What I learned from #ManicureMonday
Sometimes I try to be funny on Twitter. I succeed about one-percent of the time [Eqn. 1]. This confuses me because the people whose paychecks I sign consistently find me hilarious all of the time. Thus my transition into the digital world has been tough, and my advanced age does not help with this. Three years ago I took a Twitter class led by @LizNeeley right in the convenience of my own nursing home. We didn’t get as far as “tag-hashes” on that day, but I used this “moose” thing to make the “coarser” go. It was really cool and I’ve been trying to tweet ever since. Well anyway, a couple of weeks ago I was in the lab and I nearly ripped off the one fingernail I have left. Just as I’d been taught, I ran straight to my computer to tweet this important news. Because I was feeling edgy, I included the hashtags #Lab #Manicure. Imagine my surprise when Twitter autocompleted the second one to #ManicureMonday. I jumped back. It’s going by itself! I thought, all freaked out. I quickly cancelled my tweet and searched on #ManicureMonday. Here’s what I saw. Well, well .. Seventeen Magazine, I thought to myself, chuckling as I remembered a story from a friend who used to be some kind of writer there. She had described surreal meetings where people debated with straight-faces the pros and cons of placing a tampon ad opposite a photograph of Will Smith. Screw you Seventeen, I thought to myself while scanning the smarmy insipid content of their website and thinking about 1932 when I was seventeen and they were printing the same damn tripe.
Now, I get a big kick out of pretending I’m a clueless moron because I’m actually a prodigious genius. Or it might be the other way around, I forget. Anyway, I decided I was going to tweet this picture to #ManicureMonday on November 11. I thought this would be funny because the image feed for #ManicureMonday looked like this. I fully confess that I was only going for a cheap LOL. But there’s something that I think is interesting here. You see, when I went to college, we didn’t have the Internet. I know that’s hard to imagine now. We spent a lot of time on landlines shouting to each other over the din of horse-drawn carriages. All of the published images of women that we saw plastered on our papers, newsstands and computer screens were photographed, chosen, edited and presented by some kind of commercial or public authority. Only very rarely was one of these images created and presented by the woman portrayed. The Internet has changed all that, and hopefully forever. Screw you Seventeen, I thought to myself as I cropped a photo of me, not unthrilled that my submission to #ManicureMonday would stand on equal footing with one of @seventeenmag’s professional submissions. Our two photographs would wash down the Great Mississippi of information as two equivalently piddly pebbles before settling into the silt of its invisible delta.
And so on Monday, November 11, I took a deep breath and tweeted my tweet. It sure cracked me up but nothing beyond that happened. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Nothing happens ninety-nine percent of the time when I tweet something that I think is life-disruptingly hysterical [see Eqn. 1] and I certainly don’t mean to sound ungrateful but @LizNeeley didn’t adequately prepare me for this recurring scenario. Anyway, I scrolled down the #ManicureMonday images thinking what have they got that I haven’t got? “Nail polish” is the actual answer to that question, but I was too far down my second-wave rabbit hole to figure it out. As I scrolled past hundreds of painted disembodied hands I began to wonder who is attached to all those hands and what do those hands do when they aren’t posing for a camera? With newfound determination to utterly waste the afternoon, I washed my hand, re-photographed it and tweeted this photo. Screw you Seventeen, I thought to myself again as nothing whatsoever happened. But then, something did happen. A small number of what one refers to as one’s “Tweeps” and who also happened to be women scientists tweeted their hands back to me. Damn their nails are pretty, I thought to myself and paved my own private road to Hell with the good intention of manicuring my own nails properly for the next Monday, November 18.
Screw you Seventeen, I thought again to myself Friday night, November 15 when it became abundantly clear that I was too lazy to paint my nails after all. While sulking, I tweeted “Take pic of ur hand doing something #Science & post to #ManicureMonday POLISH OPTIONAL”. Caught off guard when someone tweeted back the wildly non-sequitur, “Why should I do that?” I had to think for a while. Eventually I got up on my hind legs and tweeted “Purpose of #ManicureMonday is to contrast real #Science hands against what @seventeenmag says our hands should look like. All nails welcome.” People then started asking me to elaborate upon The Rules. “Do my nails have to be long? Can a guy do it? Does it have to be in a lab?” people asked. F*ck, I don’t know, I thought to myself. As far as I can tell, there aren’t rules for the Internet and no one gets to completely control who posts what, which is both its glory and its curse. Anyone can post anything to #ManicureMonday because the only requirement is a Twitter account and you barely need a spinal cord to make one of those. So I dodged the questions by saying “ALL ARE WELCOME” again and again and figured I’d just wait and see what happens.
