Smells Like Teen Spirit

Before doing a little research for this post, my thoughts on nail polish could be summed up by this generalization: There are two kinds of women in this world, those who wear nail polish, and those who don’t.

Personally, I can’t stand the look or feel of polish on my nails.  For the moment, Cora thinks having pink sparkles on her fingertips is the bee’s knees.  When I see her proudly showing off her latest paint job, I’m not sure she’s my child.  Her love affair is partly inspired (and sponsored) by her big sister, who has an ever-expanding collection of tiny colored bottles lining her dresser.

As I asked Rosa about her nail polish collection, I got to wondering about nail polish as a rite of passage for young women.  As it happens, there are lots of angles to explore regarding nail polish and visual culture.

A PBS podcast introduced me to the term nail art.  Turns out there’s a whole community of people testing the boundaries of nail polishing.  I’m sure it just goes to prove how out of touch I am when it comes to beauty and fashion trends, but while I knew that nail enthusiasts gathered in salons for mani-pedis, I didn’t realize they gathered in cyberspace to share their ideas and creations.  Google turns up nearly 20,000,000 links to blogs devoted to nail art, including 365 Days of Nails, a clearinghouse of designs sponsored by Nails Magazine (who knew there was such a thing!?), and The Nailasurus which features tutorials and product reviews.  Clearly this is an active community of practitioners devoted to their craft.

As with the study of any art form, however, I’m not just interested in what people are doing, but why.  As I searched for information on why women say they wear nail polish, I came across this story about a Saudi Arabian woman for whom nail polish became a political touchstone.  I remember hearing about the rise of beauty parlors in the Middle East following the fall of the Taliban.  But this story goes a step farther to show a real woman standing up for her right to wear nail polish.

Of course I have to acknowledge my own bias in referring only to women thus far.  Remember the news blip a few years back about the J. Crew executive featured in a promotional image painting her sons toenails pink?  It stirred up a controversy, mostly among social conservatives, and raised questions that are important to discuss with young people about gender stereotypes.

So, I’m left to ponder the tips of my fingers as sites for resistance.  If Rosa can work out some of her teen angst there, I’ll be happy to provide all the nail polish remover and cotton balls she’ll need to refresh and move on.  Even if I hate the smell.


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