Painted Nails: Sexism, Privilege, and Desire

Every semester my students execute a deviance project in my “Introduction to Religion” course. I lecture on Pierre Bourdieu’s social theory and the concept of “habitus,” and we talk at length about how social codes are linked with social positions. They all fill out a worksheet on which they identify 3 or 4 communities in which they serve as members, the implicit or explicit social hierarchies in those communities, and the social codes and related behaviors linked to the identities within the social structure. For the deviance project, they have to choose some sort of behavior or code assigned to an identity not their own, and act on it for a day.

Some of these projects have produced great data for analysis in class: one time a student—who was a manager at a construction company—dressed like a laborer for a day and was treated dramatically differently by customers; another time a student called all of her professors by their first names, as peers but not “subordinates” do, and got into a good bit of trouble for her efforts. Many students have difficulty identifying differential social behaviors within their communities and fall back on the most obvious ones: they choose a gender code assigned to the “opposite sex”—girls will wear boxers and sagging sweat pants, or boys will get a manicure with french tips. One young man planned to wear a dress for a day but then “chickened out” and wrote an insightful paper on how deeply he had internalized arbitrary social norms.

This semester I joined the students for this deviance project; I’ve built up a cache of social capital at my institution; I knew I had some I could burn. So this semester I wore nail polish for about a week. I wore pink nail polish on one day, decided it was not my color, and switched to blue for several more days.

I drew a lot of attention from students, faculty, and staff—and, perhaps not surprisingly, from my wife. Very little of the attention was overtly positive; only a few people took a glance and said “I love your nails!” with what appeared to be genuine sincerity. Similarly, very little of the attention was overtly negative. My wife, a proud feminist (although perhaps of the first wave variety), was the only one who made it explicitly clear that she did not like it. “Not all social norms are bad,” she insisted, “it’s okay that I’ve been socialized to dislike it.”

Most responses were in the middle, what I would consider implicitly negative feedback, usually in the form of questions delivered with raised eyebrows: “what’s up with your nails?” One faculty member started with “oh, your nails are cute!” but, minutes later, blurted out “so, really, who did this to you?,” as if I clearly would not have done it to myself. One student practically shouted, upon the very moment I arrived in the classroom, “your nails! Is that for your class project?” Apparently such behavior is appropriate only if it is executed for a class project.

These negative and implicitly negative responses—perhaps we might call them microaggressions—were, let me be clear, by definition sexist: if I were publicly identified as a “woman” in my community, my painted nails would have been of little interest.

Because I’m identified as white, male, and heterosexual by my peers at my college, I’ve got a good deal of unearned social privilege. In addition, as I noted above, I’ve built up a good bit of social capital in my college community. One colleague suggested that I could get away with all of this in part because I have a good publication record—publication records are social capital!—the implication being that she could not get away with such deviant behaviors because she has fewer publications.

Because of my privilege and social capital I’m a fairly confident person, yet I was still abashed and uncomfortable in my deviance. At first I was uncomfortable as the result of the anticipation of negative feedback. Then, of course, there was negative feedback, which circularly produced more anxious anticipation. As a result of this feedback loop, I often found myself hiding my hands in my pockets. In fact, in a meeting with the college president I hid my hands under the table the entire time.

Of course it is unlikely that there will be an overt institutional response to what I’ve done. Just as it would probably count as sexual harassment if my chair told a woman to wear nail polish, it could arguably be construed as sexual harassment if my chair told a man not to wear nail polish. But! More than once the question of it being “unprofessional” was raised (by both students and faculty)—in which case my quick (prepared) retort was something like “would it be ‘unprofessional’ for a woman to wear nail polish? Because if not, then it’s sexist to say that it’s unprofessional for a man to wear nail polish.” What is perhaps more interesting than my argument, however, was the vehemence with which the retort was delivered—my agitation with the very question was probably relatively evident to anyone with minimal ability to read social cues.

