When I was five years old, my younger sister named my little arm Bebe – she was trying to say “baby hand” but was too young, so Bebe just sort of stuck, to this day. My sister and I loved to play games with our arms. Most often, Bebe was a superhero and my right hand was the bad guy, Biggie. My sister was entertained for hours. At such a young age, she was the first one to show me how incredible it is to love one’s body fully, for exactly how it is. I grew up with an excellent sense of body awareness and pride because of my sister.
As I got older and started exploring makeup, I experimented with painting my nails.
You’d think I only have five nails – the ones on my right hand – but I also have a little nail on my thumb on my stump. This little nail grows like any other nail and I have to trim it sometimes; sometimes I bite it; and, when I’m in the mood, I paint it. Because I grew up in an environment where I didn’t get treated differently for having one hand, I feel confident trying new things that typically require two hands. Nail polish is just another fun thing to use in my unique way.
Here’s how I put on nail polish: First, I give the bottle a shake with my right hand; then, depending on how tight the lid is, I press the bottle against my chest with my stump and untwist the top with my right hand, or I hold the bottle with my right hand and untwist the top with my teeth. I know that dentists everywhere are cringing at the idea of using your mouth to open stuff, but when you have a limb difference, it’s extremely helpful. Once I have the polish open, I place the base of the jar on the table, using my right hand to paint my toes and my stump thumbnail. I definitely recommend nail polish with a rectangular bottle shape vs. a rounded one (for example, ella + mila or Lauren B. Beauty) because the flat edges make it sturdier for someone with a limb difference to balance against another surface, rather than it rolling around. Orly polishes are also neat because they have a grippy handle on the cap.
Painting my right-hand nails is a little more interesting: I sit in a comfortable position on a couch or chair so I can bend my knees up; I use my knee as an anchor for the polish brush, where I hold it firmly with my stump; rather than move the brush to paint my nails, I then position my nail under the bristles and move my hand in smooth strokes to apply the polish from the nail base to the tip. When I need to apply more polish to the brush, I carefully grasp it with the pointer finger and thumb of my right hand and dip it in the bottle. Then I gently place it back against my knee and swap out my fingers for my stump. I repeat the process until all my nails are done, and hope I don’t get any nail polish on my pants!
Sometimes, instead of between my knee and stump, I hold the applicator brush in the elbow-crook of my stump arm. This method gives me a bit more flexibility and range of motion, but I have a little less fine-motor control. (Imagine using your elbow-crook to hold the polish brush and applying nail polish – better yet, give it a try at home!)
Just like someone with two hands, practice is key.
My first attempts were very, shall we say, colorful. I ended up with painted nails and fingers, but now my skills rival the average amateur. I love finding new ways to play with nail polish, especially letting young kids paint the nail on my stump. It’s always a wonderful time full of fun, a bit messy, with some learning about limb difference: Sounds perfect to me!
Alexis Hillyard (she/her) is a queer and disabled YouTube Creator, self-taught vegan chef, and entrepreneur. Born without her left hand, Alexis uses her stump as a kitchen tool – from spatula to juicer – while expanding the vocabulary of what’s possible in the kitchen each week on her award-winning YouTube show Stump Kitchen. In 2017 Alexis was named the first Canadian Ambassador to the Lucky Fin Project, an organization dedicated to limb difference awareness, education, and celebration. Alexis was also awarded the Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor-General of Canada, one of the highest honors that Canada can bestow on its citizens, for her Stump Kitchen work.