Fresh tips: nail art breaks cultural boundaries in the new decade

January 15, 2013

Before September of 2012, I got manicures that were simple and subtle. Sometimes I chose a neon color or glitter top coat to make the manicure pop, but more often than not, I chose a look that was more subdued than the outfits I choose to wear on a daily basis. In September, I modeled for the local jewelry brand Ready-to-Stare and part of the shoot involved donning long, heavy false nails painted in a smart black and white geometric pattern.

After the shoot, Tacarra Sutton, the nail artist known as "Spifster," asked if I wanted her to remove the nails, or just trim them. I stuck with the short trimming. The designs were unlike any other style I'd previously worn, but I didn't feel uncomfortable wearing them. In fact, it finally felt acceptable to go for something different than just a clean coat.

For the next couple of days, I was approached by numerous women – at my favorite coffeeshop, at my day job, in a convenience store – of various ages, races, and ethnicities about my nails. During my first encounter, I was afraid to admit that they were not real. In my mind, there were acceptable nails and then there was everything else. As the day wore on, I gained a sense of eagerness in showing off the designs. Like a smart handbag or a great vintage find, Spifster's nail designs were a point of pride. These designs were something unique, something special, and something worthy of recognition. Why was that so difficult to admit?

As a young black women who grew up in the 90s, I always associated nail art with my race and gender. Nail art in its most basic and complicated forms has been a part of various cultures across the globe for many years, but during this decade, extravagant nail art held a negative cache that has only recently been lifted as unique designs have spread across race and class. Its prominence in the black community was so prevalent that it is difficult to associate it with any other community than the one I grew up in as a child.

Nail art to me is sitting in my hairdresser's chair on a long Saturday afternoon and watching the women from various neighborhoods on the West Side and the surrounding suburbs get their tips fixed. I can still see them now as they rush in and out of the beauty shop, able to get something done in what seemed like a matter of moments. Nail art is Halle Berry in B.A.P.S.

Nail art is learning what it means to be presentable as a young black woman. The 90s were a time of great prosperity for the black community, but the lingering negative effects till ruminate in my mind. To be accepted by the mainstream meant abandoning my love of nail art. Like relaxed hair, clean and presentable nails became a symbol of adversing from a lower-class status. You don't want to look like them, I often heard.

"Them" meant a lot of things, a stereotype being the most obvious. The environments we grow up in and the pop culture we consume have a way of shaping our identities long after we've grown from publicly believing in stereotypes. I present an open and caring demeanor to the people around me, but I can also acknowledge that I have internalized a disdain for representations of black culture that are not middle class or better. The words "trashy" or "ghetto" were not ones I use to describe the people around me, but my decisions – from music to fashion to nail design – were predicated on trying to not be those things.

Since then, nail art has transitioned from its negative 90s connotations into a celebrated method of self-decoration. Numerous beauty and fashion websites feature slideshows and DIY tutorials for those interested in exploring the trend. Earlier this year, BuzzFeed published an article by Hillary Reinsberg about the sudden popularity of nail art, briefly touching on its "origins" in the black community. In the article, the writer interviewed beauty editors and fashion critics. She wrote:

When it comes to beauty treatments commonly practiced by black women at home, it is more understandable that lots of white women don't know about them. But when it comes to nails? As Mangum puts it, black women have long embraced rhinestones and lots of other nail "bedazzlement" for years.

Although the article was a good starting point to the discussion, nail art, like many other trends, is a subject worthy of exploration from a variety of different angles. And in the end, this is not a story about who claims what, but about how what we claim (or don't claim) can affect our opinions on the world around us for far longer than we anticipate. 

Was it inevitable for nail art to "transition" from the black community to the "mainstream" like many other forms of popular culture such as rap? Or is the popularity of nail art more complicated and nuanced? For myself at least, loving intricate nail art designs on myself and others has only come after acknowledging and growing past internalized hatred of things deemed a negative part of my culture. That this came at the same time as the practice's rise in popular culture is merely a coincidence. My love of nail art grew in much the same way as my love of many other things (music, fashion, literature) developed. It was gradual, unforced, and representative of a pervasive curiosity. Growing older has meant understanding the ways in which I function within and am subject to the ways of the world around me. 

Follow Britt on Twitter @britticisms.