I'll never forget my first professional manicure, even though it was ages ago. I was 4-years-old and visiting my aunt in New York City for Christmas. My mom, my aunt, and I decided to have a girls day, with the first stop being the nail salon. I was too small to reach the salon table, so I sat on my mom's lap while my aunt snapped away with her disposable camera, capturing the milestone moment. Since then, manicures have always been a huge part of my life. And despite rumblings that 2020 marks the end of the manicure, their importance won't ever change — especially during times like these.
I've always viewed nail artists as celebrities of sorts. As someone with little artistic ability of my own, I'm constantly in awe of their talents. However, working in beauty, I've witnessed the blatant disregard and minimizing of their craft firsthand. So often, there are those who perpetuate the belief that nail care is somehow dangerous. That couldn't be further from the truth.
"I think it's easy to give a bad rep to manicures because those bad apples out there are always amplified," Trenna Seney, a mobile nail artist in New York City, tells me. "There are so many that automatically assume that nail salons and manicures are dangerous. But just like any other beauty treatment, there are exceptions." Gina Edwards, a longtime editorial manicurist whose work has been seen on Kim Kardashian and Joan Smalls, agrees. "I know price is often a factor, but you really do have to make sure that you interview your manicurist and find someone who won't lead you in the wrong direction," she says. "When you're going into a salon, even before COVID-19, there's a need to make sure that your hands are clean, that your technician's hands are clean, and that their tools and space are properly sanitized." The intimate nature of the service also makes it an easy target. "You're literally holding someone's hands for some time which can turn into hours," Seney says. "You're closer than with most beauty treatments and you're face to face with this person."
To delegitimize the nature of manicures is to delegitimize centuries of cultural importance, and the experiences of Black women like mine.
Aside from sanitation practices, debates surrounding cuticle grooming continue to perpetuate the belief that manicures cut away at the nail's protection layer. But again, that's false. "You never cut the cuticle off," Edwards says. "You push the cuticle back and then you trim." However, she recognizes that not everyone performs the task correctly. "If someone is not trained properly they may perform it wrong, but in training you are never taught to cut the cuticle." Speaking of training, all nail technicians must be licensed — something not required for makeup artists and often neglected for hairstylists. This further legitimizes a profession that's continually undermined.
Manicures have long been — and will always be — about more than polish on nails.
But it's about more than just safety. To delegitimize the nature of manicures is to delegitimize centuries of cultural importance, and the experiences of Black women like mine. It's said that Queen Nefertiti used to paint both her hands and toes red, a signifier of social status. The look was created with henna and occasionally blood. Centuries later, nails are still of cultural importance. In 2019 alone, nail industry profits exceeded $6 billion, growing at a consistent annual rate of 10.4% according to Kentley Insights. The intricacies of nail art and nail extension systems have also long been a necessity of Black culture. Donyale Luna, the first Black woman to grace the cover of Vogue, did so wearing acrylics, and Diana Ross was never spotted without a red acrylic set. Most notable is Florence Griffith Joyner, the fastest woman track athlete of all time, who became known for her long nails. Then there's the trend of over-the-top nail designs that originated in Black communities as forms of self-expression decades ago and have conveniently resurfaced on Hollywood's brightest and most influential stars today. Manicures have long been — and will always be — about more than polish on nails. And when performed correctly, they're perfectly safe to have.
Even if I'm bare-faced or my hair isn't done, I look down at my hands and see my painted nails — and instantly, I feel better.
And while priorities have undoubtedly shifted, the desire for manicures has not completely fallen by the wayside. Since reopening, I've gotten right back into a routine of my tri-weekly manicures. I feel as if much of my confidence has been restored. Even if my hair isn't done or if I'm not wearing makeup, I can look down at my hands and see my painted nails — and instantly, I feel better. Experts say that their clients have expressed the same sentiments, which further refutes the notion that somehow manicures have lost their importance in people's lives. The way people prefer to experience their manicures, however, has certainly experienced a shift. Seney shares that she's only had six days off since Jun. 8 as the demand for travel manicurists is at an all-time high. "A lot of women that I see, they're adamant that they're not going to the salon, but they still must have their nails done," she says. "It's really a luxury service that I provide because I go to your house, you can actually witness my sanitation practices, and I'm opening new packs of tools that are only used on the client." The same goes for Edwards, who notes that the demand both in editorial and in real life, while not what it used to be, still remains prevalent.
For many like myself, manicures are more than just some humdrum beauty service. It plays a role in my confidence, it's an extension of my culture, and it's yet another way to express my creativity. And even now, when the world is in limbo, I continue to cherish my moments in the artist's chair, and feel a sense of pride each and every time I catch a glance of my artwork. My hope is that in this time, rather than try to diminish such a beautiful and influential craft, people will make an effort to educate themselves on the rich history and vast impact. So no, the manicure is not cancelled. In fact, it's only just begun.