It’s giving ‘90s mom — and that might be a good thing.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve avoided the color red. You’ll rarely catch me sporting a red lip, wearing a red dress, buying red lingerie, or getting a red manicure. Because of my Edward Cullen-esque skin tone, I’ve always preferred a more neutral color palette. But according to TikTok, it might be time to change my attitude toward the color. Enter the “red nail theory.”
Here’s the idea: According to some content creators, red nails are a magnet for male attention. Whether the polish has a cherry hue, a merlot undertone, or an apple tint, men seem to be enticed by the color. While red is often associated with love, sex, and confidence, this theory assumes that men are drawn to the polish for a surprisingly different reason — and it has to do with their moms. (But more on that later.)
Before booking a manicure appointment, find out what psychologists and content creators who tested out the experiment have to say about the color red and attraction.
Where Did The Red Nail Theory Come From?
On Jan. 20, 2022, TikTok content creator Robyn, aka @GirlBossTown, introduced her followers to the “red nail theory.” She claimed that every time she wore a red manicure, at least one guy commented on her nails. She recalled how popular red manicures were in the ’90s and early aughts. “I weirdly think guys are attracted to red nails because it reminds them of their moms when they were growing up and taking care of them,” she said.
Thousands of people flooded the video with their own stories. One commenter said, “my ex was obsessed with red nails and had serious mommy issues, so this is a fact.” Others maintained that it was more about the color than the manicure itself. “I agree! But I think men love women in red in general! Red dress, red nails, red lipstick — it’s a bold, confident color,” stated another user.
Either way, the concept got people talking: The hashtag #rednailtheory now has more than 87 million views, and plenty of other creators have shared success stories from the experiment. But one question remains in the comments: Why red? Is there research to back this up?
What Impact Does The Color Red Have On Men?
If your boyfriend prefers your red cocktail dress more than a blue or black one, that admiration may be psychologically rooted. Sarah Melancon, Ph.D., a sexologist, tells Elite Daily that scientifically, the “red nail theory” does not exist; however, numerous studies have examined the effect of the color red on male attraction, with generally positive effects. In a 2008 study conducted by psychologists Andrew J. Elliot and Daniela Niesta, men reported feeling more “amorous” toward women wearing red. The research indicated that men’s initial attraction to the color stems from a common societal connection between red and sex.
In film, television, books, and music, a sexually enticing woman is often depicted wearing a red dress or red lipstick. “Dating as far back as the Greek ages, history has proven that red has always been viewed as a symbol of fertility and love,” Ciara Helm, LCSW, tells Elite Daily.
The effect may be subtle, but studies show that the color red can impact romantic situations. In a January 2010 study organized by psychologists Ian D. Stephen Angela M. McKeegan, participants were instructed to alter color tones on photos to increase the attractiveness of the person in the photo; 65% of them chose to increase the redness on a woman’s lips and decrease the redness on a man’s lips — leading researchers to believe that red lips specifically are associated with femininity and attractiveness. It’s also possible that wearing the color red could instigate a protective instinct from your boyfriend. Melancon points to a 2016 study from psychologists Pavol Prokop and Adam D. Pazda, which found that red could initiate a psychological response in men called “mate-guarding,” aka feeling defensive of their partner. It’s worth noting that these studies were all conducted on cishet men, and there’s minimal research on how the color impacts other gender identities.
So, yes, the color red could impact how your boyfriend views you, but what about the mommy issues claim? Melancon agrees that red nails may subconsciously remind a young man of his mother, pointing out that some people do tend to find some characteristics shared by our parents attractive in a significant other. Even though there is no scientific research that connects red nails to maternal figures, there could be a societal association.
“I would speculate most ’90s moms wore red because it is historically a ‘sexy’ color and likely made them feel like they were more a woman, rather than primarily a mother,” Helm says. But that’s not always a recipe for turning someone on. One TikTok creator, Sloan Byrd, was very surprised by her significant other’s response to the red manicure. “My partner said that my hands actually look like my mom’s and that it was a little odd to him since it reminded him of her so much,” Byrd tells Elite Daily.
Can A Red Manicure Boost Your Confidence?
It may be that red nails simply make the wearer feel good. “I personally felt more powerful and confident with red nails on,” TikTok content creator Navya Passi says. Byrd chose to try out red nails to see how her boyfriend would react, but she quickly fell in love with the look, choosing the color based on how it made her feel. “I love wearing red nails,” she says. “I’ve actually gotten red a couple more times after participating in the trend. It makes me feel very feminine and put-together.”
“If wearing red manicures makes you feel good, then go for it,” Melancon says. While there are some findings that the color may attract men, she points out that there’s not a single study where 100% of male participants prefer a woman in red. “What’s ultimately most important is that you like how you look.”
While a manicure isn’t the solution to all your romantic concerns, it may be worth paying attention to. “If a woman likes red nail polish and her partner enjoys it … [this] could enhance sexual chemistry,” Melancon says. But it may be more about your confidence than anything else.
Sarah Melancon, Ph.D., sociologist and sexologist
Elliot AJ, Niesta D. Romantic Red: Red Enhances Men's Attraction to Women. J Pers Soc Psychol. (2008) Nov;95(5):1150-64. doi: 10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1240. PMID: 18954199.
Stephen, I. D., & McKeegan, A. M. (2010). Lip Colour Affects Perceived Sex Typicality and Attractiveness of Human Faces. Perception, 39(8), 1104–1110. https://doi.org/10.1068/p6730
Prokop, Pavol & Pazda, Adam D. (2016). Women's Red Clothing Can Increase Mate-Guarding From Their Male Partner, Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 98.