out into the collective, every day, with the hope that it floats and swims, bobs and weaves, along the current of those I encounter, so that someday, somewhere, it might turn up to help a sibling out there who urgently needs to exist in a more supportive world where they aren’t alone. They aren’t alone. Another small patch in a universal queer quilt, a bit of warmth when stitched up with all of our other offerings, for us to snuggle into for comfort or safety or joy. Give the world what I once needed, I think, as I pay for my coffee.

During the pandemic, I’ve consumed a fair amount of podcasts, books, and courses from folks in orbit around wellness, healing and spirituality. In a recent lecture series, one practitioner whose work I love spoke about his view that spirituality — the belief in something greater than oneself — lies in the day-to-day; in some languages, he noted, there’s no word for spirituality because it’s inseparable from daily, mundane existence. Warning against the all-too-common wholesale adoption of the practices of other (usually indigenous) cultures and healers, he encouraged us to think instead about how spirituality might show up in a way that is authentic to our own culture, and rooted within our own daily life.

But where is nail adornment rooted? Everywhere, it turns out. A deeply human endeavor with a rich history across time and the globe, for social, religious, military, and yes, decorative purposes. In Ancient China, lacquer made from beeswax and egg whites was used in a wide variety of colors, many of which signified status in society (red reserved for the upper class); in India, henna has been used for thousands of years; in Egypt, Cleopatra went for red as well, though in a rustier tone; in ancient Greece, a mixture of soot and oil on the nails of boys was used for divination (“onychomancy”) and the natural shape of the nail bed was celebrated as a reflection of the crescent moon; in the Americas, the Incas pioneered nail art, using sharpened sticks to paint condors and other small symbols. In some cultures men painted their nails before going into battle (in Babylon, higher class warriors went with black kohl; lower class went with green), and perhaps there were even those among them that felt, like I sometimes do, that it strengthened their resolve.

The Medieval world tried to stamp it out like it did much of the good stuff, but it bounced back in the Renaissance. Admittedly, the Victorians preferred a more natural look, but later, in France, the modern manicure was developed, and it deployed car paint to do the trick. Nail technology and design got a huge jumpstart in the 20th century, from the flappers of the 20s who pioneered the painted half-moon design, to the invention of acrylics in the 50s, the square and French tips of the 70s, and gel tech of the 90s.

Marginalized communities have always understood the power of the nail. Black nail culture, especially around acrylic nails, is a vibrant source of identity, fashion, and innovation — from Donna Summer to Flo Jo to Lil’ Kim’s MoMa-bound Get Money manicure and beyond. So much so that, alas, many nail trends started by Black women arrived in the mainstream in a way that seems a whole lot like appropriation. Nails are an expression of femininity and identity in many Latinx communities as well, while drag queens have used nails as part of their art for as long as they’ve been at it (one of my favorite adaptations is the over-the-glove approach). Many Asian-American communities — and especially Vietnamese immigrants who built the modern nail salon industry following the Vietnam War — are perhaps more tied to nails than any, as a major source of creativity, expertise and commerce (it’s an $8 billion industry in the US), as well as, unfortunately, the exploitation of some Asian-American salon workers.

And all of this really only scratches the surface. Adorning our nails with paints and dyes, tonics and jewels, metals and plastics, colors and symbols — it has a rich, and truly global history, serving as a source of power and meaning-making across millenia, cultures, languages, continents, and genders. The stories of nails are as varied as we are.

And so I arrive back at mine.

Mine are rooted in my othering. In the juxtaposition of my existence against society’s norms, bubbling up in between the craggy sliver of space created when I first felt torn from the ordinary, which is to say very, very early on in my life. They came from and into my queerness, and in the pandemic, have served as a guide across the murky waters of a particularly transformative time in my life. That’s why I found myself drawn to them, and why I stuck with them. The sensation, the protection, the creativity, the renewal, the healing, the love, the protest. All wrapped in monthly ritual, dedicated to my physical and emotional place in this world. A ritual imbued with intentions, alchemized with action.

In truth, they started as a dalliance, a frivolous non-pareil on a big gay cupcake. But they morphed into the transcendental, rippling out beyond myself and into the world. They’ve connected me to myself, sure, but also to something greater. To family, nature, community, humanity. Somehow, painting my nails became a holistic and spiritual queer practice, borne from the wounds, their medicine rushing through the canyons my depression once carved. When I say I’m spiritual, when I tell my kid in earnest that I believe in magic and practice it daily, this is what I mean. It’s all there, right at my fingertips.

I recently took a break from gels, moving to polish without the extensions, which I’m getting done professionally because there will be no return to those early days of household mayhem. The world only spins forward, after all. My fingertips were ready to touch the earth again; they craved contact after their slumber, at least for now. The first post-gel color I chose: green. But this time a weathered, muddy green. A coming-back-from-the-journey-a-little-wiser kind of green, ready for all of the beauty and pleasure and muck and grime the world throws my way. ⬧

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