How Much Should Your Partner Influence Your Beauty

My grandma and I are very close, and she certainly loves me unconditionally, but there are a few—just a few!—habits of mine she doesn’t approve of. She doesn’t like when I wear loose-fitting clothes that don’t “show my figure” (particularly one vintage sweater dress she asks me to dispose of every time I see her), she doesn’t like the way I tend towards foul language and thinks I should wear makeup every day and do more Pilates. And, also, she hates that I don’t get pedicures.

My failure to pedicure is probably the most consistently disturbing of the bunch. Mind you, I think my feet are just fine on their own: my toes aren’t hairy, my nail beds are wide, and my nails look healthy and grow in normally. I honestly don’t think about them very often. (Sometimes on the toilet I look down and think, Oh, right, feet.) Which is probably why the last time I was with my grandma, instead of appealing to me, she pleaded the case on behalf of my boyfriend. “I’ll bet you $10,” she said over appetizers, “that if you painted your toenails red, not only would he notice, but he’d like it.” I was skeptical. The extent of his style feedback was an expression of delight when I wore a plain black Uniqlo puffer to protect myself from the rain. But I took the bet, and scheduled a pedicure at Tenoverten. Maybe I’d be wrong.

My appointment was on a Sunday afternoon, and I walked over in flip flops and looked at my bare nails. I was used to looking at them that way, naked in sandals, since I was a kid. Without polish, my hands and feet looked able, clean, raw. I thought that was sexy. What about lacquering the tips of your extremities was supposed to be sexy anyway? If I didn’t have any strong feelings about my own feet, it seemed so silly that my partner might have thoughts, let alone preferences. I picked out a bottle of a classic, primary red called Carmine and handed it to the nail tech. I had never done red before—just Essie Mademoiselle or Topless & Barefoot, for a little bit of shine. Anything brighter, and I’d be bothered when it inevitably chipped. As she scrubbed and painted my feet I mulled over a suddenly pertinent thought: was there anything in my beauty routine I did with the intent of attracting someone else? Had there ever been?

There were a few weeks in the fall of my sophomore year of high school when a boy picked up the habit of walking me from the class we had together to my next. We weren’t really friends—in fact, he hadn’t spoken many words to me before. Was he flirting? My hair was long and mostly natural with caramel highlights, and when I dyed it black with Manic Panic a couple weeks later and it accidentally tinged forest green, he stopped. There was the time, my senior year of high school, when a boy I had a crush on and I accidentally fell asleep while watching TV, and I slid out of bed to do a full Mrs. Maisel before he woke up. Beyond that, there was the religious college boyfriend for whom my bleached blonde hair engaged a thrilling sense of rebellion. And, of course, there were the years and years of Brazilian waxes… No one ever told me to do that, but I picked up on the cues.

On the other hand, I think a lot of my grandma’s beauty philosophy is meant to make my grandpa happy. He prefers her blonde, so she’s a blonde. If there’s something she likes that he doesn’t, she won’t wear it. But I don’t think she feels like she’s compromising anything for him—she’s happy and feels beautiful when her husband of 50+ years thinks she looks beautiful and happy. Just like he wears the clothes she gets for him, even when they’re things he’d never buy himself. Maybe it’s a generational thing.

My nail tech did an excellent job on my pedicure but I just… hated having red toenails so much. My feet reminded me of the time I begged the groomer to paint my childhood dog’s nails bubblegum pink: unnatural, garish, and just plain stupid. My feet didn’t look like feet anymore, they looked like… hands, smushed together and attached to my ankles. I thought they were so bad there was no way the aforementioned significant other wouldn’t notice them. I mean, my toenails were RED!!! HOW COULD YOU MISS THEM!?

Easily, apparently. Four days passed and he noticed how cold my toes were when I tried to burrow them under his always warm body, and how dejected I looked after coming home from a doctor’s appointment that went so-so, and that I probably needed a refill on my lash extensions. But not the red toenails.

Finally, I outright asked him, “What do you think of my pedicure?” Of your what? He had no idea. I lifted a leg in the air and wiggled my toes, which at that moment looked exactly like they were all wearing tiny red pom-pom hats. “Actually,” he said slowly and thoughtfully, as though he was worried about hurting my feelings, “I don’t really like the color. I like this better.” He picked up one of my hands, on which my fingers were treated with a no-color buff. “You know, what you usually do.”

So maybe the takeaway is that it’s not about doing things to please someone of your desired sex—maybe it’s about doing things that make you feel beautiful, and sexy, and desirable, and the rest will follow. Or maybe it’s about knowing someone so well that you want to do special things you know they’ll love. Or maybe it’s about how, in relationships, beauty can serve as a metric of where you stand, and an indicator of their self-selecting nature. In a healthy one, your partner likes what you like, and you like what your partner likes: they’re two sides of the same 10 dollar bill. Be it my call or his, red nails are always out of the question.

—Ali Oshinsky

Photo via Getty

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