I am left to wonder, if someone with so much privilege and social capital is so easily rattled by standing out, what of minorities with little privilege and little social capital? I wonder about the young, female, brown-skinned, Muslim students on campus who wear veils, who chose to gain social capital in their subculture at the expense of social capital in the dominant culture. When challenged because of their visible distance from dress codes that have been normalized, what can they do? How can they navigate the consequences of deviance, without being able to fall back on the sort of privilege and capital I can access?

What interests me most about all of this, however, is what will have become the nachtraglichkeit effect in relationship to the production of my very own desire. Let me explain.

The question almost everyone asked was: “Why? This is for your class project, right?” When asked this question, I hesitated to answer for two reasons. First, it spoils the project to answer in the affirmative. “I’m doing this for a class project” publicly legitimates temporarily a behavior that otherwise would be unacceptable. Were I to say, “I’m doing it for a project,” then I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing—I’m gathering data like a good academic—and therefore I’m no longer deviating from the regnant social norms. Second, I hesitated to answer because I did not yet know if there were an alternate motivation. What if—God forbid—I actually desired to paint my nails because I thought it was pretty?

Desires rarely if ever simply appear or manifest themselves. I didn’t enjoy beer the first time I tried it, but I very much enjoy it now. Sometimes we as humans have to try things out, develop a habit, and then the desire (either previously latent or perhaps even nonexistent) is fermented and then cemented.

I did not enjoy wearing pink nail polish. But when I took the pink polish off and switched to blue, I did so because I was willing to press my tastes and see if I could give it a go. (The fact that I was willing to give “blue” rather than “pink” a chance is obviously related to internalized social norms.) I was like a child sipping coffee for the first time—not sure if I liked it, but there was something nice about it and I thought I could develop a taste for it.

So when people asked, “are you doing this for class?,” the implied assumption was “you couldn’t possibly be doing this for any other reason.” As a result of the negative feedback, the answer—after the fact—will have been “yes, I was doing it for a class.” Because of the response I received, I will not have been able to develop a taste for wearing nail polish. This is nachtraglichkeit in process: I am now starting to know, retroactively, that I did not in fact desire to wear nail polish.

Tastes could have developed otherwise.

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7 Responses to Painted Nails: Sexism, Privilege, and Desire

  1. Chelsea says:

    Thank you very much for writing this! It’s a great article and one that gives me a lot to think about. I (an American woman) do not shave my arms and legs. This began partly because I believe a woman shouldn’t have to do so, and partly because it’s a lengthy activity I can’t be bothered to do. I do not believe it is attractive–at best a neutral–and do not feel empowered by the act. Whenever I go out in public, I always wear long sleeves and parts or a long skirt. I cannot imagine a situation where I would get a positive reaction for doing so, and I would feel embarrassed about someone noticing even if they didn’t respond negatively. Now at least I have a basis for thinking about why.

  2. Deane says:

    Excellent report!

  3. Dave Grohl says:

    Fingernails are pretty. Fingernails are good. Seems that all they ever wanted was a marking.

  4. Mark says:

    Excellent article, and I thought it great that you’re challenging your students to THINK about what their thoughts are about things, how did they get there, what do they mean to them and why do they mean that to them. And of course to everyone who is an observer of their different behavior. The specific eample of the nailpolish thing is a classis example.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with a man wearing nail polish. It is paint. It’s a body adornment on a very small piece of body realestate, it’s temporary, but a man putting it on makes people question, be offended, make judgments about the person wearing it and so on and so on. That the question of your sexual orientation by wearing it is probably the most offensive, for it has no basis for that, other than it is a practice many women do, so therefore a man practicing it must be a little more woman that I expected him to be, and therefore must be at least interested if not already practicing the expression of same sex coupling. How crazy of a logic is that?

