THE MEANING OF NAIL POLISH
The making of a woman is an interesting process. Our behaviors, styles, rules-to-live-by, conceptions of must-haves accumulate over a lifetime from all kinds of dubious sources. There are probably legions of women, for example, who learned “How to Please Your Man” from Cosmo, even though they probably could have just asked their men how to please them and their men probably would have listed far fewer than “10 Ways.”
Other women, I’m sure, have formed their ideas on womanhood from TV shows, believing that the modern woman was someone who could have three kids after forty while keeping the body she had at twenty; someone who got shit done in the boardroom but kept some ‘out of the box’ creativity in reserve for the bedroom; someone who was sarcastic and likeable, and always found time to make locally-sourced organic food for the family dog. (You might know this woman, incidentally, by her Harry Potter name: She Who Must Not Be Real).
Luckily for me, though, I didn’t need Cosmo. I had my mom. And my older sister. From the time I was a year old, my mom made sure that I always had earrings on before I left the house. It was no small act of genius, either. As I learned in high school when I cut my hair like Russell Crowe in The Gladiator, those earrings (and an unmentionably small pair of boobs) were the only things separating me from the boys.
From my sister I learned that putting on lipstick in a dressing room will almost certainly guarantee that you look better in whatever you’re trying on, and that tilting your head down while looking up at a camera will keep your eyes open when faced with the most obnoxious camera flash.
From my mom I learned that despite my pubescent pride in beating my bothers at arm wrestling, girls weren’t supposed to have muscles; girls were supposed to be delicate. (Which was interesting coming from someone who was the captain of her volleyball team in college and who drove me every week to soccer games.)
From my sister I learned that women basked in sunlight, we didn’t let it dazzle us. And that whenever something was irritating, real women pretended not to notice.
These big and small lessons in womanly bearing and feminine confidence were so subtle that I almost didn’t notice that I had absorbed them at all. That was, until a few weeks ago, when something surreal happened. I was watching my fingers flash across the keyboard and noticed that my nails were bright pink. But I didn’t wear nail polish; my sister wore nail polish. And yet, there I was. I ran to my cabinet and did a quick inventory: seven bottles, from mud brown to eye-popping coral. I had become a woman without even noticing.
And then I noticed other things: my neat piles of leggings, my drawers full of tights, my expensive lipstick and matching lip liner, the nakedness I felt when my earlobes were bare. When did this happen?
Those painted nails of mine brought to light all of the influences that my mother and sister had on the person, the woman, I had become. And it wasn’t just the two of them. There was BS, who taught me that a closet full of skirts and dresses could be much more fun than one with jeans and pants. There was KEM who showed me that wearing high-heels in the London winter didn’t mean inevitable frostbite. There was BN who taught me that self-doubt was so last decade. The more I thought about it, the more I recognized the women in my life in myself.
And there was so much more. My mother, the doctor, taught me and my sister that women would always have to work twice as hard as men to get ahead – and then showed us how to smash through barriers with style. She taught us to give freely of anything we had because having was a blessing. She taught us about quiet confidence and strength that didn’t need recognition to grow. She taught us – partly by starting her own business at sixty – that it was never too late to take a risk, and that we should always ask for what we wanted. At best, we would get it; at worst, people would think we were pushy (but really, what New Yorker didn’t wear pushiness as a badge of honor?). She taught us that grace and generosity were better when you didn’t show off how graceful and generous you were. Subtlety, she showed us, was amongst the highest of virtues.
I thought and thought about all the things I had learned. From my mother. From my sister. From AB, PD, BN, BS, KEM, and the hundreds of women in my life who contributed in whatever way to my awesomeness. And it occurred to me, too, that if anyone didn’t share my high estimation of myself, well, then, at least I knew who to blame.