What is Queer or Lesbian Manicure?
Image source: Everett-Collection
Like many, I grew up with “The L Word”. The series centered on a group of lesbian and bisexual friends in Los Angeles and then shaped my understanding of what it meant to be a queer woman. It showed how queer women interact, how they present themselves, and ultimately how they signal to other women that they are queer. Then again, it was very much a program of its time – as indicated by Shane’s low-rise jeans, Grandpa’s fedoras and Max’s gross mismanagement, a character who transitions from female to male during the show.
Another more subtle example of the show being a byproduct of the early 2000s occurs in the first season, episode three titled “Let’s Do it”. The scene sees Alice, the token bisexual of the group, and Shane, the androgynous lothario, briefing the sexually inexperienced Dana on how to spot a lesbian based on her manicure. “Dana, look at her fingernails, are they long or short?” Shane asks as they observe a customer at their favorite cafe, The Planet. Dana responds, “They’re long and polite, so she’s . . .” and Shane finishes his sentence, “Leaning to straight.”
This interaction, while fleeting and largely inconsequential to the show’s larger plot, set a precedent for millions of queer women who treated “The L Word” as writing. He incorporated a cultural expectation that largely persists to this day: gay women should have short fingernails, and longer manicures exclude heterosexuals or so-called lesbians from mainstream pornography. This notion doesn’t leave much room for nuance and has left many queer women wondering how they can simultaneously express their sexuality and femininity.
Enter: the femmicure – also called queer or lesbian manicure – a nail trend that (self) straddles both fashion and function. It usually consists of a longer set of natural or acrylic nails followed by two (or more) nails at shorter lengths.
Image source: Courtesy of Laura Sterling
“In my experience, the most accepted queer/lesbian manicure is to have short index and middle nails, sometimes referred to as ‘party fingers,'” says Laura Sterling, known on Instagram as Lorbe, nail artist at Cute Nail Studio in Austin. “But in reality, it can be any number of short or long fingers, pride flags, naughty, gothic, super adorable, super stylish, celestial, bejeweled – you name it.”
This style, although not entirely new, has started to appear more and more on social media and allows the wearer to express themselves through their manicure without potentially harming their intimate partners.
“There were a few years after I first dated, I didn’t get my nails done because of my need for safe and comfortable sex with my partner and my desire to be visibly queer – I couldn’t find a way to have both,” said Queenie Von Curves, lesbian burlesque performer and feminist enthusiast. “I first had a femmicure in a monogamous relationship. I’ve always loved having long, elaborate nails, but they didn’t work with my sex life. I then learned about this online in a funny meme about a queer Instagram page and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is perfect.'”
Image source: Courtesy of Queenie von Curves
The femmicure has a practical purpose but also acts as a strange signifier to the wearer – as if to say, “Hello world, I’m a woman who loves women”. Signifiers have long been part of the queer community, with the photographer Hal Fischer documenting the handkerchief code of San Francisco’s gay scene as early as the 1970s. Fischer’s photographs decoded the colorful handkerchiefs and implied sexual preferences of his subjects, which were brought to mainstream recognition via an art exhibit and more later a book titled “Gay semiotics”.
To this day, many queer people use signifiers, including a femmicure, to discreetly communicate their sexuality to other LGBTQ+ people. “Personally, [femmicures are] a way for me to signal to other people on the L train that I am not only female, but also queer,” says Rocky J., a queer female tattoo artist who goes by Baby Rock Tattoos on Instagram. “It gives me a sense of empowerment and allows me to make a public statement about not only my femininity, but also my sexuality.”
It is also important to recognize that while femmicure has gained popularity among lesbian and bisexual women, it is not exclusive to either group. As nail art continues to grow among all genders and sexualities, so does the need for a manicure that works accordingly. After all, regardless of gender or sexual preference, we all want our intimate partners to be comfortable with our choice of nail length.
Yet, while many queer people understand the purpose of a femmicure, it’s still relatively underground. Historically, many members of the LGBTQ+ community have been hidden when displaying signifiers to avoid judgment, harassment, or violence. Shedding light on these signifiers has, when handled appropriately, given recognition and representation to a largely underserved group. In the wrong hands, this has led to stereotypes. (Who could forget all the hype around “gay ear piercing” in the 1990s and early 2000s?)
Yet, generational changes have resulted in greater mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ+. “I get different mixed reactions,” says Rocky J. “Some are shocked, some are thrilled, and some are curious about their purpose. My favorite thing is when people think [my nails are] just broke and I didn’t have time to get them fixed.”
While times are certainly changing, many who wear a femmicure are not always prepared to be constantly interrogated by strangers. As someone with lots of visible tattoos, I understand that sentiment. The truth is, there are many practical reasons why someone might want a combination of long and short nails. Those who play guitar and bass can reserve short nails for their pinching hand and wear longer nails on their strumming hand. You can also keep some of your fingernails short to button your jeans, tighten jewelry, unbuckle a car seat, or retrieve a credit card from an ATM.
“I’ve seen a short index finger and thumb for contact lenses,” Lorb says. “The style is perfectly practical for everyday cleaning, personal grooming, pressing buttons – everything a finger is supposed to do.”
Image source: Courtesy of Queenie Von Curves / Rocky J
In addition to allowing the wearer to express their femininity while providing a variety of functional benefits, a femmicure allows black and brown queer women to connect with their community. Nail art, especially the longer and more elaborate styles, roots in black and brown communities. It’s a cultural expression that many black and brown people have historically been discriminated against for wearing – whether you’re an Olympic gold medalist or a Grammy-winning entertainer. Femmicure allows those who wear it to simultaneously celebrate their culture as well as their sexuality.
“Growing up in a Latina family, I was surrounded by beautiful women with bright red lips, big golden bamboo hoops, and thin eyebrows,” J says. long French advice I used to see my mother’s friends with. Of course, being so young, I was not allowed to dive into [getting manicures] head first, especially since my parents were conservative. But the older I got, the longer my nails got, and that got me to where I am today.”
Nails are considered a “feminine” service, but they shouldn’t be, and continuing to break down that barrier starts with representation.
Just as a femmicure client will seek out a nail artist for her technical expertise, she is also inclined to find an inclusive environment. Queer people frequently see beauty salons (whether nail, hair, skincare or otherwise) as a place of refuge, and they make up a growing percentage of the clientele across a range of sexualities and gender identities. “Nails are considered a ‘feminine’ service, but they shouldn’t be, and continuing to break down that barrier starts with representation,” says Alaina Schwechler, a nail artist known on TikTok as HoneySheNailedIt. “People see nails for the art they’ve always been, and with that, more people are using them as an opportunity to define who they are.”
Creating an inclusive environment is not only important for the queer clientele, but also for the nail artists themselves. This supportive community, both in person and online, shows the impact that something as small as a manicure can have: “I’ve been slow to come to terms with my sexuality,” says Schwechler. “The first queer nail art set I did was a bisexual pride set; it was my way of coming out without coming out. It was my first video to reach a million views and launch my platform. If that’s not proof that we should live in our truth, I don’t know what is.”