How Stiletto Nails Helped Me Embrace My Queer High Femme Identity

Photo courtesy of Alysse Dalessandro

Growing up Italian American, I learned the markers of femininity from an early age; teased hair, long nails, and red lips all contributed to my idea of womanhood. I’ve seen my mother without makeup only a handful of times, but growing up, I didn’t have the time, patience or desire to follow suit.

By sixth grade, when my friends were all shopping at Limited Too, I was a size 16; I dreamed of taking style cues from Fran Drescher on The Nanny, of dedicating a whole section of my closet to cheetah print, but my options were far more matronly. The message from society and my classmates was very clear: plus-size people aren’t supposed to dress the way I wanted to. That’s when I realized that thrifting, shopping in the men’s section, and making my own clothing and jewelry were the only ways I’d ever achieve my ideal look — and that I could prove the skeptics wrong.

Photo courtesy of Alysse Dalessandro, by Benjamin A. Pete

My own brand, Ready to Stare, was born of the idea that fashion shouldn’t be reserved for those who also subscribed to traditional beauty and gender norms. If your comfort level with yourself challenges this notion, people will stare at you, and RtS allowed me to combat the patriarchal gaze in the only way I knew at that time: staring back. Although I was too scared to be fully myself at the time, my models and support system were largely queer. Fashion was my focus and my freedom, but for years, beauty remained an afterthought.

Eventually, though, I began gravitating toward the high femme aesthetics of my youth. I didn’t want to spend hours on my hair and makeup everyday, but even after mastering the five-minute face, I felt something missing from my look; I still wasn’t totally comfortable with how I presented to others. Then a friend introduced me to Chicago-based nail artist Spifster Sutton, and my world changed.

Photo courtesy of Alysse Dalessandro, nails by Spifster Sutton

Leaning over my friend’s desk to get a closer look at fingernails painted like strawberries, I was in awe of Spifster’s artistry; I knew not only that I needed to adorn my own nails, but that I wanted to be Spifster’s friend, too. I got my first real taste of nail art at an event she threw, and a full set of her designs later that year with my friend and fellow nail art fan Matt who, in his short shorts, platform shoes, and furs, was unapologetically gaudy; it put me at ease to be there with a friend who was more comfortable in his queer identity than I was at the time.

I was 25 when I first got acrylic nails, and when I had my first real crush on a woman. She was healing from her past relationship and I was still working through my own trauma, and it didn’t feel like we as a couple were going anywhere. I tried to convince myself the crush was fleeting — just as I’d toyed with the idea of having acrylics short-term, before realizing how integral they felt to showing the world who I was. My mom visited that summer, and I came out to her kind of by accident; she asked what was upsetting me, and I decided to finally be honest — with her and with myself.

Photo courtesy of Alysse Dalessandro, nails by Autumn Towns

It’s hard to blend in when your nails are long, extra pointy, and covered in rhinestones. I recently went on a date with another femme woman who told me, “You have straight girl nails!” I couldn’t help but laugh; I guess it was confirmation of what I suspected other queer women thought when they saw my hands. I’m conscious that this aesthetic choice contributes to the erasure of my queerness, and yet — four years later — my nails are one of the things that make me feel most authentically myself. They represent an important departure from following other people’s rules, and instead learning to listen to my own voice. I still struggle at times with my own internalized biphobia and guilt about taking up space as a generally straight-“passing” person, but attending Pride this year helped me realize passing isn’t entirely a privilege. As I walked to the bus after the parade, rainbow flag in my long pink claws, a car approached; its driver, a man, began honking, pointing, and yelling, “I want you!” I wish I could say I turned and flipped him the bird, nails sparkling in the sun, but I didn’t.

Nail art was the extra push I needed to fully embrace the high femme aesthetic I so desired. I still do my five-minute face most days, but even with no makeup on, my nails communicate an important message I never knew I had the right to be able to say: I’m here, and I’m in control of my identity. Having “straight girl nails” doesn’t make me straight; I can have long nails and be queer, too.

Photo courtesy of Alysse Dalessandro

Alysse Dalessandro is a queer plus size fashion blogger, writer, social influencer, designer, and professional speaker. After graduating with a double-major in Journalism and Gender Studies, this entrepreneur is best known as the owner/designer for body positive fashion brand and its corresponding personal style blog, Ready to Stare. In addition to her work in fashion, Alysse travels around the United States as a speaker. She has been selected to speak at the Queer Body Love Series, Curves Rock Weekend, the TCFStyle Expo and the Fat Activism Conference. You can follow her adventures on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.

Alysse has written 1 articles for us.

23 Comments

  1. “my nails communicate an important message I never knew I had the right to be able to say: I’m here, and I’m in control of my identity.”

    THIS is how I feel about my nipple piercings. They’re mine, they are a reminder to me that my body is mine, and they go everywhere with me. It’s my decision as to who sees them. It’s a way of me being able to keep my body mine even in public when I’m being looked at, read as straight, or catcalled.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this, I super relate. Fell in love with fake nails like two years ago and I love how they express my femme identity but Ive been torn about them as well

  3. You do you 🙂 I love this.
    There’s no point in dressing a way that looks lgbt if it isn’t ‘you’. I’m trans masc but this reminds me of how liberated I felt when I threw out the uncomfortable button up shirts & smart jackets I bought for jobs I never got. Fashion is meant to be a pleasure, whether that’s my comfortable trackies or your beautiful nail art or anything in between. There’s not much pleasure in dressing how someone else wants you to if you don’t want to dress that way regardless of their demographic.

    • I get how this post is meant to be reassuring, but the thing is, this look is zero percent straight.

      I don’t get the sense that she’s looking for validation for dressing un-queerly so much as recognition that queers dress a lot of different ways, and this is definitely one of them. (Apologies if I’m projecting my own feelings on you, Alysse, but as a fellow queer femme who’s gotten shit for nails that are way less dramatic than yours, that’s how it resonated with me.)

      Saying “it’s okay not to dress in a way that reflects your queer identity” is *absolutely* correct, but kinda frustrating as a response to a post that’s literally about “here’s how the way I dress reflects my queer identity.” Y’know?

      • When I am writing something, I am never doing it for validation, reassurance, or recognition. I am a writer sharing their [personal experience online which is a pretty vulnerable thing to do. Comments are usually far from validating and that’s all part of the process. I do hope that in sharing my experience, it resonates with people but because we all have different experiences, that may not always be the case. In this case of something that’s a personal narrative, I can only speak from my experience.

        I’m open to listening and understanding how I can better share my experiences related to my identity.

        • Eek, sorry, just caught that there was a response here!!

          Alysse, I should have said “comment” rather than “post” above – what I meant was that, when you had just spent a great deal of time and eloquence describing how you express your queerness through your style, it felt odd to see Liam’s comment about how it’s okay that your style isn’t queer. (Does that make more sense?)

          In any case, your post definitely did resonate with me, and I hope to see many more! <3

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