By Guest Contributor Melissa Welshans

I love to paint my nails. LOVE IT. All colors, all textures, most brands.* Love it. I have since I was a child and my love grows only stronger as I get older. In this post, I would like to share some of my thoughts on nail polish, nail painting, and what it means for me as a female academic.

My love for nail polish began when I was in middle school. I was one of those kids inclined towards artistic expression, and spent most of my free time drawing for my made-up clothing line (Path: wear are you going?).** I loved reading Seventeen magazine and perusing the pages of Delia (who didn’t?!), eventually graduating to Vogue in high school.

8th grade yearbook photo. Note the light lavender nails, my beloved Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt, and my favorite possession at the time—a frog ring watch from Claire’s

But alas, as a plus-sized teen living in (very) rural Pennsylvania, my clothing options were limited. Enter nail polish: cheap, one-size fits all, colorful expression of personal style available literally at your fingertips.

Through high school and undergrad I continued to paint my nails, playing with colors (although my favorite is always something pink and glittery) and brands, but mostly sticking to what was cheap. I often feel confined by ritual and routine, but painting my nails gave me joy as I sat down after a long day to make my hands pretty. I couldn’t afford or fit into the clothes of my dreams, never mind the lack of confidence in my own fashion sense, but I was damn good at making my hands look as stylish as I wished I could be.

Clockwise from top row: fun patterns; adventures in Jamberry wraps (Verdict? Fun for accent nails, but not a fan for whole manicures)***; back when magnetic nails were a thing ****

It wasn’t until I joined my PhD program in 2008, however, that my polish acquisition reached addiction levels. I was not prepared for the mental stress of graduate school and I struggled to manage my anxiety, gaining weight and constantly feeling insecure about my academic and pedagogical abilities. I had long managed my stress with shopping—not a great plan for someone on a grad student budget. But nail polish and its $4-9 price range seemed a budget safe indulgence. SUI quickly grew an affinity for OPI (I’m a sucker for their polish names and marketing tie-ins. I wore OPI’s Muppet inspired “warm and fozzie” for my Prospectus hearing), grabbing a new bottle every time I went to the grocery store. All the insecurities I felt regarding my physical body and mental capacity eased slightly with each brush stroke.

Painting my nails became more than ever a hallmark of who I was. I used it to express my mood (either actual or desired) as well as celebrate holidays and special occasions. My friend (a fellow nail polish-aholic) and I even started a nail polish Tumblr where we would showcase our designs:

Clockwise from Top: Subtle two-toned green with REAL gold topcoat for St. Patrick’s Day; PSU nails for a football outing in Happy Valley; for a friend’s wedding–nail tape is amazing!; Thanksgiving mani

At first I was nervous to wear anything too risqué in front of professors and students for fear of being perceived as too feminine and / or unprofessional. But letting myself wear whatever polish I wish in the workplace, I believe, actually helped me manage my “imposter syndrome.” I am someone who loves nail polish, and I am an academic; those two things are not incompatible.

Eating crawfish in New Orleans at SAA 2016, wearing one of my favorite conference polishes–pale pink

If I could continue to do my job and be respected even with my bright pink manicure, I could prove to myself that I belonged, painted nails and all.

Since those early years of grad school, I have learned to manage my anxiety through medication, therapy and physical fitness. Most importantly, I have learned to accept that women like myself—loud, fat, happy, feminine, clothing and polish-loving women—can be serious scholars as well.


Why sit your polish on a table when you can precariously balance it between your knees?

I now have over 300 bottles of polish, and I paint my nails almost nightly, (a ritual that takes me about ½ hour start to finish). Every night I get to make my hands a blank slate and create a new manicure—one I can admire while I type away at my dissertation or grade papers.


confetti.pngNail polish used to be an escape from my body shame and academic anxieties. Now, I see my love of nail polish as integral to who I am personally and professionally. One can be smart and stylish and fat and attractive and silly and intellectual. These are not contradictions—they are who I am. My journey to self-love was paved with polish.

*I do prefer to use four-free polish, which means it’s free of the four most dangerous chemicals that can be found in polish (Dibutyl Phthalate [DBP], Formaldehyde, Toluene, Formaldehyde Resin (also known as Tosylamide/Formaldehyde Resin [TSFR]), and Camphor). This website offers a very comprehensive list of which polishes contain which sets of chemicals:

**My label contained four intersecting arrows that, incidentally, ended up looking very similar to Journeys’ shoe store logo. I did not discover their brand until after I had developed mine, and I boycotted them for 15 years because of this.

***Accent nail: one nail, usually the ring finger, painted a different but complementary color than the rest of the hand. Can also accent the middle finger. Also, Jamberry:

****Circa 2011:

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Melissa Welshans is a PhD Candidate in English at Syracuse University. When she is not researching early modern marriage, she can often be found painting her nails, playing with her cats, vegging with her husband or going on adventures with friends and family.