Monday, November 18, 2013

Manicure Monday Thoughts

Today, a bunch of scientists took over the #ManicureMonday hashtag that Seventeen magazine had set up. The takeover was instigated by Hope Jahren, and was meant to be all-inclusive. Anyone could play. So I decided to play along, even though I haven't had an actual manicure since my wedding day (8+ years ago).

There were a lot of great photos.This one may be my favorite:

And there was some discussion, about whether the takeover was a good thing or not, since the relative prevalence of unmanicured hands (like mine!) and the comments about real hands, doing real science might be taken by some as a putdown of women and girls with manicured hands.

David Wescott also asked a question that made me think. We had probably gotten Seventeen's attention. What did we want?

The question wasn't directed to me, but I tweeted some thoughts about what I would want. Tweets are never long enough for topics like this, and I feel like expanding on those thoughts. None of this is meant to be a criticism of any of the scientists involved in #ManicureMonday. I have thoroughly enjoyed looking at everyone's pictures and reading the snippets about what people do.

As I mentioned in my tweet, the reason my fingernails are short is because I play the fiddle. I don't play often these days, but back in my formative years, I practiced an hour most days, and played in orchestra for another hour or more. I played the viola back then, and was semi-serious about it. There were girls in my orchestra who wore their nails longer than they should have for playing stringed instruments, but I was not one of them.

This does not mean I was immune to the social impacts of unmanicured fingers- and yes, there were social impacts. I would sometimes try to paint my nails anyway, but that always looked a bit strange. Nails kept short for playing strings are kept really short, otherwise you tend to play out of tune, have bad vibrato, and a poor bow hold. I sometimes let my left thumbnail and right fingernails grow longish, but that also looked strange.

Mostly, I had short, unpolished nails and felt the scorn of the popular girls whose fingernails were long and always painted.

I'm not saying this was a major pain point in high school, but it was real, and I can remember some of the specific comments about my nails all these years later.

So, I can understand and feel a certain camaraderie for the women whose Manicure Monday tweets were defiantly unmanicured. It is nice to revel in something that was once reviled.

However, I can also understand the women who thought those tweets might be off-putting for young women considering science careers, as if we were saying that there is no place in science for frivolous pursuits like fancy manicures.

I feel a certain camaraderie for those women, too. Upon graduating high school, I left the world in which anyone gave a damn about whether my fingernails were polished behind. I entered the University of Chicago unsure of my major, but was smitten by my first chemistry class, and soon declared as a biochemistry major. Most of my classes where in the chemistry department, and most of my classmates were male. I don't think they always remembered I wasn't also male, except when they were looking for an explanation for why I won an award or scholarship that they did not win. They would often talk to me as if I were one of them, disparaging women whom they didn't think were "serious" enough and laughing at the sartorial choices of our sole female chemistry professor. I preferred that to the other extreme, when some male classmates would assume I didn't have a clue about the coursework because I had long blond hair and sometimes wore skirts.

When I took the graduate level biochemistry course my major required, I would often bump into the graduate teaching assistant on the way in to class, since we lived in the same part of the neighborhood. From that, a rumor sprung to life that my high grades in that class were due to the fact that I was sleeping with that TA (I was not, in fact, sleeping with the TA, and my high grades were due to the fact that I was good at biochemistry).

After college, I went off to graduate school in sunny San Diego, which was quite a delight after suffering through four Chicago winters. So I dusted off my mini skirts and started wearing them again. Until, that is, I overheard some of the other women graduate students calling me "Barbie."

That first year of graduate school was the closest I have ever come to abandoning my STEM focus. Years of never feeling like I fit in were taking their toll, and my confidence that I could be a "real" scientist was faltering. Really, the reason I ended up staying was that I didn't know what else I would do. I also met a man who took my work seriously and also thought I was attractive. (That man is not my husband, but the description also fits my husband. That is not a coincidence.)

So I am all for science being a bit more welcoming of women who want to do stereotypically female things, like paint their nails and wear mini skirts.

What I really want is for the state of our fingernails not to mean anything at all. Fingernails don't need to be painted for your hands to be pretty, hands don't need to be pretty for you to be feminine, and women don't have to be overtly feminine to be valuable and lovable.

On the flip side, women can paint their nails and follow fashion trends and still be serious scientists.

By complete coincidence, the quote I have up over on Tungsten Hippo this week is an appropriate one. It is from Coke with a Twist, by A. R. Hartoin: "For the record, pretty doesn't equal weak." Pretty doesn't equal stupid, either, and the world would be a lot better place if we all remembered that.

While we're at it, maybe we can all work on remembering that most people have multiple interests, and there should be absolutely nothing incongruous about a cheerleader who is also an awesome mathematician.

Long time readers know that Pumpkin is into cheerleading. She loves it. She tells me she is going to do it "forever." We'll see about that. But if she does indeed continue with cheer "forever," that is fine with me. I am officially no longer rolling my eyes behind her back about this interest. The cheerleaders at my high school may have looked down on girls like me, but I know better than that. I will not return the sentiment.

