I watched the bottom of my toenails grow out beneath purple nail polish this summer, which thrilled me, like marking the height of a child in a doorway and deciding the gap is too big to account for by hair volume or posture alone.
The growth also disgusted me, partially because my cuticles returned thick and rough, and partially because I’m in the large camp of people who find feet unappealing at best. I’ve considered unliking a page I liked on Facebook in 2010 that supports only the statement, “I HATE FEET!!” but haven’t done it yet. Its profile picture shows a slender foot in wedges, a tendon straining above the smallest toe. It isn’t callused or cracked; it’s just a foot being a foot.
Of course, a lot of people find feet hot too. In high school, my best friends Aiyana and Olivia and I sat outside the cafeteria, speculating about what sexy foot quality we were misunderstanding. At the time, I guessed that the arch mimicked the curve of a waist, although in retrospect, I’d overlooked that grossness itself can be the point, the sweat and strangeness, the intimacy that comes with seeing the thickened skin and allowing it to be seen in you. Olivia’s feet were close to perfect, which Aiyana and I attributed to her ability to get things right naturally and on the first try, even when the thing in question was growing a limb.
Aiyana, who had long narrow toes, hated feet even more than I did. She claimed to have never painted her toenails in her entire life. The idea disgusted her. Olivia and I used to threaten to paint her toes during sleepovers, but knew better than to follow through. When we looked at her sleeping—her breath rising and falling in an oversized shirt— it seemed like an obvious violation. In the fall of eleventh grade, a single brown hair on Olivia’s forearm grew outrageously long, maybe 5 inches, like a head hair sprouting from the wrong place. She held it taut for me and Aiyana so we could admire its full length before she plucked it. I’d always shaved meticulously before wearing shorts, humiliated by faint stubble—and, projecting this onto her, I imagined that we’d been bestowed with a sacred trust, a permission.
Last week, I sat in Nailville Salon, where a woman buzzed off the surface of my nails with a tool I don’t have a name for and painted them neon blue. I was glad she used a fancy tool, because it eased the sense that I should have done this at home with regular clippers. Or, if I’d been born a canine, I’d trim my nails down running barefoot on rocks. On my right, sat two relatively new friends of mine from my relatively new town. We picked our phones up and then down again, sometimes texting each other or looking out into space. It pains me when I don’t feel natural and fun in front of new friends. This era of my life, the year since I’ve moved, has been filled with not loneliness exactly, but the apprehension of it, the fear that I’ll make a weird joke and everyone will tire of me, or else that I’ll sit there quietly worrying and everyone will write me off as boring. I tell myself that if I just act normal, everything will be better, but, shockingly, an inner-monologue in which I scream, “Relax! Relax or no one will invite you anywhere ever again!” has provided little relief.
The first time we went to Nailville this summer, I arrived late and the only seat left was across the room from everyone else. No one was free to do my nails, and so I sat waiting with my bare feet in an empty basin, aware that everyone else would be done long before I finished. I convinced myself that all my new friends would leave and get lunch without me. I worked myself up. For a moment, I wondered if I’d cry and cement myself as an absolute baby. I messaged Olivia and Aiyana, who suggested I text the friends, but I couldn’t reveal that I’d spiraled like this—like I thought they were the type of people who would leave me, or really, that I was the type of person who would be left. Nobody abandoned me at Nailville. We went for tacos after. I looked down at my lilac toes and felt dumb for even imagining it.
I’ve had two pedicures this summer, which is about as many pedicures as I’d had in the five years prior. Mostly, I’ve never felt like my toes mattered. I’ve often wanted to be hotter, but I wasn’t sure changing the color of my nails would help. The only things that I believed would do it were expensive or semi-impossible: surgeries that would make my eyelids even, since one rests slightly too high, natural charisma, ease around strangers. Aiyana and Olivia swore they never noticed my eyelid asymmetry. I believed them in the sense that I believed that they’d never registered that specifically, but suspected that, in their gut, they knew something was off about my face, even if they couldn’t pin down what. Anway, I also avoided pedicures because I figured if I routinely saved a little money by ignoring my nails, I could justify other unnecessary purchases, like a velcro brace to improve my posture that I’ve never actually worn.