    In America, we are so homophobic and I dare say misogynist (which may be a description of the same thing really) at the same time for no real valid reason at all. In early 2011, Jenna Lyons of J. Crew created a firestorm of criticism when J.Crew published an ad that depicted her painting her son’s toenails because he liked it. This was assumed that he would then grow up with severe psychological disorders, or at the very least confusion about who he’d be attracted to as a mate, that he’d better stop that because he’ll get beaten up or at least teased mercilessly, leading to said disorders and a raft, no, rather a bargeload of other completely illogical conclusions, but at it’s heart was the belief that men do this, women do that and neither should cross that bridge into the others’ practices. There is this rather strange idea that this one practice is the difference between men and women and we need to protect those differences. Excuse me, that is the difference between men and women??? Then somewhere along the line I have completely missed any other differences that I had assumed were the real differences between the sexes.

    Your wife’s comments, and I’m sure she is a very nice lady, were more telling, to me, than one might think, of these social constructs that many believe are “real”, and indisputable. At least she understands where this negative reaction and dislike for your painted nails may have come from, and is ok with it as a social rule, but that does not explain the rationale for it in the first place. What validity was there for this rule? I have yet to hear one valid reason why men can’t wear nail polish.

    The argument goes circular very quickly. “Because they shouldn’t. Why? Well, because. Why? Because women do that. Why? Because it looks good on them. And it doesn’t look good on a man? Well, no it’s not that, but women do that. Is it because men don’t like color? No. Or that women think men shouldn’t like color? Well, yes, but only on cars and manly stuff.” And so on and so on. That people can judge that polish on men as being gay is really at it’s root misogynist and anti-feminine. In other words, in the social pecking order, straight men are the pinnacle, straight women second, perhaps bi-sexual women third, lesbian women fourth and gay men last. I hear alot of women say, I want my man to be manly. That he puts on a color on his nails suddenly removes his manly man -ness. Why would this be? By the way what’s up with that manly-man stuff versus girly stuff? A man can’t fix a car with color on his nails? He is unable to hold and protect his mate with color on his nails, or fight fires, or leap tall buildings? Or does he have to be a little rough around the edges, maybe a little unwashed and unshaven to do all that? I think the media and advertising may have had a bit more influence on this than we may suspect, or want to believe we are so. That would mean I’d guess how rather shallow we are, and that would be uncomfortable to our belief about ourselves.

    I posit that feminisim in it’s promotion since the 50’s has contributed to this immensely, and is in fact the little monster in the ointment that while not intended per se, was in fact the result. For example. Society applauds the little girl who eschews traditional girl roleplay. She becomes more boylike in her attitudes and expression, and parent’s and society beams at how strong she is, a real leader etc, and what she’ll achieve in her life. A real go getter!. Yet have a boy do anything girl like, because that’s what he likes as an individual, and the parents go running for cover for the embarrassment of it all. Oh gosh, he’ll be gay, probably end up an artist rather than CEO like his sister, not really “making it in this world”. What?

    That can only mean that girl behavior, and therefore girls, are not really worthy of being who they are, that their only worth comes from being playthings and eye/arm candy for men, because they do “silly” and “frou-frou” things whereas men do important stuff. We have decided that it’s ok for women to have same sex relations and in fact by the looks of porn that seems to be the highest fanatasy of the prevailing view. So berhaps bi sexual women are in 2nd place because at least they are practicing the same style of attraction as a man would. Hmm. interesting concept, but probably wrong. That a man does “silly” stuff must mean he is not serious, because he has willingly descended to the level of a second class, where one then must question him, because nobody would do that if there weren’t something wrong with them. And it makes only the best sense that a second class citizen would want to raise themself up by taking on the attributes of their superiors. In a goofy way, feminism has entrenched the idea, that women can do all that a man can do, and for the most part that’s true, while failing to celebrate the very essence of being a women, since nobody but nobody would want to emulate such a lower class of being. That’s where I think feminism as we have known it has gone horribly awry from what it’s message should have been. That message, in my opinion, would have been, “you men would be lucky to imitate women, as we are far more superior in thoughts, attitudes and abilities, including personal freedoms, and that by embracing that part of yourself you are in fact evolving to a higher state of being.” Perhaps we weren’t ready for that yet. But the question is why are we still not?

