As a child, I remember spending inordinate amounts of time in two temples of beauty: the nail salon and the hair salon. My mother would get her nails wrapped or opt for a gel set. But most of the time, she opted for acrylic nails. In the US, most nail technicians were Asain women of Vietnamese, Filipino or Chinese descent. They would buff my mother’s nails into square shapes, apply the thick coat of acrylic and then finally paint her nails in smooth, assured strokes of the punchiest, brightest color that caught my mother’s eye. When we moved back to Nigeria, my mother’s faithful trips to nail salons continued. Her bright, long nails accentuated any outfit that she wore. As she got older, her nails got shorter. But those bright colors never changed.
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Between respect for my mother’s sense of style and my love for RnB music my interest in acrylic nails grew. Watching old SWV music videos that showcased the lead singer Coco’s long, ostentatious nails fascinated and comforted me. While Coco’s nails are actually real, the aesthetic of those nails was extremely familiar to me because I had seen them my whole life. Missy Elliott reminding all the stylish and fly girls to remember to get their nails and hair done in ‘Work It’ made complete sense to me. Despite the significance a fresh nail set has had in the black community, acrylics have often been labeled tacky, classless, or unprofessional.
Which brings us to Saweetie. Saweetie recently released a short music video to accompany her new song ‘Pretty Bitch Music’. In it, she’s dancing around her home and wearing extremely long red nails. People immediately began speculating over whether Saweetie has a ‘right’ to wear those nails, claiming that she grew up middle class and she’s appropriating ‘around the way girl aesthetics’. To me, this is ridiculous. Saweetie is an African American, Filipino and Chinese woman. These are the same women who built nail art into what it is in popular culture. If anyone is ‘qualified’ to wear those nails, it’s her.
The conversation around Saweetie’s nails makes sense though. Like hair braiders, nail technicians are in a feminized area of labor often associated with less educated women and particularly women of color. Doing nails and doing hair is the ‘on the side jobs’ for black women who are trying to make some extra money in university. And this goes for immigrants as well. So many of us have aunties that used their kitchen or living room as a makeshift salon to do the hair of other people so that they could buy a designer dress or get some more textbooks for school. If they were really plush, they could even go out with their friends and get a new acrylic set.
The reason why so many people were upset with Saweetie wearing those nails no matter how unreasonable the anger was, is because there is a sense of ownership over them. In a world where pieces of cultures get commodified for profit while keeping the creators out, those nails worn by someone they felt doesn’t ‘belong’ touched a sore spot. But black women, all types of black women have worn these nails. From rappers like Lil Kim to bank managers to painters. It’s truly an interesting thing to see something that seems like an afterthought receive so much press and attention. It reminds of the constant barrage of questions Cardi B has to field about how she takes care of her child with such long nails. This is a question that’s never crossed my mind because as a child of a woman who kept her nails in a talon-like state for most of her adult life I am very aware of women’s ability to multitask. The women who wear long nails often face the suggestion that such a beauty ritual is rooted in sheer vanity. But my personal question is this: and so what if it is? Nothing can beat the feeling of hearing your nails clack against the keyboard of your computer. The way acrylics automatically add another layer of impatience to the person drumming their fingers against a table top is unmatched.
Saweetie is an artist and nails are simply another visual outlet for her to express herself. That should always be cause for celebration not consternation.
If you’re a fly gal, get your nails done. Might as well hit you with this classic:
By: Yoruba Mermaid