This was all fine, until a bit over a year ago when I started thinking about pedicures constantly and almost nothing else. Every day, I read salon reviews. I watched pedicure videos. I promised it as a reward for myself in the distant future, for doing my chores, for bearing the passing days. This was the early pandemic phase when I’d soak canned beans from the grocery store and let my mail sit for days. I was waiting two weeks to stay with my family, and my roommate had already left. What I’m getting at is that I spent every day in my apartment entirely alone. I changed clothes when I changed clothes; I showered when I showered. Sometimes I’d stand beneath my friend’s fire escape, as she sat fifteen feet above me, and we’d shout across the space. On some level, I was relieved that a loneliness I’d been nursing had an external and legitimate cause, that I could blame it on something outside of myself.
I couldn’t avoid my toenails. I tried to establish a daily stretching routine, but when I touched my toes, their thick ridges disgusted me. I filled the tub with warm water. I soaked and filed them and slathered on half-dry nude paint. It didn’t help. Rug fibers embedded within the polish. Whatever was happening to my toes was outside of my skill set, outside of the range of things I knew how to fix. I wanted someone to take my feet in their hands, and say they knew what to do.
I called Aiyana and Olivia in moments of frantic isolation. At this point, we were 25, and, of course, all miserable in our own ways. Olivia had learned that her university’s funding was frozen. Aiyana had just moved to California and found herself thousands of miles removed from everyone she loved. They’d indulge me anyway, and ask, “Why don’t you light a candle and do a sheet mask?”
I thought: do a sheet mask is a euphemism for calm down. I cried to them, “Why would I do a sheet mask? Who would my skin look hot for?” I was never seen, and I was never touched. I filled a hot water bottle and held it on my lap. Its liquid-based warmth felt mammalian.
When primates groom each other with their hands and tongues, it’s probably not because they’re too dumb to use tools, but rather, because tools would defeat the point. Some biologists speculate that social grooming is only half about hygiene, and half about bonding, pressing your skin against another’s to tell them what you don’t have language for. And it’s true, most of my friendships with cats are formed purely on this basis. I allow my lap to be sat on; the cats allow their backs to be stroked.
This doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m not from a particularly touchy family, and in high school, Aiyana and Olivia taught me how to hug without being visibly weird about it. We’d practice wrapping our arms around each other over and over. Count to three before pulling back, they’d say. Unclench your fists.
And yet, for all this fist-clenching, I’m actually fine with being touched by someone I’m having sex with. When I’m somewhere new—a new town or program or social situation—it’s generally easier for me to find a new romantic relationship than a new set of friends. Olivia says not to tell people this, because it can come off alienating, like I think I’m very desirable. She didn’t say this unkindly, but like someone wiping sauce from the corner of my mouth. I don’t like telling people about this pattern myself, because I think it implies that I have a bad personality and must rely on seduction instead.
One November, Aiyana and Olivia and I left our school’s football game and sat in Aiyana’s PT Cruiser for hours. We’d gone to the game in hopes that our principal’s son who we all had a crush on would talk to us. He wasn’t even there. It was colder than we’d prepared for and we stood on the edges of conversations. I was relieved when Aiyana suggested leaving. We parked outside Panera, and sat around describing our future partners. I said that one day, I’d live in a city and go to basement comedy clubs with my boyfriend, who would look like Ashton Kutcher and study law (the good kind). Olivia had a crush on a co-lead from the school play, who we knew was her soulmate because the actor, like us, identified as agnostic. Aiyana was the first person I knew with a vision of cool expanding beyond high school— she wanted to be a visual anthropologist and wore magenta tights which made her, by default, the cutting edge of fashion in our grade. And so we were all surprised when she said that she didn’t want to be with someone artsy; she wanted a few kids and a nice life with a normal guy.