    I think this whole thing also touches on racism, and cultural belief about religion, one is better than another, instead of one is just different from another. I find it interesting that I hear, especially over hear, the loud expression of “living an authentic life”. But apparently that means that only I am to be allowed to live that authentic life. If you do, we will deride and hound you, even to the point of killing you if we have to, for being weird and different and in someway a threat to us. But if you are authentic by becoming more like the prevailing thought then we will place you on a pedestal as a model for all to emulate. Does anybody else think that maybe this in fact is the cultural psychological disorder that Jenna Lyon’s son, with his painted toenails may be facing?

    I rather liked your description of first painting them pink, the replacing it with blue, yet hiding them and being very self conscious about what others would think. Would they think less of you with the pink on, or the same whether it was pink or blue. Unless they didn’t like blue and then of course what would that mean? It’s interesting because you may not like pink, or maybe you do, but that you didn’t like it on may have been such a stretch of the social rule that you disliked it becaause it made you even more uncomfortable than the blue, which was odd enough on its’ own.

    It’s also interesting because up until the 40’s pink was denoted for boys because it was a lighter version of warrior red, and blue for girls because of the sprituality and purity of girls. Then someone decided it should be the opposite so you can imagine the stress the first parents had when they presented their baby girl in pink and my gosh what would the neighbors be think they’re little girl might grow up butch. LOL! But then women used a man color of RED on their nails and that was sexy? What’s up with that? Why wouldn’t they have worn blue for heaven’s sake?

    I apologize for the length and the perhaps run on structure of this, but my thoughts come tumbling out and in my mind I am having a conversation, rather than writing a book. Thank you for the courtesy in allowing me to express myself.

  5. mark says:

    good post for thoughts. although i’m late to this party, someone somewhere might read it and get another perspective. my interest in posting is about your wife being a good feminist, yet at the same time acquiescing to social standards that defines rigidity in gender expression. that is interesting to me.

    as a man, and too bad I have to qualify this as being a straight man, married, three kids, who wears polish on his toes, and openly I might add, this is an area that I think the feminist movement forgot about.

    why do I like it? it’s a bit of color on an overall drab canvas-guys aren’t given alot of latitude with style and expression for one. I like the shine, and I think everybody’s feet look better polished. it hurts no one, it’s fun to try the thousands of colors out there, and it’s not permanent like a tattoo-I can show it or not, change it when I want, and wear it or not.

    I notice women when their toes are colored, or even just clear polished glance at their toes a lot more than when they are not polished. I think it’s because it just looks so darned good they keep admiring the look of it all. well why would anyone assume that a guy would like that any less? guess what? they don’t. they find it attractive as well. and besides, why would anyone care what is or is not on my toes??? if they do, then does not everybody not think that is too weird for words???? life is short, somebody will always find something to criticize you for.

    to my original point. both men and women have bought into the guys can’t wear polish because it’s only for girls. why? the only answer that comes to mind is “because”, which is no answer-it’s an autopilot opinion based on no support.

    the only real reason, based on substantial reflection and study and personal reflection, is that male things are deemed more important than female things, which is why if men do what girls like then they downgrade themselves, while if a woman imitates men, then she upgrades. but that means the whole culture believes women are second class as and shouldn’t be imitated at all. that’s also why even today, while accepted, still raises eyebrows that a fellow becomes a nurse, but the woman who becomes a fireman is applauded. therefore, any man who does anything of female typed activity must be gay, again even more like third class. yet where did the even idea of man doing women things become even that?? so I shouldn’t cook, or help my wife clean the house? see how far that will get you! those things should mean I’m gay too, n’est pas? let’s keep that logical continuum. and heaven forbid we associate color now too with that. hmmm. I like red on my toes, but that’s a woman’s color, not for a man. dang, have to now trade in my red truck because it’s red, and by reason, I don’t want to be thought of as gay. see how nonsensical that is?

