Long Nails: Pretty, Feminine... Repressive?

I've been thinking a lot about my nails lately. It's a little bit gross. It's kind of a waste of time. And yet, like so many things related to body, and beauty, and women, the whole idea of nail length has provided me with a source of mild fascination. It's amazing to me how another millimeter of keratin can completely change the look of my hand and make me feel like I've got an entirely new identity, albeit a subtle one.

In short, I guess you could say I'm “growing my nails out.” (How disgusting is that phrase? We like to think of nails in stasis, as short or long or buffed or painted. We don't like to think of nails moving, growing, because that's what nails appear to do after death. Horrifying.) After a few days without access to a nail clipper, my perpetually-short nails were suddenly weedy, shapely, and kind of elegant — the kind of nails you can gesticulate with, or hold a long cigarette holder between, or cover in glossy red polish and call yourself something royal like Cordelia or Violetta.

I've always appreciated the way long, graceful nails look on other women, but I usually can't stand the feeling of having long nails myself. Blame it on a childhood spent practicing piano: The sensation of nails clacking on keys drives me mad. Plus, I've always liked the way my nails look short. It's sporty! It's cool! It's clean! It's casual! It's whatever! I have better things to think about!

All that has changed, and I am now a woman who looks down at her hands far more often than she used to. The night I realized just how long my nails had grown, I had a party to go to, and a bottle of pale pink polish on hand, and I really, really wanted to go to this party feeling artsy and effortlessly in control, so I gave myself a manicure three minutes before jumping into an Uber. Once the polish dried, the unthinkable happened: My hands looked elegant, and about ten years older (in a good way), and only a tiny bit smeared. I was suddenly in the mood to talk to people about Rimbaud while toying with an unlit cigarette on the back porch.

I've written about the whole weird connotations of looking and feeling "ladylike” before. Elegance in clothes, hair, nails, and makeup is both appealing and unsettling to me. The entire idea behind looking "put-together" is that you've spent some serious time on your appearance; you shined your shoes and bleached your whites and curled your hair and shed your mermaid tail to walk around on land like a regular human. I hate to feel obligated to spend a lot of time on my appearance. I like messy hair; I like wrecked Converse; I think spending two hours in front of the mirror every morning is a waste of a life. At the exact same time, I genuinely feel that there's something very powerful about being able to present a polished front to the world. Our image is one of the few things we can kinda sorta control, and choosing to be clean and flossed and brushed and polished is its own form of strength. Someone with a flawless manicure may not have her laundry done or her articles filed on time, but she certainly looks like she does, and there's an odd power in that.

(I should clarify that I'm talking about natural nails that extend a few millimeters from the tip of the finger. None of this I've been growing out my nails for 30 years and have a special friend who opens doors for me weird stuff I accidentally found on the Internet and can never un-see.)

Long nails are forever tied up into a certain image of wealthy, old-school femininity. They connote old Hollywood — Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor with their graceful red nails matching their glossy red lipstick. They remind us of wealthy older woman, like Lily van der Woodsen in "Gossip Girl," who's always waving her long, buffed nails at priceless pieces of art. They call to mind 1950s housewives who present their bodies in the same careful way that they present their spotless kitchens. What they connote, above all, is time and care: It takes time to grow your nails long, it takes care to keep them rounded and polished and clean. Proper long nails are made, not born.

And there's an irony to that. To achieve and maintain a manicure, a woman has to put effort into a look that, in some ways, keeps her captive. Long nails make her prettier and less functional. She has to be sure that they don't chip or break or scratch. If she grows them long enough, she can no longer complete simple tasks as easily as she could when her nails were short and dirty and unpolished. Suddenly, typing her manifesto is increasingly uncomfortable, and buttoning her worker's union jacket is tough. She has to ask a nearby dude for help when opening a can of Coca-Cola that matches, exactly, her high-gloss polish.

That's why I'm keeping my nails at a functional length, and trying to both revel in their elegant femininity and not waste too much time thinking about it. Aesthetically, I appreciate that something as simple as nail length can completely change up a lady's look. On a social level, I'm just glad I don't have to keep my husband faithful with my unchipped reds and glossy pinks, like this lady.

And on a personal level, I like the fact that my slightly-more-ladylike hands trick me into thinking that my life is a little more polished and together than it actually is. There's nothing wrong with a little glossy delusion from time to time.

Images: Tori Telfer (2); Vintage ads (3)