It was a ritual.
Every weekend, growing up in Detroit, my mom or one of my play aunties would take my friends and me to Northland Skating Rink, and what I remembered most wasn’t mastering the art of backward skating or what boy I ended up locking hands with when a slow jam came on, but the nails of the women who worked behind the ticket counter. Ostentatiously long, square and slightly curved, brightly colored, airbrushed and embellished. Their hands were always the center of attention, making transactions less mundane: meditatively tapping the table, typing digits into the registers and meticulously handling cash, and picking up coins as if their acrylic nails were an innate extension. For eight-year-old me, these nails were the epitome of cool.
My grandma Lorraine would get her nails done every two weeks. For more than twenty years, she worked the assembly line building car parts for General Motors, and she did it with her long, luxurious acrylic nails, sometimes a vibrant red and other times a pink-and-white set; she saved airbrushing and rhinestones for special occasions. On Saturdays, I would tag along with her to the nail salon where I got my first manicure and pedicure (baby pink) and I learned about the intimate relationships that women build with their nail technicians (it takes at least two hours to finish the process). “Once I found the right person, I was with them for a long time,” my grandma told me.
For the black women I was surrounded by growing up — including ones on television like Flo-Jo, Missy Elliott, Coco from SWV, and Lil’ Kim — getting your nails done (and in many cases what hairstyle you wore) was more than just routine pampering. It was a means of self-expression — especially for women who were employed by a place that required toning down your style or wearing a uniform. Yet in the ’90s, outside of my world, the same women I idolized were deemed ghetto, tacky, and unprofessional — mainstream society ignored the intricate artistry, perplexed by the women’s ability to function with those nails.
Today, these perceptions have changed: a bubble burst around 2012, when over-the-top nails became a mainstream trend, attributed to both social media and appropriation from women of a different class and skin color. Popular nail shapes have changed, too. Nail techs have abandoned the thicker, square acrylics for sleeker styles like stiletto (a long, pointed shape) and coffin (a tapered shape with a flat top). Nail designs are more innovative, doing away with stencil airbrushing and small rhinestones and swapping in huge crystals (think Cardi B), colored acrylics, chrome, and holographics.
But through all these changes, one thing has remained the same: the intimacy between the client and stylist. Oftentimes, when we talk about self-care that involves other people doing the care, it’s referred to as a solely one-sided act. We overlook the routine of give-and-take, creative collaboration, and trust. I visited three nail salons to explore those relationships, the routine of keeping your nails up, and what makes the process so meditative on both sides of the table.
Robin Lyn’s Studio in the Bronx
“People are like, ‘How do you type with your nails?’ And I’m like, ‘What do mean?’” Jennifer Inoa tells me. “I’m like, ‘What does having long nails have to do with preventing me from doing things?’ I mop the floor. I clean my house. I move furniture. Once you get them done and you get used to them, you can’t function without them. You feel naked.”