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Gender, pedicures and pampering

By August 4, 20113 Comments
This morning I drove to Louisville (which is about an hour away) for a pedicure. As I was talking to my mother on ride down there (I promise all safe driving practices were strictly obeyed) she said, “You’re driving to Louisville for a pedicure?” This is from a woman who at the very mention of a pedicure exclaims, “No one’s touching my feet!”, so that she was surprised about me driving to Louisville isn’t really saying much. But as I was sitting in my pedicure chair, with my feet soaking in hot bubbly water and a woman with an indeterminate accent working on my feet, I thought to myself, “Yeh, you drove to Louisville for a pedicure. That’s kind of weird.”
As you might have gleaned, my mother was not a particularly fixy woman when it came to things like nail polish. I’m a second generation tomboy, and though my mother certainly takes care with her appearance, she’s doesn’t particularly spend a lot of time hanging out in salons. So though I certainly followed the gods of fashion in high school by trying to make my bangs stick straight up on my head and reading all the makeup tips in Seventeen, my heart was never really in it.

Then in college, I ran headlong into feminism. Picture one of those scenes in the movies with the two people running across the field of flowers into each other’s embrace, only in this scene, it’s me and feminism. Ah, finally, a whole academic body of knowledge that confirms my own sense of the world! That gives me a perfectly legitimate reason not to shave my legs, or wear makeup, or pay to get my haircut. Because parts of me didn’t really want to be doing any of those things in the first place. But now I had a reason besides laziness for not doing them.

And so I cut my hair short. For about two weeks in college, I experimented with wearing the exact same white, men’s, Hanes t-shirt and men’s jeans every day. Really. Every day. And I remember it being distinctly satisfying. And this was in the deep South.

Looking back on college, I see that my biggest fashion influence was, in fact, my college boyfriend. I wore his Birkenstocks, bought his flannel, long sleeve shirts, and had a sweater that was almost exactly like the sweater he wore without ceasing during the season that passes for winter in Mississippi.

When I went to graduate school, nothing very radical happened. The sweater and flannel shirts wore out and went out of fashion, though they were certainly more practical in an Indiana climate than they had been in Mississippi. I did come to the realization in graduate school that certain versions of feminism could, in the wrong hands (like those of an over-zealous 18 year old college student), become just another form of restriction, rather than a path to freedom. If the whole point of feminism is to dictate that you not wear lipstick instead of wearing lipstick, it’s kind of just replacing one set of rules with another.

And as a sociologist, I started to question what real freedom is, anyway. As a college student, I thought I was being really original and unique by wearing the same t-shirt for two weeks straight. But who was I kidding? We contain inside our heads many conflicting messages about the way we should live and who we should be. Very rarely, if ever, are we inventing something completely different. Mostly, we’re just making choices among all the options that our culture makes available to us. But feminism came to be more about the ability to critically make those choices more than it was about dictating what I should wear.

Me in a salwar kameez
And then against this backdrop of generally growing up, I went to India. India is wonderfully stinky. Stinky like a small, poorly ventilated bathroom that’s been occupied for a long period of time by someone with strong body odor. But also, and perhaps connected to the stinkiness, sensual and bright and colorful and beautiful. In India, I went on a shopping tear, buying several different versions of salwar kameez. These are not sari’s, but a kind of tunic and flowy pants combo that women in northern India are more likely to wear. They are, of course, colorful, and infinitely well-suited to the Indian climate. The pants are billowy and flowing and make you feel like you’re wearing nothing at all. You usually wear a long scarf pulled around your neck in various configurations.

When you’re wearing a salwar kameez, you’re technically wearing pants, which in many Western sensibilities, have been seen as masculine. But there is nothing masculine about wearing a salwar kameez. They are often gauzy and delicate, and what can I say? I felt girly and frilly and flowy, and I liked it. And then I went and had mendhi (henna designs) put on my hands, which was inconvenient (you can’t pick up anything with your hands for an hour or so while the henna dries), but also beautiful.

