By Gill Harris
While topping up my travel card in Republica station, a central metro station in Sao Paulo, I am struck by the intricately painted nails of the lady who attends me. As she slips my card back under the glass divide, I notice she’s gone for a glossy turquoise. “Nice nails,” I say to her, taking my change, and she smiles briefly before moving on to the next customer. This is not the first time since being in Brazil that I’ve commented on a stranger’s nail art. In fact, it’s almost more remarkable to be given your change by a pair of non-decorated female hands.
Nail upkeep in this part of the world is a serious business: as much a part of the routine as washing your hair. Many women I know have a weekly appointment at a nail salon. Many salons offer loyalty cards that make regular nail sessions even cheaper than they would be normally (which, incidentally, is cheap: a average mani-pedi will set you back just £9 in Sao Paulo, £7 in Rio and £6 in Belo Horizonte). At the end of the year, as the pressure’s on to achieve that perfect New Year’s Eve look, the salon receptionist becomes everybody’s best friend, and women practically start fist-fights over the much-coveted last spot in the beauty parlour’s appointment book. Brazilian friends living in London often complained to me about the lack of decent nail houses (by which they meant Brazilian-owned nail houses), because apparently we Brits aren’t cut out to cut cuticles in the proper fashion!
Jokes aside, after living in Brazil for four months, I reckon that the phenomenon of pristinely polished nails and its connotations can point us towards some worthwhile insights into one of the world’s most macho societies. Firstly, to state the obvious, painted tips are yet another manifestation of the pressure placed on women of all ages to conform to an idealised body stereotype. Suffering to be beautiful (whether using uncomfortably high-heels, waxing our bikini lines or cutting our cuticles until they bleed and then painting over the open skin with a highly-alcoholic substance!), women rarely stop to ask themselves: who am I suffering for? Is this something I am doing for myself, or for others?
Leading Brazilian nail-polish producer Risque caused a scandal earlier last year by releasing a range of Homens que Amamos (Men we Love) themed varnishes, each colour celebrating a different act undertaken by the men in our lives, which the company deemed worthy of homage – among these, André made dinner, Fê sent me a text message, Zeca asked me out. Many women took to Twitter to angrily suggest that these activities were not especially worthy of praise, but the bottom-line of this marketing stunt reminds us that while the immediate target audience of nail polish might be women, the act of painting one’s nails is viewed ultimately as a way of pleasing the “men we love”.
Furthermore, the nail salon itself is a space that foments and perpetuates social stereotypes. Those offering the service are usually working-class, black or mixed-race women and girls who have been assured that this is an appropriate profession to which someone of their social standing and skin-colour can aspire. Those being painted are usually middle-class, white women who have been assured that this is the most appropriate way to spend their husband’s money. I have never experienced so vividly a sense of the extreme inequalities that mark contemporary Brazil as when there were two black women waiting on me (literally) hand and foot.
Lastly, anyone who is as impatient and fidgety as I am will be able to tell you that manicures are not designed for active people. In fact, the fear of smudging freshly coated nails can paralyse even the most mobile woman for a good few hours. I once overheard a manicurist reproaching her client for doing too much washing-up. “How do you expect to keep these digits looking good for a week if you insist on cooking for your family,” she exclaimed, scandalised. Nail art is not just a social but also physical form of repression. Can you be a brick-layer, a chef, a mechanic, a gardener, a machine-operator or a ship-engineer and maintain a chip-free manicure for an entire week? Not likely.
However, at the same time it is not valid to suggest that you can’t be a feminist with a set of twenty, perfectly-shaped and shining nails. I consider myself a feminist, even more so in Brazil which is, unfortunately, a good few years behind the UK in terms of respecting and understanding women’s struggle for equality. And since being here I have had four manicures and two pedicures. Not excessive, I think, but substantially more than I’d had when I lived in London (a grand total of 0!)
Writing this piece I asked myself why I felt the need to get my nails painted in Brazil. Well, why not? It’s cheap, it’s fun, it’s a nice treat and it makes me feel good about myself. What is feminism if not the demand for the right to do what I want with my body? As the popular hashtag succinctly puts it: #mybodymyrevolution.
However, the problem of course lies in the fact that my decision about what to do with my body is never going to be one hundred percent self-driven. Instead, a million external influences direct the way I view myself in the mirror. How can I look down at my neatly decorated toes and say with confidence: “this is a feminist pedicure, I understand the implications of this apparently innocuous act of body art and I chose to embrace them?”
I think these debates ought to be at the heart of such social, cultural and aesthetic phenomena that cause polemic today in Brazil. Rather than allowing them to worry about whether to get a daring hot pink or a classic French, we ought to be inspiring future generations of women to consider how to separate what we want and what we are taught to want. Instead of taking a restrictive and short-sighted “no-go” stance on manicures, we should encourage young girls to ask themselves: is my manicure for my mates, for my man, or for me?
Gill Harris holds an Mphil in Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge. A few months ago, she left her native UK in search of greener pastures and found herself in smoggy Sao Paulo. As she has recently discovered, her two passions, feminism and samba, sadly aren't the best bedfellows, and Gill is constantly “accidentally” treading on the toes of the men who “accidentally” touch her arse on the dancefloor. You can read more of her writing here: https://gillinbrazil.wordpress.com/
(Photo creator_Markus Spiske, https://www.pexels.com/photo/school-colorful-paint-kid-103680/)