I was writing an article the other day about expenses I’ve had to cut from my life to start being more financially healthy, and it dawned on me that I have spent close to a thousand dollars on nail care this year alone. I felt physically sick at that news, and immediately ran through the mental list of everything I could have bought with that money (most of it came in the form of plane tickets, but 1,000 dollars could also have bought me a pair of Louboutins if I wanted, with enough leftover for the high-quality wallet I’ve been putting off investing in for six months).
Before this year, I had gotten professional manicures once every year at most — only for special occasions — and since discovering the gel manicure around January, I was almost never without an elaborate, artful manicure that cost me anywhere from 30 to 70 dollars. I started doing my own nails about two months ago, and for the life of me, I cannot tell you what the appeal of having them done professionally ever really was, aside from the Instagram likes. My life has not changed one iota from having amateur nails.
I would always rationalize these purchases to myself by saying that I have never once dyed my hair, for example, and thus have saved myself untold amounts in salon visits I never needed. I forgo other beauty routines — I do my own eyebrows, blowouts, and facials — so I figured that my nails could be my one “splurge.” (Looking back, I should have gotten the facials.) But regardless of what it is, why do I feel that I need any of it?
Some of it is aesthetic to be sure. I pick colors I like for my nails or makeup or clothes. I style my hair in a way that I find bouncy and fun. I like the art and the pleasant distraction of coordinating outfits or mindlessly applying a facial mask and letting it sit while I watch Netflix. These things are satisfying in their own right, and don’t seem to come from an unhealthy place.
But the strange (and very real) delusion that something like impeccable manicures or unnaturally shiny hair make me somehow a better person do not come from within myself. They come from the general notion that women — from Disney Princesses, to the airbrushed shots of comely female CEOs on the cover of business books — that my prettiness is a big part of my value.
Even in a job that doesn’t require a whole lot of face time (as a writer, I am almost always behind my keyboard), navigating society feels a whole lot easier when I am not just presentable, but deeply and deliberately feminine. Maintaining an aesthetic of put-together, untouchable elegance via expensive beauty routines and an ever-changing wardrobe seems to be the unspoken key to much female success. We imagine our rise to the top of whatever career ladder we aspire to will be greatly aided by our smart Kate Spade handbag or our professionally-exfoliated faces. I associate (and I believe I am not alone in doing so) the cost of elaborate beauty treatments as an occupational expense. If I want to be successful, I have to be a certain person, and that person is the effortlessly chic woman on Instagram with the perfect nails, and the masterfully-chosen outfit.
I know that men are not exempt from the pressures of dressing for the job they want. Marc has likely paid for a new executive washroom at Paul Smith headquarters in his time. But his routine is straightforward — a new suit or so at regular intervals, trips to a no-frills barber, and his shaving kit. There’s a little more here and there, but when he gets ready for work, he spends a few minutes in the bathroom and then chooses what color shirt he wants to wear that day. It’s attention to detail, sure, but it is not an all-consuming quicksand of ways to make him better in tiny, unimportant increments.
But a woman could (and sometimes does) spend her entire income on trims and treatments and trips to the esthetician, and still not be doing enough. She could still convince herself that there was a crucial part of the equation she had not fulfilled — her roots were showing, for example — and that she was denying herself the life she deserved. The auxiliary costs of being a woman are as much in our heads as they are, sometimes, real investments in our future. Sometimes the clothes really do make the difference, depending on where you are interviewing. But no lifestyle should cost a round-trip ticket to Italy’s worth of manicures a year.
That’s just crazy.
Image via Unsplash