For Glamour, by Elizabeth Logan.
I firmly believe it’s weird to pay to hold hands with a stranger for the better part of an hour, which is to say, I don’t like getting manicures. But I do like having my nails painted, so in eighth grade, I set upon the tedious task of teaching myself to do it. At that point, I’d owned two bottles of polish: black and iridescent blue. (So punk.) My mother hated to see me wear the black, and I admit it didn’t look right with my Sailor Moon–style school uniform, so I alternated between blue and black with blue over it.
One day during the fall of freshman year, as I reached to get something from my backpack, I guess my iridescent blue fingernails (still working with two colors at this point) caught the light, because the coolest/most terrifying girl in school we’ll call Karen (name changed, you think I’m gonna commit social suicide?), a sophomore with great style, grabbed my hand and demanded, “Where did you get this color?”
“Walgreens.” I mumbled, starstruck. Karen said I was wearing the “exact” shade Hallie Parker (Lindsay Lohan) wears in The Parent Trap’s infamous poker scene, and she’d been searching for it “forever.” (Bear in mind we were having this conversation circa 2007 and The Parent Trap came out in 1998, but a girl doesn’t forget an iconic nail color.)
Karen pulled me over to one of her friends and showed her my self-administered manicure: “Lizzie found the color.” I shrugged like it was NBD and offered to bring the bottle in some time so they could borrow it, but I never did. I wasn’t ever letting those 0.5 ounces of liquid cool out of my sight.
It wasn’t until college, however, that I embraced the truly healing powers of nail polish. By this time, I’d realized that in addition to painting your nails, there are a number of other semipermanent modifications you can make to your appearance that sort of do the same job as makeup without making you deal with makeup. You can get your nose pierced, cut bangs, dye your hair red, bleach a chunk of your hair, dye the chunk purple using Manic Panic that will, sure as the sun rises, fade to blue and then to green every three weeks. I did all these things! But the main thing I did was invest in a number of pastel Essie shades, my favorite being a light lavender color that just made me happy when I looked at it. This was important since, well, let’s just say college wasn’t the greatest time of my life, despite what Van Wilder promised.
Some things I could not bring myself to do on a regular basis during my first two years of college: my reading, my assignments, attend class, exercise. Some things I did as often as possible during my first two years of college: my laundry, shower, watch Veronica Mars, my nails.
Any small, easily accomplishable task with immediate results was worth my time. Things like education were not. So every other night I’d queue up an episode of some sitcom and carefully paint my nails, making it last as long as possible, which meant three thick layers on every finger. I didn’t get into nail art, because I didn’t want to be frustrated or have to concentrate. I just wanted to Zen out. The next day, every time I looked at my usually lavender fingertips, I’d feel momentarily calm and happy, and, well, it looked nice, and I’m not above wanting to look nice.
It seemed mature and responsible. Some of my classmates were biting their fingers down to the cuticle in pre-exam stress; mine were long and shapely. (It did help that I had very little pre-exam stress because I was skipping most of my exams.) When even the tiniest crack would appear in my mani, I’d pick and peel and chip away at the polish to give myself an excuse to ritualistically paint them again, because if I could start over, if I could do it again, maybe it would turn out different. I left a trail of Essie chips across campus, and to the maintenance staff who had to vacuum it out of the industrial carpet, I am truly sorry.
Turns out, I’m not alone in using polish as a coping skill of sorts, and there’s a sound psychological basis for doing your nails.
“I often recommend that clients include painting their nails as one of many helpful coping skills,” said Greta Angert, a Los Angeles–based licensed psychotherapist specializing in anxiety. “Sitting down to paint your nails is a simple gesture that tells you ‘I’m worth it,’ ‘I deserve this.’” Angert added: “People also talk with their hands, and seeing a pretty color can brighten their mood. Women also compliment each other’s manicures quite frequently, and there’s nothing wrong with a little ego boost during your day.”
According to Angert, people who struggle with minor anxiety often find solace in the repetitive motion of nail painting, and — because it requires concentration — those of us who have racing negative thoughts can get a reprieve.
Thinking about the therapeutic uses of nail polish made me remember something I’d heard years ago, a rumor that’s, fair warning, a little dark: Just like painting your nails can remind you to stop biting them, it can also remind recovering bulimics not to use their fingers to purge. I asked my close friend Clarissa (name changed, you think I’m gonna be that irresponsible?), who has been in recovery from bulimia for a few years, if she’s ever heard this. Here’s what she told me:
“In early recovery the urges to use behaviors [binge and purge] are strong and irrational. They can feel blinding and totally out of your control, and it feels like there’s nothing you can do except use the behavior. Delay tactics, like nail painting, teeth brushing, etc., are helpful ways of getting through these urges until they pass. Like, painting one’s nails is not going to override to binge or purge, but it forces you to pay attention to something else for a while.” She stressed that it’s not a long-term strategy, but that she’s used it a couple of times and found it calming.
These days my nails are shorter and often nude; I’m trying (and failing) to learn the acoustic guitar. When I do paint them, I favor neutral tones. But last week I decided to resurrect the iridescent blue after years of dormancy. A coworker saw my hand and said, “Oh, I love your nail polish! Is that because of, like, the mermaid-unicorn trend?” I got defensive and said: “No, it’s not because of the ‘mermaid’ or ‘unicorn’ trend. I’ve been wearing this shade for years. This this is the shade Hallie Parker wears in the poker scene in The Parent Trap, and it’s kind of my signature color.”
P.S. Okay, so I don’t know FOR SURE that the color I have is the same one Lindsay wore in The Parent Trap, since I haven’t talked to The Parent Trap’s makeup people, but if you are looking to approximate the look, here are my suggestions:
Sally Hansen Complete Salon Manicure in "Black and Blue" (that's what I'm wearing in the picture. Be warned you have to put on four coats to get it to really pop but it stays on well.) or Sally Hansen HD in "Pixel Pretty".
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