Pumpkin loves princesses and Barbies. She likes cheerleading and is particularly proud of her high kick and her "arrow arms." She is also fluent in Spanish, reads in English and Spanish at well above grade level, is really, really good at math, and is extremely proficient with her LEGO. It kills me that as she gets older, peer pressure and the stereotypes in our society will try to make her choose between her academic interests and her other interests. That is wrong.

And don't tell me that it won't happen. One of the saddest things about #ManicureMonday for me was the woman who tweeted that she didn't think she could participate in the taken over hashtag, because she wasn't a scientist, as if we women scientists are some sort of breed apart and can't even share a hashtag with the rest of womanhood.

In fact, Seventeen Magazine apparently decided to move to a new hashtag, unpolluted by us scientists.

What a missed opportunity.

What do I wish Seventeen Magazine would do in response to the science takeover of their hashtag? Find some of the examples of scientists with awesome manicures and highlight them. Tell the world that you can be a scientist and like to paint your nails. Help to fight the stereotypes. Don't leave the seventeen year old girls to fight them on their own. If they do that, I won't fight it when my daughters start wanting to buy their magazine. I may even buy them their first copy myself.


  1. Anonymous4:49 AM

    My sister was a cheerleader and a mechanical engineer
    In college (also cheerleader and into science in hs). Her personal essay to cal tech talked about starting a dance team, though she chose to go somewhere more supportive of women scientists. She is both successful and attractive. She still dances as a hobby. Your girls can do anything.

    1. Yes! I am embarrassed for myself that I had problems with her cheerleading interest. Wounds from high school take a surprisingly long time to heal! I'm glad Pumpkin is setting me straight. I'm going to look up some of the science cheers that @scicheer does and show them to Pumpkin!

      I wrote the essay that helped win me my scholarship at U of C on playing in orchestra. :)

    2. Anonymous7:39 AM

      She also wrote about how she thinks about physics when she dances. :)

      Going to an all-girls high school probably helped.

  2. There were some good ones! Like the venn diagram and the one that says "I have pretty nails AND pretty code" at this storify:

    1. Yes, there were some really great pictures, both manicured and unmanicured! There was some talk of taking of #TuesdayShoeday next. My contribution to that one could be a little more interesting. I do love my shoes...

  3. Frankly, I've never figured out how to have long nails and *type* -- so that would seem to make a wide variety of useful activities more difficult. Plus I nick my nail polish within 5 minutes of getting a manicure every single time. But fancy toe nails? That's a different matter entirely.

  4. I don't have a manicure AND I'm not a scientist. I'm doomed! ;)

    Seriously, though, I'm bummed that Seventeen didn't see this as more of an opportunity. Bleah.

  5. I used to wear really bulky rings and have manicured nails, but that ended once diapers and dishes came along; the polish just doesn't stay very long on my nails so manicures never really worked.

    I am trying to think of the women in the physical sciences that I know at my institution, I don't think any of them have manicured nails. Most don't wear make-up but I do. I kinda understand how when you are preoccupied these vanity aspects fall by the wayside.

  6. Anonymous8:39 AM

    I don't paint my fingernails: it always seemed like they chipped too fast and now I garden so forget about it. I do, however, paint my toenails, almost always wear skirts and dresses over pants, and wear makeup. I have been fortunate to have few consequences of that behavior (that I know about). Humans are always going to make snap judgments about other people but in my experience, academic science is probably one of the most free professional environments when it comes to choosing how to dress.

  7. i am a physician (pediatric endocrinologist), former cheerleader (middle and all through high school, competition teams!), and love pedis but never get manicures because they get messed up too fast :) just for the record.

  8. I'd like to propose that "manicured" need not equate to "polished" but instead could be more along the lines of "well groomed."

    Back in my days as a field geologist, and I think also for a lot of women who are in the "get your hands dirty" sort of sciences, painted nails simply aren't practical or feasible. So even if some of us would *like* to decorate our fingernails with color and patterns, it ends up not being worth it.

    And now, for a purely anectdotal amusing (at least to me) story from my first field job:
    I was going to be on site overseeing a new-to-me well-drilling crew. During introductions, instead of shaking my offered hand, the old "salty" crew leader grasped it and inspected my fingernails. Upon seeing that they had dirt under the nails, he commented in approval. And then made a joke about how [civil] engineers usually had dress shoes and clean hands. I never would have imagined that my NON-manicured nails would have proven beneficial, haha.


  9. The fact that you are both nerdy/intelligent and feminine is one of the reasons I have always looked up to you.

    I could just be completely oblivious or naively convinced of everyone else's innate goodness or perhaps KS girls are just nicer than they are in other parts of the States, but I never felt discriminated against by the girly girls I went to high school with for my lack of interest in my appearance. I remember a girl once told me that I should pluck my eyebrows, but it seemed like sincere advice. This girl was quite beautiful, as I remember, but she was also one of the top players on the soccer team and not afraid to get dirty.

    I'm glad you are teaching your girls to embrace all of their interests despite the stereotypes. Hopefully their experience with schoolmates is as benign as mine was.

    1. Awww, thanks!

      The cool girls didn't really pick on me- I was in the middle range of girls that were mostly ignored. But they did occasionally say things that were hurtful, particularly to the hyper-sensitive mind of a teenager. And they quite clearly could not figure me out. What I wanted from life and what they wanted were so divergent.


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.