Uh-Oh. I look at my hands with dread. I need to fix this. Now.
Let me take you back to a few moments before I had this feeling of dread.
I’m in my office. I’m getting ready for a meeting. The Big Meeting. With the Big Boss.
He asked for an update on a mobile app we’ve been developing. The project is over budget and past the launch date. I was pulled in at the last minute. At a time when corporate politics are stacked against me, I need this to go well.
I need a win.
I take my eyes off the monitor. When I notice it. Uh-oh.
I’m looking at all ten of my perfectly manicured nails. Each of them filed into rounded squares -short, sensible and neat. Each of them painted a professional non-offensive bright beige.
My index fingernail is chipped. Big time. Against my dark skin, the contrast is obvious.
I take another deep breath. Sigh.
I will be the one presenting the mobile app to the Big Boss. For at least 40 minutes, everyone will be staring at my fingernails.
They will be staring at this blunt chipped fingernail.
This is going to reflect so badly on me.
This chipped nail will be the equivalent of having chocolate fudge smudged all over my front teeth.
Quickly, my mind gets into calculating.
Okay – I still got time.
Meeting is at 2:30.
Lunch break at 1.
Book the appointment with the manicurist now, scarf your lunch down on the way. You can make this happen!
As the manicurist starts the ritual of soak, base coat, polish and top coat – I had a brief out of body moment.
I floated out of my seat.
I saw myself with this patient nail technician who was using her notepad to fan my single nail. Now, she was blowing on my single nail – her lips curled into an open-mouthed circle.
And I thought – well, isn’t this just the most ridiculous thing in the world?
The feeling didn’t last for ridiculous.
I was back in my high-heels; running, running, running again.
Down the pavement, up the marble stairs, to my office and into the bright shiny penthouse office of the Big Boss. Tugging my shirt, flattening my hair, smiling brightly, widely and nervously.
All ten fingers now perfectly manicured, I walked in – confident I’ve done everything I could to prepare for this meeting.
If none of this story lands with you – I ask you to keep an open mind.
Getting your nails done seems like a superficial trivial thing. It is frivolity. It is what women do for fun – right? Why is this even an issue? Why did I have to run to get my nails done for a presentation?
It can be difficult for those outside of the system to truly understand just how oppressive the expectations placed on professional women are… maybe because they haven’t experienced it.
Let me break it down for you.
Why was I trying so hard to have a perfectly manicured hand?
Did someone from HR sit me down and tell me I needed to look a certain way if I wanted to get ahead? No.
The message that my physical appearance was linked to my professional progression came in a variety of ways.
The first time I walked into the lobby of my new office, I saw the focus on the aesthetics. The women behind the reception desk were impeccably dressed, painted faces and arched feet. The thousand-dollar art in every corner was prestigiously ambiguous. It was the kind of art someone with ‘good taste’ would buy.
I also got the message from the other employees in the organisation. I’ll never forget the first time a fellow coworker stared at me from head to toe when I walked past her.
The women who were in positions of power walked through the hallways looking like something out of a fashion magazine. The men for their part were fit and dressed in sharp suits. I later learned of some men going on extreme diets and having Botox injected into their foreheads.
It was a bizarre world, but it was now the world I was in. Or the world I was trying to advance in.
What is the underlying message here?
Having your nails done is the ultimate symbol of being a woman of privilege. What is the message here? I have the time and money to spend 90 minutes every fortnight having my cuticles pushed back, nail perfectly shaped and glossy paint brushed over it.
And after this ritual is done – my nails look perfect for the next ten days. I maintain this perfectly polished veneer. Why? I do nothing, literally nothing, with my hands.
When having manicures become the norm and expectation for professional women – we’ve got a problem. Big. Time.
The underlying message is – We want women to be perfect. There is a Perfect. If you get your nails done, if only you get your hair coiffed, if, if, if, you do this, this, this, we will consider you worthy.
Perfectionism disproportionately affects and costs women of color. Anyone who is outside the dominant identity feels the very real pressure that they need to be super. Perfect. Brilliant to gain access. To have a seat – literally in my case – at the boardroom table in the big Boss’s pent-house of an office.
No – this isn’t just about getting your nails done. This is about how the standards imposed on women’s professional appearances:
It takes so much of time
It is expensive
It literally takes up your brain space
It is ridiculous that my professional credibility to develop an app seems to be tied to my ability to have perfectly manicured nails.
While men are also expected to uphold ridiculous standards of external aesthetics (body, wrinkles and also this disproportionately affects women.
And so, now with the power of hindsight – I look back at that woman who was running across the street to get a single nail painted. I can’t help but shake my head.
Shake my head at the sense of desperation I felt
The deep desire to be approved of and to have a sip of the sense of belonging.
To be told – you matter. You’re worth it.
To be given the nod of approval.
I shake my head at the insane pressure and the hostility of that environment which fried my brain into believing that a chipped nail would be the reason the app approval wouldn’t go through.
There is nothing new about this sick way expectations of femininity are oppressive. It keeps us frozen in place – chasing literally the wrong things. We’re stuck chasing beauty, youth, thinness and whiteness.
Running around to get your nails done or your hair curled – it takes time, effort and money. This is time and effort women can use to invest in themselves, their rest and their professional development. When we are caught in a perpetual trap trying to meet this surface level expectations of perfection keep us from accessing the deep states of flow. The deep moments of creation.
If we don’t play along with the social expectations – we get punished.
A few months prior to The Chipped Nail Incident – I was sitting at the board room table. A conversation was going on about what to do with a space within the office which had become vacant.
Should we put in a childcare facility? Perhaps another department needed the space?
“How about a spa? You ladies are always getting your nails done during lunch…”
The core decision maker in the room had spoken up. He was the Big Boss.
It was just a passing comment. It didn’t have any traction within the meeting. Very quickly, everyone moved on.
But to me, I had a visceral response.
Without even intending to do it, I took my hands off the white table and curled my fingers into my palms. Hiding my unmanicured nails from all to see. That comment stayed with me.
“…you ladies are always getting your nails done”
Oh God. Was I supposed to get my nails done now? What’s going to happen when I don’t? Something happened at that moment. I then, spent hundreds of Dirhams, way too many hours sitting at The Nail Spa while crossing off items in my mental to-do list.
Painted nails are not the problem.
I LOVE getting my nails done. It is an incredibly fun and relaxing ritual. It is a form of creativity. It can be a burst of your personality.
At this stage of my life, getting my nails done is a special treat.
As I write this, my fingernails are naked with cuticles in full blossom. My toenails have the remnants of a fuchsia nail polish I had applied on it three months ago. And it is no big deal. I’m probably not going to change that for weeks or months to come.
This is the difference.
I don’t feel ashamed or inadequate because I have nails which look like this.
Around me are other travelers and working class workers.
We aren’t being scanned from head to foot to prove some ridiculous standard of what it means to be perfect.
This is what I want for us.
I want us to acknowledge and loosen the expectations on women’s physical appearances. I want us to break away from the Perfect Barbie standard and move more to the Woman Who Is Incredible Because Of How She Thinks and Moves Through The World.
I want us to move further and further and further away from needing to play a role in somebody else’s predetermined notion of professionalism. Away from capitalistic un-achievable aesthetics and closer to individualized forms of personal expression.
I want us to RECLAIM our precious time and mental capacity.
To be open to deep rest, deep flow and not worrying about a bloody chipped nail.