Paying a Price for Beauty

photo courtesy of Wave break media Micro/Fotolia

I finally got an industrial-grade gel manicure after years of sticking with the standard polish. I was feeling indulgent, and the manicurist upsold me like a pro. “It lasts three weeks,” she told me. “No chipping.”

I loved it right away. For one thing, it dried instantly. None of the awkward fumbling for my keys or hoping that, even after 30 minutes under the dryer, the still-damp polish wouldn’t smudge. After 45 seconds under a UV lamp, the shiny gel was baked right on, and the manicurist was massaging cream onto my hands.

Twenty days in, the manicure was still sturdy and shining. But some of my girlfriends murmured ominous things about what might be happening underneath. “That stuff will ruin your nails,” one said. “Just be careful when it’s time to take it off,” said another. I looked down at my perfect red nails and figured I’d enjoy the beauty while it lasted. Soon enough I’d take it off and suffer through a few weeks of scruff … or maybe I’d just cover up whatever damage had been done by baking on a shiny new coat in a different color.

Turned out the dissolution of my gel manicure involved several rounds of acetone finger baths that stung my skin, damaged my cuticles, and left my nails brittle and raw. The harm was structural as well as aesthetic. My nails kept cracking, crumbling, and chipping for a couple of months after the last of the gel was gone.

Now that summer is here, along with the inevitable magazine covers touting beach bodies and the moves that will help you achieve them, I’ve been thinking more about our preoccupation with beauty. Is our dedication to sleek and shining surfaces fundamentally incompatible with a nurturing attitude toward the spirit or the body underneath (not to mention a social conscience, per the recent New York Times exposé on the exploitative conditions endured by many nail-salon workers)? It’s a question that has nagged me since a painful junior-high sleepover when the popular girls experimented with curling irons and mascara while I huddled in the corner with a book.

As an adult, opting out of social beauty conventions carries real-world consequences. Back in school, uncool clothes meant being ostracized by a gaggle of mean girls; today, it could mean diminished job prospects. But time and energy consumed by improving one’s appearance cuts into time and energy available for reflection, work, and ambition. For women, especially, balancing a mix of the qualities necessary for success can feel like a paradox. (The hours I’ve spent in salon chairs are hours I could have spent networking.)

It helps to remind myself that confidence and a joyful, generous spirit—qualities that shine through the surface with deep, internal radiance—are the primary factors in how I gauge others’ attractiveness. Even as I continue to battle back my graying roots and strive to sculpt that elusive beach body, I keep working toward cultivating—and trusting—those qualities in myself.