Why Are We So Repulsed By Unpainted Toenails?

Photo: Darina Belonogova/Pexels
I have countless formative beauty memories, like watching my mum apply Revlon's Rum Raisin lipstick seamlessly without a mirror and being awestruck by Selfridges' intoxicating perfume hall. Some are less favourable, like overplucking my thick brows into straight lines and my obsession with crackle nail polish. But the one memory that really stands out is being told off by a friend's mum for wearing sandals with unpainted toenails.
Over 20 years later, I can still feel the prickle of embarrassment that spread across my cheeks when she told me that I must always paint my toenails if I plan to wear open-toe shoes; that bare toenails are unladylike, unsophisticated and ugly. Being a young and impressionable teen, I internalised this message for years to come.
Since then, I haven’t worn a pair of heels, sandals or flip-flops without giving my toes a speedy shape and paint. Even when my feet are hidden away in winter boots and chunky trainers, they’re still perfectly polished. I'm not averse to anyone else's naked nails. You do you. But my toenails? See the light of day? I'd rather not, thanks. A quick whip round the R29 office reveals that many of my colleagues are in the same boat. Whether it's a salon-professional pedicure or a quick DIY job, a handful wouldn't dare free the nail. A friend of mine even has a hard time travelling by Tube in the summer because she retches at the sight of unpainted nails in open-toe shoes. If social media is anything to go by, she isn't alone.
On TikTok it's not uncommon to see men, in particular, listing unpainted toenails as one of their biggest 'icks' (essentially an unpleasant turn-off). "If you haven't painted your toenails, you're a scab," announces one man in a TikTok video with tens of thousands of views. In another video with 65.9k views, one man hints that unpainted toenails are a relationship red flag. He hashtags a video captioned "When she had unpainted toenails" with #noneofthatshit. It isn't just men. Women on the app also show a dislike for unpainted toenails, and lots of comments underneath the aforementioned videos are from women who share a similar loathing. 
You don't need me to tell you that bare toenails are not a big deal. Just like body hair, how you tend to your toes (or don't) is entirely your prerogative. But why exactly do we have such a strong opinion on something seemingly as trivial as unpainted toenails?

Why are we embarrassed by our toenails?

Manicures and pedicures have a long history. Nail polish is said to have originated in China in 3000 BC, where it is reported that people mixed potions of egg white, beeswax and gelatine with pigments from plants and flowers to create nail colours. Somewhere down the line, our penchant for polish seems to have morphed into yet another exhausting beauty standard, thrust predominantly on women. Our collective aversion to unpainted toenails is an issue that Dina Gohil, London-based podiatrist at DG Podiatrist Mayfair and brand ambassador for Footner, CCS Foot Care and Nailner, has noticed over many years in her foot clinic. Dina points out that the things we tend to find "strange, gross or uncomfortable" are often those which are hidden or unseen. "Over centuries now, we have had our feet covered with socks or shoes and so the very body part which allows us to do so much has become foreign and unrecognised," she says. "I've often heard the words 'I can't stand not having my nails done' or 'It's disgusting when they're bare'," says Dina, referring to conversations with female clients. "Likewise, I've also heard men say, 'I'm very funny about how a woman looks after herself and she must have her nails done, otherwise I find it dirty'."
Consultant dermatologist Dr Alia Ahmed supports good grooming habits, regardless of gender. Like Dina, who tells R29 that there is a high possibility that unrealistic beauty expectations have contributed to our disdain for unpainted toes, Dr Ahmed is convinced that these grooming expectations are skewed towards women. "I'm surprised to see that some men have an aversion to unpainted nails when the majority of men do not paint their own," she says. Not long ago, I came across a Reddit thread in which a commenter compared unpainted toenails to heading out in nothing but your underwear. It suggested women aren't 'put together' without a slick of toenail polish. Dina believes there is an unprecedented and exhausting pressure on women to look and behave a certain way, and toenails are just another factor. Everywhere we look — movies, TV, billboards, magazines and adverts — we see women with painted nails and toenails. With time, this has become an ingrained norm. 

Why do men hate unpainted toenails?

Metta Francis, London-based nail technician and founder of Nails by Mets, says that historically, beauty treatments like wearing nail polish would have been an indicator of class and wealth. Though beauty is much more democratic nowadays, Metta points out that men aren't held to the same beauty ideals. "The 'perfect woman' narrative has been around forever so it's no surprise that to some, unpainted toenails are seen as unsightly or not very feminine." There are different standards for men and women, says Metta. "While more men are wearing nail polish overtly, such as A$AP Rocky, Harry Styles and Machine Gun Kelly, wearing it on the toes can often raise eyebrows. It's still perceived by many in society as more 'masculine' for men to have bare toenails," and subsequently more 'feminine' for women to paint theirs. Though we've come a long way to quash many gendered beauty expectations such as removing body hair, the idea persists that women should make their feet 'palatable'. This is especially frustrating considering that pedicures and general foot care do not come cheap. Why is it that women are the only ones expected to spend money on their feet?
It's also no secret that women's feet have been sexualised by men throughout history. Sigmund Freud wrote that "the foot replaces the penis which is so much missed in the woman", while a 2007 study on fetishes (more common in men) concluded that feet, and objects associated with feet, were preferred the most. Though they are eroticised, women’s feet have been judged, too. As reported in Professor Joanna Bourke's research paper "A History of The Foot", a writer in Hearth & Home magazine's 1894 edition suggested "big-soled" women buy "well-made boots [to] cover a multitude of ugliness". More recently, celebrities have been the victims of harsh blogposts and tweets about their naked toenails at red carpet events.   

