I want a girl with uninterrupted prosperity
Who uses a machete to cut through red tape
With fingernails that shine like justice…
“Short Skirt, Long Jacket” by Cake
Traveling in other countries, I like observing people. Specifically, I like seeing how foreign women represent beauty.
Hair colors. Outfits. Makeup. It’s fun to contemplate different ways women present themselves to the world. I also love that it’s arbitrary. There is no absolute universal concept.
In Japan, there are many ideas about beauty. But I’m most fascinated here by the intricate bedazzled nails many women sport. Historically in many Asian countries, long thin fingernails were a sign of status and femininity.
I have to admit I’m often caught between fear and awe of those nails, which like the Cake song lyrics describe, sometimes really do wield a strange abstract power.
I’m also curious how the women owning them perform basic functions like taking out contacts or scrubbing the kitchen sink. But I suppose that it’s the impracticality of the nails that lend their appeal. (Like bound feet once considered beautiful in China)
In my case, I’ve always had an awkward relationship with my own nails.
I was a chronic nail biter for years, and the concept of a manicure was foreign to me until my late 20s. My own mother never went to a nail salon, nor did any other female I knew. Paying for a manicure or pedicure was silly to me considering I could do it at home for free.
I remember meeting a girl once in college with long acrylic nails. She showed them off one day. On the middle fingernail of her left hand, an appliqué read, “Golddigger.” On the right hand, another announced, “Bitch!”
When I finally did start visiting nail salons at the age of 28, I always veered towards neutral colors. I found a Vietnamese nail salon in my city offering a mani-pedi combo for only $14. Did I ever splurge the $2 extra for French Tip? Not a chance.
Soon after arriving in Japan, I went to get my nails done with my Okinawan friend, Kanae. We were given a thick book to peruse with hundreds of nail designs. Rainbows, black cats, skull and crossbones, even beach scene panoramas. All of them to be painstaking painted on with tiny brushes.
When they asked me which design I wanted, I declined even though it was no extra charge.
I just wasn’t ready for that drastic next step.
Kanae was shocked. “But nails are so boring without designs!” she protested.
When I told her it wasn’t a standard custom to get elaborate designs on our nails in the States, she was shocked that Americans tolerate such incomplete service.
At first, I didn’t understand her sense of entitlement at all, and then I remembered how I felt when forced to pay for ketchup at a McDonalds in France.
That day, I gave in and agreed to a simple non-confrontational daisy flower painted on my big toes.
In the years since, I still won’t do anything crazy to my fingernails. However when it comes to toes, I have grown bolder in my color choices and designs. This year I’m getting holiday themed nails for Christmas.
If you’re interested in nail art in Japan, be prepared to fork over the cash. Salons in Tokyo charge as much as 1,000 yen (~$10 US) per nail. In Okinawa, it costs about 4,000 yen (~$40 US) although gems, fuzzy things, and 3D stuff cost extra.
Have you ever adopted a beauty custom from another culture? Henna tattoo? Hairstyle? Fashion Trend? Any regrets?