I think my turn to what I call the “fru-fru” (or the girly-girl, whichever you prefer) was a gradual thing, but being in India was certainly a turning point. I went to a jewelry store in San Fransisco with grad school friends and thought, “Hey, wearing jewelry is okay.” I went shoe shopping with the same group of friends (bad or good influences, these friends, depending on your perspective) and thought, “Hey, I like shoes…especially shoes that are comfy and cute.” I experimented with paying over $50 to get my hair cut, which didn’t go so well, but I did buy some hair “smoothing” products, and–the horror–a straightening iron. And I got my first pedicure.

Sitting in my chair this morning, I thought about my voyage from strident, men’s clothes wearing feminist, to older, pink toed feminist. Is the salon the enemy of feminism? Was I chilling in the lion’s den? I’m not the first person to ask this question. The pursuit of beauty has a long history of toxicity for women, and yet many women have come to power in the beauty industry (Madame C.J. Walker, Coco Chanel, Mary Kay Ash, and Estee Lauder,, just to name a few). Many women who have cosmetic surgery argue that they’re doing it to boost their self-esteem, and probably it often does. I certainly feel that having well-cared for toes makes me feel better (and improves my relationship with my husband, who doesn’t have to fear my jagged and deadly toenails). Is that so wrong?

Mendhi and another
salwar kameez

As I’ve written before on this blog, after considerable time spent thinking about the subject, I’ve come to believe that what we call gender is largely a kind of distortion in our view of the world. It’s a distinct handicap in our way of seeing the world. We believe that it’s feminine to feel good about having your toes painted, to enjoy a good foot soak and the feeling of having someone work on your body in a way that makes you feel good. But who are we kidding? That’s not feminine! In a sane world, we’d all be lining up for a good foot soak. And who wouldn’t like looking down and seeing their toes painted all kinds of exciting colors?!! No one, I tell you. Ask a boy whose small enough not to have been completely brain-washed by our gendered society into believing that it’s wrong to want to paint his nails. Or ask a man whose lucky enough to still feel free enough to admit that he likes a good foot soak and nail polish.

At its best, something like a pedicure celebrates our bodies. Let us treat them as something worthy of attention, labor and money. Let us take them seriously. Let us take a moment to enjoy the sensations our bodies gives us and the way our bodies looks. That’s neither feminine nor masculine, but just a good thing. Certainly different people might have different preferences for exactly how they’d like to enjoy being in their body. My mother is not particularly interested in celebrating her feet. But what does that have to do with gender? Not much.

So, I’ll admit, I did pick pink as my toenail color. It didn’t look as pink in the bottle as it does on my toes, and the die-hard, college feminist inside of me is not particularly happy. But I think my feet are.


  • I think I know one of your grad school friends who was encouraging of the jewelry and shoe shopping! 😉

    Another fun post, Robyn. Love the photo of you in the shalwar kameez. I've often thought they would be fun & breezy to wear in the summer heat.

    On the flip side of things, my husband is a proud wearer of various sarongs when we travel to the Caribbean. He lounges and walks the beach in them. But he calls them lava-lavas after the South Paficic islander usage, not sarongs.

  • Jennifer O. says:

    Wonderful post!

    I still have a lot of hangups about feminism and body image. I still can't get my head wrapped around the idea of someone administering to my feet for thirty some minutes, though my bff is a fervent advocate of it.
    I did just buy a pink purse last month, which surprised the hell out of a lot of people I know…

    Thanks for the post. I'm bookmarking it….

  • Emily says:

    Great post! It's interesting, isn't it, how there are strains of feminism that feel that being a feminist means rejecting stereotypical feminist traits. I'm guilty of it myself. I often catch myself inwardly sneering at something “girly” for no good reason. I'm trying to get myself to stop!

    Pedicure are fantastic. The first time I had one was when I was a bridesmaid for the first time, and it felt so good I completely forgot to be weirded out by a stranger touching my feet. I don't get them that often, but that's more for money reasons. I've gone back to painting my toes, although never with pink. I'm still not a big fan of that color 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!

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