Many women are concerned about the appearance of their nails; there are boundless sites offering various tips, techniques, and products for achieving clean, healthy, and well-groomed looking nails. Before getting into the nitty-gritty of nail care (or trying to penetrate more deeply into the phenomenon) let’s take a quick look at what fingernails actually are.
The fingernail is actually made from the same thing as animal claws, hoofs, and horns: a tough protein called keratin. The nail is made up of four parts:
- The nail plate, or the nail itself, which covers the dorsal aspect of the terminal phalanges of your finger (a fancy way of saying, “the tip” of your finger);
- The nail matrix, which is a tissue which the nail bed rests on, and which is also responsible for producing the cells that become the nail plate – the white part at the bottom of your nail, which is called the lunula, is the only visible part of the nail matrix.
- The nail bed: a layer of skin underneath the nail plate, which moves forward with the nail as it grows. Like any type of skin, it is made up of two different kinds of tissue: the dermis, which is attached to the bone and has capillaries and glands in it, and the epidermis, or the more superficial layer which is just underneath the nail plate;
- The grooves surrounding the nail, which is the skin (or to put it more fancily, the “cutaneous slits”) into which the nail is embedded.
Now that we’ve talked a little about what the fingernail is made of, let’s see what the fingernail is for. In addition to protecting your fingers from injury, the fingernails also helps out or enhances your finger’s sense of touch by providing a counter force which increases your fingertip’s sensitivity when you touch an object. On top of that, it can be used as a tool (think scratching lotto tickets, pulling a splinter out of your skin).
Now, before getting into some of the tips and tricks one can do to keep your nails looking nice, it is worth mentioning that the appearance of your nails has a lot to do with their health, or in other words with your health, or in other words with what you eat. The Vitamins, minerals, and nutrients which contribute to the health of your nails are: Vitamin A, Vitamin D, Calcium, Vitamin B-12, protein, folic acid, Vitamin C, essential fatty acids, linoleic acid, and iron.
A deficiency in one or more of the above mentioned vitamins, minerals, or nutrients could contribute to a variety of nail problems, such as dryness, brittleness, darkened nails, rounded or curved nail ends, fragility, horizontal or vertical ridges, white nail beds, hang nails, splitting, flaking, pale color, and flat or even concave (as opposed to the healthy convex) nails.
Moving now, to a typical site on the topic of nail care, we are told that “everyone” likes clean, well-polished and well cared for nails, and that these well groomed nails are the perfect representatives of one’s overall health and fitness. It also warns you against overusing your nails as a tool, as you could chip or otherwise tarnish their presentation. It then follows with a number of particular tips for obtaining the clean and well-groomed nails mentioned above:
- Before bed every night, thoroughly wash your hands, then after wiping them dry apply a moisturizer. Then, rub some petroleum jelly in to your cuticles along with the skin surrounding your nails.
- While doing any type of housework, especially when harsh cleaning products are involved, wear gloves to protect your nails from chipping or the above mentioned cleaners.
- Don’t use a nail polish remover that is either acetone or formaldehyde-based. Instead, use one that contains acetate.
- Don’t file your nails straight from the shower; wet nails tend to break more easily.
- File your nails in one direction only, since using a back and forth motion can make your nails brittle.
- Do something called nail buffing, which increases the blood supply to the nail, which stimulates its growth, and keeps your nails strong and shiny looking.
- Artificial nails: stay away from them. They destroy your real nails with their chemicals and glue, and can also lead to fungal infections.
We have now, talked about what nails are made from, what the purpose of nails are, what types of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients we must get plenty of to have healthy nails, and finally we have looked at some of the typical tips and tricks prescribed in order to maintain the appearance of our nails. What we have not done yet, it talk about why, in the first place, women (or at least, especially women) are concerned about the appearance of their nails.
In an article called Using Nail Polish To Teach About Gender and Homophobia by Nelta M. Edwards from the department of Sociology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, the presentation of well-groomed or polished fingernails is discussed as a form of gender performance for women. Edwards says that women who are used to having their nails painted, or who are generally well-groomed in appearance, do not like the idea of going out in public with unpainted or ungroomed nails.
Furthermore, women who do not conform to this custom of grooming or painting can be singled out or criticized by their peers: Edwards writes that a lot of women say that they can be reprimanded by other women for sporting “shoddy” nails, and can even be criticized for doing their nails like a 5-year-old. In this case, writes Edwards, the pressure to conform to the proper gender performance is not spurred by the lack of nail polish altogether, but by a “job” that is poorly applied.
Furthermore, Edwards writes that the public shaming these women experience regarding their sub-par nail job demonstrates their own concern, in the first place, regarding their appearance. In other words, women are expected, by their peers, to go through the personal grooming necessary to maintain neat and polished nails, and feel dismay at the idea of going out in public without this prior grooming being displayed. The suggestion behind this expected gender performance, is that women are meant to care about their personal appearance, and are meant to spend time and energy in order to maintain this neat and polished personal appearance.
On the other hand, men are apparently not meant to put this kind of thought and care into their appearance, and Edwards even suggests that this type of personal grooming or preening is considered by men to be beneath them:
“Behaviors and characteristics associated with men are celebrated in patriarchal culture, while those associated with women are not. When men wear colored nail polish they are doing what society has deemed as appropriate mostly for women. Because women are beneath men in the gender hierarchy, doing what women do may lead men to have negative feelings about themselves,” writes Edwards.
Keeping in mind the article about nails and gender performance now, there are some interesting themes in the 7 nail grooming tips listed above. For one, to have beautiful nails one must spend time applying various techniques and procedures (see #1, 4,5,and 6).
Secondly, while this kind of work (which also implies the knowledge of technique) must be performed in secret, we must also hide any other work we are doing that is of a practical nature, such as building, fixing, or washing (see #2); the chips or other wearings on our fingernails could betray this practical work, or this lack of leisure, to others.
Thirdly, on top of the special knowledge of grooming techniques we must employ in secret, we must also purchase special products (#1) to apply to our nails; but not only do we have to use special products, we also have to know which special products are the best ones to purchase (#3).
Finally, and I think most interestingly, our fingernail-virtue, although it is a show, must be a real show, as opposed to an artificial show (see #7); in other words, artificial nails will betray the fact that we have not really earned our well-groomed nails, and have not really applied the special techniques, acquired the special knowledge, or used our leisure time to maintain them.
To sum everything up: for women to be truly dutiful in their gender performance via their fingernails, their fingernails must show that they have applied techniques to them (it is interesting, too, that these techniques must be done in secret, only to show themselves after the fact in the finished product), that they have acquired the knowledge to apply the correct techniques, that they are free from any kind of manual labor or practical activity (in other words, that they possess leisure), that they have not only purchased products for their nails, but that they possess knowledge about which are the correct products to buy for their nails, and finally that they have truly gone through all of this nail-care labor, education, and consumption, and have not simply taken the easy route towards nice looking nails by slapping on artificial ones.