First published in Skirt
“First time?” A woman with platinum blond hair and a wide smile looks up at us from where she was getting her fingernails elaborately manicured as we walked into the nail salon, which was decorated with red hearts on the windows and miniature cupids hanging from the ceiling.
My husband has this idea that we should give experiences to our children instead of presents, so here we were: at the beauty salon to celebrate Valentine’s Day, just us three girls.
My daughters, ages six and four, are practically bursting out of their skin with excitement. But they know they have to be on “indoor behavior” so they make an exaggerated show of acting lady-like. The result is two grinning girls who wriggle rather than walk towards the manicure chairs.
“Can you tell?” I smile back at her.
The woman looks at me approvingly. “My mother would never have taken me into a place like this,” she says a little wistfully. A college-aged client with her toes soaking in a basin of soapy water looks up from her magazine and nods.
“Neither would mine,” I admit. “To tell you the truth, I’m not very girly. This isn’t really my thing … but my girls love this kind of stuff.”
My daughters are seated at two tables, and the Vietnamese nail specialists go to work buffing, filing, and beautifying their nails. They both sit very still with serious expressions on their faces. But when the stylist pounds on her hand as part of the hand massage, four-year-old Athena can’t help giggling. She knows exactly the color she wants for her fingernails—sparkly red (of course).
The stylist deftly applies two coats of polish and sends Athena to sit with her hands under blue lights for quick drying. Then it’s my turn. I spend a lot of time making bread, cleaning up spills and changing diapers. The skin on my hands is cracked and chapped, and my fingernails are a mess. When I don’t know what airbrushing is, the stylist raises her eyebrows at me. “You have to get with the times,” she scolds.
She’s right. In 36 years this is only the second time in my life that I’ve had a manicure. It’s true what I said to the woman at the door—I am anything but girly.
The only girl in my family, I grew up climbing trees and fending off my three older brothers. The knees of my dungarees (once I was old enough to decide, I never wore dresses) always had huge holes in them. I hated plastic dolls and pink. I never owned a Barbie.
But my daughters delight in dressing up in sparkly plastic high heels, costume jewelry and pink frilly dresses, all presents from in-laws. They parade proudly around the house like Oscar-winning movie stars, adore smearing make-up all over their faces when they are lucky enough to get their hands on some, find dolls of all kinds irresistible and wear fancy skirts and dresses to go play outside. Their favorite pretend game is Beauty Salon, and when I suggested I take them to a real one for Valentine’s Day their eyes got as round and romantic as the full moon in last night’s starry sky.
Even though I’m here, now, with my nails being scrubbed and my girls bursting with joy, it’s hard for me not to cringe. It’s not that I really mind all the girly-girly stuff, it’s just that I want my daughters to be strong, capable, intelligent, and well-spoken…not just cute. I don’t want them to feel like they need to rely on their looks to get what they want in their lives. I don’t want them to feel like their looks define who they are.
My six-year-old chooses sparkly gold polish. I choose clear. “Your daughters are adorable,” the platinum blonde calls after us when we are finally ready to go. “Happy Valentine’s Day!”
We walk back to the car together holding up our hands and blowing exaggeratedly on our nails, just like we do with our polish-less nails when we play pretend.
“That was way more fun than I expected!” Hesperus says, buckling herself into the car. “I thought they would just ching-ching paint our nails and we’d be finished.”
“Yeah!” agrees Athena. She struggles with the buckle on her car seat, which makes a satisfying click when she finally gets it into place. Both girls are quiet for a moment. It feels warm and comfortable and safe and happy in the car.
“Mommy,” Athena says after she’s admired the red sparkles on her nails for a moment. “Let me tell you something about the Earth, okay?”
“Okay.” Instead of starting the car, I turn around to listen. Hesperus is listening, too.
“The Earth is only a little bit of earth on the top and then underneath it’s molten lava,” Athena says. “And sometimes the lava comes spurting out in a volcano. I know about these things because I’m a nature girl.”
I am learning to love pink. How couldn’t I?