At Nailville, I flinch when anything grazes the underside of my feet. It burns when the unnamed tool buzzes my pinky toenail— which is scrawny and grows in the wrong direction. I hated having my hair brushed as a kid, even though I miss it all the time now. I used to hold the section near the roots so I wouldn’t feel the brush ripping through my knots, which helped, but barely. Not all the things I long for feel that good. But this is what I’ve been waiting for all year, I think, as I sit in the vinyl salon chair—my promised reward. This is what I’ve paid real, legal money for—a significant amount, a price that embarrasses me and makes me reevaluate my priorities—not to have colorful nails, but to have someone paint them, a touch I can pay for with money instead of a currency I don’t fully understand, a currency that relies on connection and the years it takes to establish this trust.
Chimpanzees understand this: that touch is a thing of value, like sustenance is. They barter like this, offering food to those who groom them. Galada baboons spend about 17% of their waking hours grooming each other. Have they resolved something about the need for touch that I simply can’t? Or do they just have nothing better to do? Grooming can signal social hierarchies too: who’s in the group and who’s left out.
In early high school, before Olivia and Aiyana, I got ready for freshman homecoming alone. I didn’t have a date, and took stair photos beforehand at the house of a girl in my biology class. Before I left, I spent ages in my mom’s bathroom. I took out every tube and spray bottle from under her sink, and applied them in no particular order— moisturizer, followed by gel wash and exfoliating scrub, topped off with toner. I was blessed with only a smattering of bumps along the edge of my hairline, and so it wasn’t clear exactly what I thought the skincare would do— although it also wasn’t clear what their labels meant when they promised to brighten and rejuvenate. Who even knew what rejuvenate meant? Not me! Whatever they offered was ineffable, which was convenient, because whatever I needed was ineffable too—I blamed my chin, my freckles, my flat feet and wide legs, any trait I could name that I thought might pin down why I felt this disappointment every time I caught a glance of myself in the mirror; something that I assumed had repelled the people around me, something that had made it so that my life looked like this, why there wasn’t anyone in the bathroom with me helping me figure this out. I hoped to find a face that was fresh and illuminated, dullness rubbed raw, but looked in the mirror and saw, with horror, only the vision of myself.
There was still something wrong with my face, something hopeless that enraged me, a problem I couldn’t hope to fix or even identify, my arms crossed in every photo that I would one day untag. Of course, nothing had changed, largely because at fourteen, I’d had no wrinkles to smooth.
With Olivia and Aiyana, everything was different. Like me, they’d never kissed anyone when we met, but unlike me, they’d complain openly about this, like it wasn’t a humiliating secret. After our first sleepover, I listened to KT Tunstall’s Suddenly I See and ran back and forth across the living room, until my mom called out and asked me to stop. We made a pact that we’d never leave each other behind. We made a bucket list in which we inexplicably resolved to visit Nebraska, and also to volunteer at nursing homes. We walked around our neighborhoods talking about the big questions like: What if reality is fake and we’re all alone? Do you think that, the moment before you die, there’s a second in which you get to know absolutely everything? Literally who knew that anyone but me had ever asked these questions? I thought of them as incredibly complete people: engaged and caring and curious about their slice of the world. I wouldn’t have articulated it this way at the time, but still, I thought often, If I belong as one of them, then there must be something good in me too.
We all graduated and went to separate colleges. At first, I studied art, and later, biology. In a performance art unit, I asked everyone for clippings of their toenails and used acrylic nail adhesive to glue them in rows on top of my own nails, an extension, a horn. When I presented the project, my class guessed that it was a statement about forced continuation of the past. I hadn’t even thought of that. I’d been thinking about how earlier that week, I’d ripped off a piece of tape stuck to my arm, and the tiny hairs and dirt and moisture took on a gross quality when peeled from me, even though they’d been there all along, even though they were the materials covering me still. I thought about how, when you shake hands or let someone do your hair, you accept the nails on their hands as normal and necessary, sometimes even beautiful, but the second they’re cut, they become something else. I was so proud of that thought. I wanted to tell Olivia and Aiyana, but they were busy, so I posted the project on my art student tumblr. A fetish blog messaged me, “nice feet,” which is untrue, because even without the clippings, my toes are stubby and arches collapsed. I wondered if the message had come from a human. It had to be a horny bot, I’d think, but then again, people will overlook a lot when they want to have sex with you: an ugly laugh, a horn of nails, a hunger for validation.
