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But I'm A Cheerleader (1999)
But I'm A Cheerleader (1999)

Lez nails: Is the ‘queer woman with short nails’ an outdated stereotype?

Short nails are a deep-rooted lesbian trope, but these queer femmes are finding joy and gender validation in their long manicures

Whether happily lapping up quasi-serious jokes about u-hauling on sapphic meme pages, or making jokes on your Hinge bio about being ready for your next long-distance relationship, lesbians love turning stereotypes into in-jokes. While this is admittedly quite cringe, what’s worse is that sometimes these stereotypes are true. Personally, I am no exception: I once boarded a plane to travel to a second date (they paid, because femme privilege) and, drum roll, have also found my nails to play an oddly prominent role in my dating life. 

If you’re not au fait with lesbian manicure norms then here’s your crash course. In the lesbian and queer communities, nails are a bit of a contentious subject. Some queer women think they can judge someone’s sexual preference based on their nails and will often assume that long, manicured nails automatically equal straight, while short nails are a queer signifier. It can often be the case; a 2019 survey by queer platform Autostraddle found that 95 per cent of lesbians keep their nails short. But it means that those queer femmes who don’t are often bombarded with invasive, generally sexual questions about what can and can’t be done with their talons. 

My twisting nail journey has been even longer than the commute to see my aforementioned ex. While I don’t strictly identify with the idea of being a “woman”, I do go through periods of identifying strongly with femininity – and that includes “feminine” long, painted nails. There’s been a press-on nail era which culminated in me ripping a set off, one by one, on a hookup’s bed. There was even the time I got a pair of long nails as a sign of commitment to my ex during another long-distance relationship. Now, I’m freshly single and contemplating the most wicked-looking, decorative nail art you can imagine. Naturally, I’m concerned about the stigma but now that I’m not in a relationship, I feel less like my sexuality and the cultural codes that come with it define me.

“Nails are a really big part of identifying [lesbians and queer women]. There’s that thing of looking at someone’s nails and being like, ‘are they a top or bottom?’ depending on the length,” says genderqueer, pansexual artist Sammaneh Pourshafighi who has started experimenting with press-ons and going to nail salons as a way to explore her femininity. “Sometimes people give a lesbian vibe because they have short nails, it’s sometimes a surface-level indicator of some types of sexuality.”

Queer people love their codes. When it comes to nails, there’s the assumption that if you’ve got villainous talons it means you’re either solely into cishet men or a pillow princess. It’s a stereotype which ultimately boils down to: if you have long nails, fingering someone might be a struggle. “There is definitely a negotiation in terms of how to have sex with longer or ‘done’ nails,” Pourshafighi says. “Even in terms of clitoral stimulation, nails can be a hindrance if they’re too long.”

It’s worth noting that not all lesbians have vulvas and, equally, not all lesbians enjoy manual penetration and may instead prefer strap-ons and oral sex – both activities that you don’t need to use your hands for. There are also plenty of things that people with longer nails can do to finger safely, such as wearing latex gloves to limit snags and applying lube. 

Despite the stereotype, long nails can be a major turn-on. Scratching is a pretty common activity in the bedroom but for some it can take the form of a fetish or kink. In these instances, long nails can be an important aesthetic and sensory aid. “I got a set done before a hookup specifically because I knew they were into being scratched,” lesbian and non-binary femme Izzy MacC says, adding “I haven’t had any drama from the lesbian community about my nails.”

MacC first started getting their nails done for an entirely unrelated, non-sexual reason, however, after they had seen friends in the queer community posting fresh sets by the nail artist Zahara Hussein. For a long time, MacC had contemplated a “femme-icure” – long nails with the pointer and middle finger kept short – but didn’t see it as an option until seeing Hussein’s work. “I had been wanting a ‘femme-icure’ but I was a bit embarrassed about asking for one in most nail salons,” they say. “I didn’t want the nail artist to be like, ‘Why are you getting two nails short and the rest of them long…?’”

Hussein is known for creating a safe space for her LGBTQ+ clients and has become MacC’s go-to for the pointy, gem-embellished nails of their dreams. Now, having hyper-femme, camp nails are a joyful expression of their multifaceted identity. “My nails say ‘gay’ for a start because I tend to get a femme-icure. They also say ‘gay’ because they are so OTT and camp. Then the fact that they’re so glam also hints at my occupation as a stripper.” These nails are so emblematic of who they are that they’ve integrated them into their artistic practice, prominently featuring a set of jewelled, femme-icure nails into a set of painted self-portraits

Nails have been a major part of queer, demisexual music journalist and photographer Kyann-Sian Williams’ self-expression, as well. For Williams, nails are intimately linked to memories of growing up. “I’ve always loved nails. Being Black, you have at least one auntie and a bunch of cousins that love getting a fresh coat of lacquer every month like clockwork,” she explains. “Quite often I remember sitting there for hours watching all the women around me getting their nails done in the salon and loving the smell.” 

Throughout William’s queer journey, they experienced an ongoing negotiation with gender – particularly as a teenager. “With body dysmorphia and European beauty standards, I’ve always struggled with feeling like a woman,” she says. Wanting to reconnect with and redefine their own femininity, nails became a major tool. “Thinking back to the matriarchs of my family, it was that one significant tradition that took me back to pure femininity. Nails definitely helped me understand my own identity in a weird way.”

Coming into adulthood, nails have remained an important part of their identity. “With my first paycheck, I got myself the most basic nail shape: stiletto. Fast forward to today and I’m always trying an intricate design or brightly coloured set.” And this has never been at odds with William’s queer identity, when it comes to dating and relationships, she hasn’t noticed any negativity towards her nails, partly due to being demisexual. “I’m not the most forward sexually so I’ve never had a messy hookup because of my nails. To be honest, I’m demisexual so it hasn’t truly affected any of the relationships I’ve had,” they explain. “With the time it takes for us to do anything [sexual], you’ve already learnt so much more about me than the fact I like long nails.”