Why Are We All So Embarrassed By Our Hands?

"Sorry about my nails!" Whether in the beauty salon chair or over drinks with friends, these four little words are uttered far more than they should be. Perhaps it's not your nails but rather your hands that you apologise for every time you book in for a manicure. Regardless, bringing up the way they look has become so deeply ingrained that chances are you think you're the only one who does it.
The truth is you're not alone. A quick whip round the Refinery29 team confirmed hands to be a hot topic for discussion with small nails, chapped skin, visible veins and 'stubby' or 'old lady' fingers cited as insecurities. When I put the question to my Twitter followers the response was similar: 'sausage' fingers, dryness, unkempt cuticles... the list goes on. Why do we give our hands such a hard time? They are one of the most important parts of our body; we use them for texting, typing, driving and introducing ourselves to somebody new. Imagine any menial task and it'll probably involve hands. Like most insecurities, though, it goes above and beyond how our hands look. So where exactly have these issues stemmed from and why do we seem to be so embarrassed? 
"Hands tell the world about the kind of life a person lives and has lived," explains Charlotte Ferguson, psychotherapist and founder of skincare brand Disciple. "The way we are able to keep and carry our hands throughout our lives is massively nuanced and often privileged — the old saying of 'having the hands of someone who's never worked' speaks to the struggle some people have experienced." Charlotte says that hands are one of the first parts of the body to show stress and graft. "They are exposed to sunlight if you work outside and they can be burnt, rough or swollen, often revealing things about your health — both mental and physical." Charlotte adds that class, femininity and hands are intrinsically linked, too. "Women have worn gloves throughout history to protect and preserve their hands, for example, with soft hands being a sign that a woman came from a prosperous or upper-class family."

It's not enough to comment on a person's face or body — hands are fair game, too, and are used as a way to unfairly attack and vilify women.

A lot of how we feel about our hands today is steeped in this history and there are famous instances throughout the past. Take Anne Boleyn, for example, and the unfounded rumour that she had six fingers on one hand (a supposed sign of witchcraft, which was meant to discredit her). Fast-forward to 2022 and it's clear that the media doesn't help. It's not enough to comment on a person's face or figure — hands are fair game, too, and are still used as a way to unfairly attack and vilify women. More recently, tabloids have lambasted And Just Like That's Sarah Jessica Parker's hands, referring to them as "bony" and "veiny". One article read: "While she has a complexion and body many younger women would envy, her hands betray signs of her true age."
As we're so often reminded, hands are one of the first places to show the natural and totally normal markers of getting older, for instance, changes in skin texture and colour. "Hands are constantly exposed to UV light from the sun and pollutants," explains Dr Pamela Benito from The Cosmetic Skin Clinic. She says that hands have thinner skin and over time they can lose fat and elasticity, causing a loss of volume — though this isn't anything to worry about and happens to everyone. In a world which pushes "anti-ageing" skincare and various tweakments, could it be that our collective hand insecurity is linked to an inherent fear of ageing? It may be a fact of life but the physical effects of getting older are just another thing that women are made aware of and forced to worry about. This no doubt adds to the unnecessary pressure that many may already feel.
For plenty of us, nail polish was an entry point into beauty, perhaps even the only product you were allowed to use growing up. The way our hands look could be rooted in our first notions of appearance. Who could forget the scene in Mean Girls where the Plastics are reeling off their insecurities? "My nail beds suck!" exclaims Karen. Dr Sophie Shotter, a skin and aesthetics expert, explains that we look at our hands more than we do our faces. "They're there in front of us all the time, but we don't spend all day looking in a mirror," she said. "They're also one of the only bits of skin (alongside faces and necks) that are visible to others, which means we're more mindful of how they look."

The beauty industry has come on leaps and bounds. We work hard to normalise acne, stretch marks and body hair, but the representation in hands is nonexistent.

It's also worth noting that the pandemic has played a part in how much attention we're paying to our hands. "The increased dryness from regular hand-washing has definitely been a trigger for many women, especially because hands have become drier and therefore a more prominent area of concern," says Dr Shotter. Constant washing and sanitising with harsh alcohol gels has seen brands release new products and push existing ones harder. There are hand-focused retinol serums and even hand masks for treating slack skin and texture. There's also a rising interest in professional treatments which were once saved for the face, including fillers to plump lines and wrinkles and chemical peels to target pigmentation and age spots. On TikTok, the hashtag #handfiller has 781.5k views and shows aestheticians injecting and massaging hands, with the end goal of "rejuvenation". The comments are a mixed bag. While some lament their "wrinkly" hands, others aren't sold: "My hands are what they are!!!" These treatments serve as more evidence that women are expected to meet unattainable beauty standards in all areas.
It's not just ageing hands that are subject to criticism. Love Island's Megan Barton-Hanson and actress Megan Fox have both been victims of online bullying. They are two strong and successful women shamed for the shape of their thumbnails — arguably the least interesting thing about them. In spite of their achievements, their hands seem to get the most press coverage. This unbearable pressure is exacerbated by social media. The beauty industry has come on leaps and bounds in recent years. We're working hard to normalise acne, stretch marks and body hair — and rightly so. But representation in nails and hands is seemingly nonexistent. Scroll through the Instagram accounts of most manicurists and you'll be met with a singular type of image: slim fingers and long nail beds.
Nail trends have seen exponential growth online over the last few years, especially on Instagram. Just search #acrylics (3.8m posts) or #nailart (102m posts) and you'll see proof. Of these millions of pictures, the majority shared by artists and reposted by nail care brands look the same, with slender and delicate hands taking centre stage. There is a serious lack of diversity when it comes to showcasing hands that reflect the majority of society. It doesn't matter how many likes these pictures rack up when they are categorically not inclusive and incite shame and a fear that only one type of hand is considered beautiful or worthy of a manicure. 
As somebody who works in beauty (and whose own hands don't meet those expectations), I wanted to help tackle the diversity issue. Together with my friend and fellow beauty editor Laura Capon, I set up Instagram account @allnailswelcome. Born from an observation that hands that look like ours never made the main grid, we wanted to create a safe and inclusive space that's truly representative. It showcases nail art and manicures on hands that look like yours and ours, for anybody who has ever apologised for the appearance of their hands.
The account also serves as a source of inspiration: it's somewhere to see what different designs look like on every type of hand. Instagram may well be considered a highlights reel but it runs much deeper than that. Being able to play a small part in helping people feel more confident, seen and welcome instead of alienated, ashamed or not good enough is something we're truly passionate about. Your hands — all hands — are perfect as they are.
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