I eventually learned the correct order in which to put on skincare products, as well as the order in which to expect intimacy with a partner, how long to maintain eye contact, how to interpret arm-brushing that could plausibly be accidental, but generally isn’t. As a preteen, I watched a Youtube kissing tutorial where they listed so many steps that I thought I’d never remember all of them, but honestly, I have it down.
When we were 22, Aiyana had her toenails painted for the first time. She tried to explain over the phone how she’d looked down at her sandaled toes one day and felt suddenly disgusted. When the woman at the salon asked what color she wanted, she felt too awkward to say she didn’t want any at all, that this was her thing, and so she chose a soft nude. “It was actually fine,” she told us, and we said, “Obviously, that’s what we’ve been telling you.”
It’s not that interesting of a story, but one we traced over and over, because it felt like a betrayal, a change in one of the people I loved most, like marking a child’s height in the doorway and finding them towering above me. She has bottles of nail polish lined up by her shower now.
I visited her this past summer, in the months when my nails were still purple, raw roots emerging. Olivia wasn’t able to come. It’s hard to get us all together now. We’re in different parts of the country, and may never live near each other again. Olivia will soon move to Hawaii to study plastic waste and has recently posted photos where she and her partner put their heads in the mouths of replica dinosaurs. Aiyana moved to San Francisco, like she promised to in ninth grade. She’s learning how to talk to her grandmother in Korean. I’m in grad school one state away from Nebraska, but have never even tried to go.
I was secretly relieved when Aiyana said that her friendships in California aren’t as close as she’d like. She lives with her boyfriend now. Their apartment is full of books about design. When I asked why she used to hate nail polish so much, she guessed that, as a kid, she’d felt self-conscious participating in anything overtly feminine. She felt like she’d missed some essential training, and her only option left was to reject it.
Most physical contact I get now is from people I’m sleeping with, which can feel like an easier and faster road to closeness— and still, it’s hard for me to imagine loving any of them the way I loved imagining them in Aiyana’s car at 16. I think of the day we tried to hitchhike to Starbucks, and how, when a car actually turned around for us, we panicked and hid under a bridge. That might still be the most fun I’ve ever had. I think of how lying in a cul-de-sac at night with them is still my greatest romance, how they’re the only friends I’d really let touch me, and I’ll always be scared that I’m the one who needs them more.
Aiyana and I sat on her fire escape with our feet hanging off and she tried to give me a fishtail braid. She said my hair looks redder than she remembered it. It surprised her when I studied biology, she said. It wasn’t the sense of betrayal I’d felt over her toenails, but a change from the person she expected me to be, an understanding that there are parts of each other that we don’t have mapped, that we can’t live inside one another, no matter how hard we try.
I leaned my head back and told her that when I miss the closeness of a friendship, this is what I miss, what I’ve been longing for. I looked at my stubby troll toes and wondered if, when Aiyana sees them, she thinks they’re repulsive like I do. I looked at my wrist which, in the rolling fog, appeared suddenly delicate and beautiful, and wondered if she could see that too. I worked on untensing, allowing my body to lean and be leaned on. I consider for what feels like the first time that every time I am touched, there is someone being touched by me in return: the sensation of my hair against her hand, my back against her ribcage, my nails as a flicker in an endless sequence of trimmed-down nails, the warm imprint of skin against skin, felt even after I am gone.
Ilana Bean is a nonfiction MFA candidate at the University of Iowa, where she was an Iowa Art Fellow. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Chicago Review of Books, Gawker, and elsewhere.