I got kind of excited as Monday drew near. My senior colleagues were supportive as always. “Why are you wasting your time on this?” they asked me. “Because there is dignity and meaning in the details of our lives,” I answered with the kind of unnerving intensity that I know makes them run away. As I went to bed on Sunday, I tweeted this. By the time I woke up the next morning, the #ManicureMonday feed looked like this. I sat in bed and scrolled and smiled and wept and my son brought me tea and hugged me.
The feed just grew and grew. Everyone at @JahrenLab read every single tweet and looked at every image, even if we couldn’t keep up to Favorite or RT/MT all of them. On balance, it was a really great day. The whole thing was not without problems, however. It had been easy for me to visualize everything associated with Seventeen Magazine as one big monolithic male gaze, but it turns out there’s a ton of teenagers who go to #ManicureMonday in order to tweet their homemade nail art. Or to tweet other pictures of what they feel makes their hands look great. In my mind, that’s what we were doing too, but not everyone saw it that way. Some felt that we were killing the buzz of a fun teenage site in order to preach about careers. My explanation that Science is just another way to have fun probably rang trite, coming as it did from their parents’ generation. This has got me thinking about how when any image of a woman is presented, the woman viewing it feels compelled to catalog her differences from it, and ascribe a claim of superiority to the image itself. I’m not done thinking about that. I also said some dumb things, much like every other damned day of my life. I implied that science hands are “real” hands. I used the words “take-over” and “hi-jack” which implied a competition or at least a power differential, though I am not sure in which direction. These were bad choices and I apologize for them; I won’t choose those particular words again. Just between you and me, I caught my share of hate during the whole thing. One tweet debated whether or not women scientists wear underwear while another speculated about our masturbation habits. I’d be lying if I said that surprised me. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt.
I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to accomplish with #ManicureMonday. Somewhere in my babyish heart, I wanted J.P. Moneypants, Chief Magnate of Seventeen Magazine to see the #ManicureMonday feed, stop in his tracks and take a new inventory. My phone would ring. “Gosh, Hope Jahren you were right all along!” he’d tell me on his private line. “We’re so sorry that me and my ilk have objectified you all these years. No hard feelings, okay?” “Screw you Seventeen!” I would then scream triumphantly into the phone. Well, it hasn’t happened. I am working through my disappointment while keeping my phone charged just in case. And there’s no plan, in case you’re wondering. Heady with Twitter fame, I considered trying to organize a true hi-jack of @Playboy’s #WifebeaterWednesday or #RapeApril or whatever they’ve got over there, but a wise millennial advised me gently that it’s a bad idea to purposefully antagonize a bunch of misogynistic trolls with no professional credibility to lose. I’m not sure what this “troll” thing is but the gravitas in his voice convinced me that he had only my best interests at heart. I asked my mom for advice about the next step and she said, “Get back to work. When you get fired, you ain’t moving back here.” I thought about staking out a new hashtag like #SciManis or some nonsense, but really, our hands aren’t different and separate from other women’s hands, and isn’t that the point? No, I accept that Seventeen Magazine is not going away but then again, neither is Twitter, and so you’ll find me over at #ManicureMonday for the long haul. Quietly tweeting one picture each week of what my hands look like when I think they are at their most beautiful. For decades Seventeen Magazine has regularly presented me with their image of beautiful bodies, of beautiful hands. The least that I can do is return their favor to the world at large. And if you want to come too, you are very, very welcome.
Nope, I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to accomplish — but Science has taught me well that lack of success is not the same as failure. Remember how most things are about me? I sure do. The biggest success of #ManicureMonday was that I learned something. I learned that willemite dust glows under fluorescent light. I learned that a rat liver is smaller than a fingernail. I learned that MAVEN launched successfully. I learned that snails are being “released”. I saw a hyena pelvis and an elephant shin for the first time. I learned that a colleague’s daughter was sick. I learned that pigs are paying the ultimate price for Neuroscience. I learned that I’m not the only PI who allows beef jerky in the lab. I learned that studying fish involves heaving them about on land far more than one might expect. I learned that code sure as hell doesn’t write itself. I learned that there isn’t a single corner of science that women haven’t successfully infiltrated in the last one hundred years. I learned about some men who sincerely cheer us on. I learned how to take a day and wallow in my pride over the young women who are coming after me and who will inevitably change my world. And I finally saw hands that looked like mine next to the Seventeen Magazine insignia. But more importantly I saw plenty of hands that didn’t look like mine. I saw lots and lots of hands. And in those hands I saw the joy and frustration and late nights and failed attempts and glowing pride unspoken whenever we offer each other a view of something private and beautiful.If you have time to kill, you might want to check out what I posted a couple weeks ago on the problematic nature of heedlessly pressuring women into #STEM careers. Or feel free to roam around the rest of this blog.