Should you give your toenails a break from nail polish?

With our feet under a microscope, it's no wonder many women want perfectly polished, attractive toes. In her clinic, Dr Ahmed sees fairly equal numbers of nail issues in men and women but reports that the psychological distress associated with them is disproportionately higher in her female clients. "Common toenail issues I see and treat are: fungal infections, nail psoriasis [an autoimmune disease which can lead to discolouration and uneven nail texture], nail discolouration, lesions and brittle nails." Very commonly, adds Dr Ahmed, clients take to 'hiding' their toenail problems under nail polish, and they will often mention feeling embarrassed by the appearance of their toenails.
Wearing toenail polish continuously can leave you open to a host of problems, though. Dina often treats clients with mottled toenails, which present as white, striped marks, as a result of back-to-back toenail polish application. Dr Ahmed also cites infections (either missed due to nails being covered with polish all the time or caused by poor manicure technique such as cutting or filing the nail aggressively), allergic contact dermatitis to nail polish, textural changes (for instance, rough-feeling nails), splitting and nail thinning. "I always advise clients to take a break from the polish to allow their nails to repair and heal," advises Dina. "Overuse of polish can also weaken the nails, making them more susceptible to fungal infections and becoming damaged, brittle and weak." Dina explains that when we do finally see the weakened version of our toenails sans polish, we tend to be more inclined to cover them up again, and the cycle continues. If you have any of these symptoms, lay off the polish for a while. "Allow the nail to grow out completely," says Dr Ahmed. "In toenails, this can be very slow. Perhaps even up to six months."
Though Metta has many clients who can't go without unpainted toenails, she says that for some, it's more about self-care and the relaxing feel of having your feet taken care of, as well as colour theory. "Looking down at freshly painted, colourful toenails can feel satisfying and help lift someone's mood and bright colours often evoke [memories] of holidays and good times," says Metta. She explains that toenail polish shouldn't cause any damage if you're removing and reapplying it every four weeks and monitoring your toenails underneath. "However, if left on for too long, you may find that the nail polish colour stains your toenails, especially darker or highly pigmented shades," she says. "It's quite common to see yellow, orange or even green-tinged nails where nail polish has been left on for weeks." A good base coat can help prevent this, says Metta, though if you're concerned about the colour of your toenails, it's always best to seek the advice of a qualified dermatologist or podiatrist.
Our aversion to bare toenails doesn't stop at nail polish. Pedicurists have spotted a trend for acrylic toenail extensions. Despite amassing an enormous 9.2 billion views on TikTok, the trend could be doing more harm than good. "I completely understand why people may want acrylics on their toenails," says Metta, as they can create a 'neat', square shape. "But acrylic is not a very flexible nail coating and this can lead to further issues." If you're wearing tight shoes such as boots or pointed heels, Metta says there may be a lot of pressure on the big toe especially, and pressing down on a sculpted acrylic toenail can cause trauma to the natural toenail underneath. If the removal process is rushed or not done professionally, Dina adds that acrylics can damage the toenails and lead them to become brittle, peeling, flaky and weakened. Metta advises opting for a more flexible product like gel polish instead. 
In spite of the reaction to bare toenails, Metta reports that she is receiving more requests for polish-free or natural-looking pedicures, which mirrors recent, pared-down nail trends like the Japanese manicure and nail facials. "Now, it's all about having healthy nails and feet, rather than a solid colour. My clients want to experience an amazing Footlogix Medi-Pedi or a pampering RELEAF Platinum pedicure, but they're happy to forgo the polish for extra cuticle oil or a nice clear, natural gloss finish," says Metta. Dr Ahmed also suggests investing in a cuticle oil to moisturise your toenails between polish to keep them nourished. If you find oils greasy, the podiatrist-approved CCS Foot Care Cream, £7.99, can also be massaged into toenails.
Dr Ahmed suggests it's sometimes the fear of what someone else will say or think that dictates the way we navigate beauty, particularly whether or not to paint our toenails. It goes without saying that you don't owe anyone — especially not men — polished toes. Having been a target of unsavoury nail comments herself, Dr Ahmed says that she often asks the following questions when it comes to her own beauty rituals like nail painting: Why am I doing this? Does it add anything to my day? Does it make me feel good? If so, why? The main thing is that any aspect of your beauty routine is firmly for you, concludes Dr Ahmed, adding that it pays to have a quip ready to challenge anyone who questions how you do things.
The next time someone comments on my feet, I'll tell them where to go.
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