You are walking down an aisle in a grocery store. You see a woman in a cashmere twinset, flattering khakis and a sensible bob, pushing a cart with a baby in the seat. Nearby is another woman with long, shiny brown hair, a French manicure and immaculate makeup, wearing impractically high heels and gold bangles. Another woman is in the bulk foods section, filling a plastic bag with brown rice. She’s wearing worn-in Carhartts and a flannel work shirt, her hair is frizzy, her face plain and her forearm tattooed.
Quick: Which one of these women is a lesbian?
Of course, the answer is easy. Any of them could be. Everyone knows that stereotypes are stupid and no one should assume anything based on the way a person looks or dresses. And that’s totally how the world works in reality, right?
Yeah, no. We’re not all enlightened creatures swanning around not making swift and almost imperceptible judgments about other people based on the way they look. People -– even lesbians! –- have preconceived notions about what lesbians look like.
Let’s imagine for a moment that all three women are lesbians. Would Carhartt Lady feel comfortable asking Gold Bangle Girl out on a date? Would either even look at the woman with the baby? (Hint: Even if the answer is yes, it’s a qualified yes.) Enter “femme invisibility.” Femme invisibility is the term for what feminine-looking queer women experience when they try to convince other lesbians that they are, in fact, queer. It’s the utter lack of being seen as lesbians. In the heterosexual world, it’s “straight until proven otherwise.” In the queer world, it’s not much different.
What this means for anyone who even remotely occupies the shared space between “girly girl” and “girl who likes girls” is that even the sorta-femmey can get the cold shoulder from other lesbians. It’s incredibly frustrating to be ignored at parties, pegged as a fag hag or straight-lady interloper. Unfortunately, there is no obvious way to cure the sad plight of the invisible femme lesbian short of fingerbanging your girlfriend in public.
Until now: enter the femme-flagging manicure.
The femme-flagging manicure’s function is similar to the gay men’s hanky code of the 1970s. Men would tuck handkerchiefs in their back pockets to signal their sexuality. The color and placement (left versus right pocket) provided even more detailed information about the wearer’s sexual preferences. (SM! Bondage! Anything, anywhere, anyplace! Other kee-razy stuff!)
The idea behind femme-flagging manicures (or “finger-flagging,” which, let’s face it, is fun to say) is that they’ll signal to nearby in-the-know ladies that you’re into ladies. That right there is enough of a selling point to me. Being forced to come out to my dentist when he asks about my boyfriend is hard enough, I shouldn’t have to do it at a gay bar. Why not let my fingers do it for me, while also looking fashion-smashion?
But wait! There’s more! Finger-flagging can not only signal your sexuality, but also an assortment of finer-grain things related (or not even related!) to your sexuality. According to the Very Scientific Wikipedia entry on the topic, “Femme flagging adds a social and non-sexual relationship aspect.”
Femme-flagging manicures first came to internet-fame through -– what else -- a Tumblr. Primarily, what I’ve seen has been ladies painting all their nails one color, and then painting their ring fingernails, or ring and middle fingernails (fucking fingers!), a different color (their “flagging” color). A pink manicure with a glitter ring finger, for example, could mean “femme for femme” (i.e. I am a femme lesbian who prefers to date other femme lesbians). Meanings can also parallel traditional hanky code colors –- i.e. grey for bondage, black for S&M, light blue for oral (hooray!), and so on.
I’ve also seen women bandying about the idea that each finger could represent something different, each color conveying a specific finger-based meaning. That’s a bit too complicated for me -– firstly, ten different meanings is a lot to keep track of. Secondly, and not least importantly, there’s no way in hell I’m painting each nail a different color, unless it’s 1997 and I’m 12.
I have two requirements for a femme-flagging manicure: It should be pretty, and it should clearly convey the message (“I like girls!”). A simple way to do this would be to paint all your nails one color, and then one or two fingers a different color. Individual color meanings be damned. We have better things to do than sit around scrutinizing each other’s phalanges, trying to decipher layers of meaning through the sheer power of the color wheel.
The one potentially fatal flaw of the finger-flagging system is the two-toned approach to nails may very well be a larger, mainstream trend among straight women, too. I’ve seen enough of lacqueristas to know that people use their nails to signal all kinds of things, including their favorite sports teams or Pink Floyd album. Just like some straight dudes just put handkerchiefs in their pockets because it’s convenient, some women paint their nails different colors because it’s pretty. There’s no guarantee that lesbian nails would work anywhere near as well as, say, a Labrys tattoo.
What about you, lady-loving ladies? Do you like the idea of femme-flagging manicures? Would you recognize one in the wild? Straight women: Do you do this to your nails, too?