My earliest beauty memory is of a matching set of Poochie or Strawberry Shortcake branded lipstick and nail polish I owned in 1986. They were in little bullet-shaped tubes, white plastic covered in pink love hearts; the lipstick was fruit scented, and the nail polish was a transparent fluorescent pink.
To four-year-old me, that nail polish (which was effectively a clear topcoat, it was so transparent) was the last word in glamour.
In fact, I have many vivid nail polish related memories, including using Mum’s varnishes to repaint my Barbie dolls (1992), finally finding a bottle of Revlon “Street Wear” polish in a bargain bin and feeling like the coolest person on earth (1997), and the blue glitter polish my family worried would be “too challenging” for some conservative relatives (1999).
Given this, it’s amusing to me that it took another decade or so for me to fully embrace my identity as “a nails person”. Chalk it up to internalised misogyny, or just a complete lack of ambidexterity, but the ’00s were a bleak time of unvarnished nails for moi; I just didn’t have time for that.
Everything changed in 2010 when I met my great friend and nail collaborator Erin, who introduced me to a whole new world (I still remember the first polish we used, Butter London in “Henley Regatta”), as well as a niche new boast (turns out I have great nail beds; who knew?).
But as I became A Nails Person, I also became aware of people’s bizarre reactions to nails longer than what is deemed “appropriate” (“appropriate” to what, we may never know). Witness the reaction to New York Magazine‘s wonderful video essay about nail technician Maria Ortiz and her clique of “long nail goddesses”:
“How do they wipe their butts??” came the tone-deaf reply from many. Evidently, entire generations of people are stuck in Freud’s “anal phase”, because the ole butt-wiping question is at the forefront of many minds whenever they are faced with nails of a certain length.
Nail art has gone from strength to strength over the past five years, in the general consciousness at least (since artists like Ortiz have been making mini masterpieces of nails for decades), but no matter how many Instagram manicures turn up on your ‘suggested posts’ page, people seem alarmed and even repulsed by long – really long – nails.
Long nails are – in the minds of many – something that only “certain” women wear. Poor women, or women who can’t or won’t work. Witness Dita Von Teese’s bizarre and classist commitment to her Halloween costumes: every year, she dresses as a “normal girl” named ‘Dina’, and long nails and fake tan are always a crucial accessory.
Many populist beauty trends sniffed at by those who “know better” often reveal a deep well of classist (and more than occasionally racist) views. How many times have you heard some white, blonde beauty blogger sniff about how fake tan is naff because it’s what chavs and bogans wear? Traditionally, in the UK at least, to be tanned was to look like a worker; pale skin meant you could afford to holiday in cold places like Klosters, whereas a tan meant you probably stepped up to the trough at a seaside resort with all the other plebs.
The great tragedy in these “ew, gross” reactions is that people are blind to the incredible sense of community that someone like Ortiz has fostered with her “long nail goddesses”, not to mention the pure sense of self-actualisation and self-expression these people with long, painted nails enjoy.
When I lived in LA I was lucky to regularly go see Natalie Minerva, aka Nail-Swag, and I grew to love the emotional support of the salon. I see that in the video essay about Ortiz’s salon and I think about it whenever I see someone who maintains long, painted nails: what a great support that space must be (and how much more time you’d get to spend there if your nails were 10 inches long!).
The longest my own nails ever got was around 3cm (1.2 inches if you want to get imperial about it), and I loved every second of it. I loved the way having long nails changed the way I expressed myself; I started gesticulating a lot, and waving my hands around like Barbra Streisand (who famously only cut one hand’s nails when playing the guitar in A Star Is Born).
Alas, I type too much, and am hopelessly clumsy, so I took them back to a more manageable “glamour” length: let those who laugh at “I broke a nail!” grow theirs to 3cm, then snap one off, and we’ll see who’s laughing.
These days I hover somewhere between “sport” length if I have lots of sewing or weight-lifting to do, and longer for fancy events. My dream (perhaps for the day when typing has been fully automated) is two-inch-long transparent mermaid nails.
Even if my own nails are shorter these days, though, I will always admire the Long Nail Goddesses of the world for not giving a damn and living their best lives.
And if the next time you see someone with long nails your instinct is to ask how they wipe their bum, I suggest you go find a good psychoanalyst instead, because you clearly need help.