    the feminists, when trying to bring parity to being female should have realized from the start, that in effect they were saying, male patriarchal society is right, men and their activities are more important, so let’s get society to accept us better if we are allowed to act like them. of course, because of where they started from, they probably figured pay and opportunities were more important than self and image. understandable, but wrong, and today that needs to be corrected.

    in any event, I like my toes polished and many men do too. not my fingers because I’m hard on my hands and my fingernails would be trashed quickly. that looks bad on anybody, although the younger women don’t seem to have an issue with that for some reason. a lot of them wear color, but don’t maintain it and it looks terrible. just my 2 cents. but good post

  6. Jake says:

    Exactly! Men have the right to wear what they want, as do women. Wearing nail polish is something that many people do because they like the way it looks and feels on them. Mark has obviously gotten beyond the social stigma that many of us allow to constrain our lives and I think it’s healthy to ‘think outside the box’ sometimes because it serves to broaden your perspective and give you a more enriched view of the world around you.

    The author of this article was not comfortable wearing nail polish because he, like many of us, fears what others ‘might’ think about it. Ironic isn’t it, that we fear what we think might happen, thus we don’t allow ourselves to experience many things in life that might be fun, exciting, daring, etc. Sure, one has to use common sense in this case and not unduly risk harm to oneself, but can wearing nail polish actually harm anyone?

    Okay, I’ll come clean. Like Mark above, I wear my toenails polished as well. It was not because of an academic pursuit however, but because I was actually curious about what it would feel like. You see, my wife wears her nails polished all of the time and it was actually her suggestion that I try it because of me asking her what it felt like. She offered to ‘share’ this experience with me and I accepted, thus I ended up with shiny deep maroon toenails one evening.
    What I felt at the time was a mixture of wonder, excitement, curiosity, rebellion, remorse (a little, because it did feel odd to have her painting my toenails at first) and exhilaration. The experience was more positive than I had expected, and I could not tell you why back then, but now I look back and see it as a freedom of sorts from the social bonds that would previously not allow me to consider this. The fact that my wife was willing to help me try this was the ice-breaker and gave me the permission I needed to get past the hurdle of my intrepidation about wearing nail polish.
    Of course, you might wonder why I was even interested in this. No socially-adjusted ‘normal’ male should even have a remote interest in this except for possibly seeing it on the longer and feminine-looking fingernails of an attractive and well dressed women, right? Well, let’s just say that I am the type of guy who likes to try new things, I love the rush I experience when I try something new and it has rarely left me with the feeling that I should never have tried it (like riding a bike down a ski hill did – bad idea!).
    The next question you pose might be “then why do you continue to wear nail polish?” Simply stated, because I like it! From that first time, seeing my nails look so glossy and neat with that deep maroon polish on them, I just became a fan of it and now I don’t care for how my toenails look when they are bare (they look ugly and bland). The treatment that goes along with a pedicure also really helps my feet stay in much better condition than they used to (no painful ingrown nails anymore!). And, I consider it a plus that others compliment the way my feet look, though even if they didn’t I would still enjoy how they look and feel to me.
    Am I just trying to justify all of this, do I really feel nervous and ashamed of my feet with nail polish on them? There was a short time when this may have been true, when I first began to wear them in public because this felt like treading into uncharted and dangerous territory – a woman’s world. But honestly, I decided that I liked it enough myself that it really didn’t matter anymore what others thought about it – I can’t do anything about what they think anyway.
    But maybe the real reason why I am completely comfortable with wearing my toenails polished is because of my wife’s attitude about it. She feels that it helps make my feet look well cared-for and attractive, and she enjoys that it is quality time that she and I can share together. And, she thinks it’s hot!
    It makes me wonder, if more men were willing to do things like this, would they be less aggressive and abusive of women…?

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