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My 45-Year Love Affair With Nail Polish

More than whimsy: The shades of my fingers and toes tell the story of my life


I always coveted the job of naming nail polish colors. What could be better? Guided mostly by a sense of the feminine — and whimsy — you get to dream up titles that work only because of women’s willingness to fantasize.

Even at midlife, with a successful career in the healing arts, I’m game. I’m a sucker for nail polish. Revlon, if you’re reading this: I want that job.
 
What makes a woman paint her fingernails? And, more mysteriously, why her toes? I’m sure shrinks could have a field day with those questions, but to me, the obvious reasons are that wearing polish is fun and lifts our spirits. Plus it expresses something about who a woman really is.

She might appear the picture of conservatism — someone's who's totally buttoned-down — until she kicks off her shoes to reveal bright coral nails. The hidden color is a dead giveaway that a certain wildness is lurking just beneath the surface.

Nail polish gives our inner rebel a platform. Reflecting on my own polish predilections over the years, I can see my personal story from a very unique perspective.
 
(MORE: How to Read Anti-Aging Cosmetics Labels)
 
What’s in a Name? Lots
 
The first nail polish name I remember is Frosted Pink Coconut, the shimmery shade I favored as a teen. My older sister discovered this polish and I jumped happily on board after watching her apply one coat of this magical substance on top of another on a particularly sunny afternoon. It made me feel pretty and I loved how my nails reflected the summer light.
 
In college, where I majored in theater arts, I wore black, to reflect my serious rebelliousness and intellectual aspirations. At that point, I’m not sure I wore lipstick (which has since become essential; I feel naked without it). But I must have worn nail polish and was possibly giving myself a manicure when a man — who gave me an unforgettable "upside-down" kiss by leaning over my supine body — then made an equally memorable remark: “I love it when women do their nails. Because for the next 15 minutes, they can’t move.”
 
Nail Polish as Rorschach Test
 
As I launched into my 30s, I chose colors with ominous names, like Night Watch and Dawn Patrol. It was a treacherous time for love, and the dark reds I sported reflected the state of my bloodied heart.

(MORE: Color Names Have Become Too Confusing)
 
My preferences grew more refined in the ensuing decades. I generally opted for polish-less nails, professionally buffed to a perfect gloss. I didn’t want the state of my nails to give away the fact that I was too distracted (or depressed) to keep them neatly filed or to remove chipped varnish when life got hectic or messy.

Then, suddenly, fresh in my sixth decade, I found myself wearing I Eat Mainly Lobster. 
 
I discovered the shade by accident. I had just entered radiation treatment for cancer and saw a poster proclaiming that a beautician at the hospital would do patients’ nails for free. I never thought I would avail myself of her generosity, but one day, needing to boost my spirits, I did. As my nails soaked in soapy water, the chatty manicurist noticed me leaning my head against the wall for support because I was too damned exhausted to hold it up. Without saying a word, she got up, brought over a pillow and placed it under my head.
 
I closed my eyes and drifted off as she tended to my nails. It was marvelously soothing. Afterward, we took photos of her and me flashing my lobster-red nails. It was a fitting shade after being blasted by a linear accelerator every day — especially when it sunburned my skin to an angry red.
 
The Healing Power of Nail Polish
 
The first thing I did when the radiation treatment was over was, of course, get my nails done. Then I boarded a flight to Berlin and gorged on art, music and ballet. I never wanted to hear the word cancer again, much less set foot in another clinic, hospital or private practice. The trip was a balm for my body and spirit, but not a panacea. One day while walking with my friend, I burst into tears when I saw the words “Comprehensive Cancer Center” on a building marquee.
 
A few months later, I went to visit another friend, this time in California. She was wearing a gorgeous shade of coral-y pink, and I wanted the same color. She sent me to her salon, but somehow I wound up choosing a different color: Pinking of You. Of course that was significant.
 
After a lengthy sabbatical from love, I had recently allowed myself to become attracted to a man, who was back in New York while I was in Europe and then the West Coast. I was pinking of him. In fact, I was pinking of him quite a bit.
 
I have no idea what shade of nail polish I’ll wear next, but I do know that whatever it is, it will reveal yet another chapter of my life and soul.
 
Chole Winterside is a writer and movement teacher in NYC. 

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