The Soulhaus

Nail Art Is More Than a Fad to Black Women, It's Culture

Category: Art & Design, Lifestyle

Over fifty-five million posts populate when you type #nailsofinstagram in the social platform’s search bar — seemingly never-ending images of almond- , coffin- , stiletto- , and round-shaped nails, and every other shape in between. Glitter, matte, and glossy finishes. Solid shades, and both monochromatic and multi-color patterns. While the artistic range is vast, you can still spot some commonality in those fifty-million plus posts like trimmed cuticles and go-to hand poses to best show off the nail techs’ work. But perhaps the most notable similarity is that almost all of the featured hands are white — or at least passing. This is especially ironic because like many of beauty’s most lauded trends and aesthetics, including baby hairs and plump pouts, the art of nail design was popularized by BIPOC, and more specifically by Black women of the diaspora. The extravagant nail extensions and designs worn by Olympians Flo Jo and Gail Devers, TV personality and activist Ts Madison, and artists throughout the decades, from Celia Cruz to Coko to Lizzo and Flo Milli, are common sightings in Black neighborhoods and social scenes around the globe.

Nail art is a vehicle of self-care, self-expression, and autonomy.
“It’s our story, our ancestry. That doesn’t change, no matter our income or position in life.” – Melissa Samuel, Celebrity nail artist and founder of Finesse Your Claws

These decadent works of craftsmanship have always been more than a fad to Black women; a full set is a symbol of self-care. In many instances, it’s one of few affordable self-care options, as opposed to a luxe spa experience or a fancy vacation that’d require money and potentially time off from work. In an essay for BuzzFeed News, journalist and author Nichole Perkins writes that her mother “raised three children on the meager salary of a licensed practical nurse, but always made sure to treat herself to the luxury of a manicure. In today’s language, it was her form of self-care, a way of making sure she provided for herself as she took care of everyone else.” Perkins continues that she sees the same “act of self-care” among low-earning professionals, like fast food workers and teachers, “who may not be wealthy, but want to give themselves a small, affordable treat.” Celebrity nail artist and founder of Finesse Your Claws, a brand that sells press-ons, accessories and nail care, Melissa Samuel tells The Soulhaus that a lot of Black women, regardless of income, factor routine manicures into their budget. “We don’t just paint our nails — it goes beyond who we are as individuals,” she says. “It’s our story, our ancestry. That doesn’t change, no matter our income or position in life.”

Designed nails are also a form of self-expression and autonomy for Black women across socioeconomic statuses. In a society where Black women are policed for their image — arguably more than any other group of women — opting for a set is in many ways a fat, “F*ck you!” to biased beauty standards and the messaging telling us to not take up too much space. It’s beautiful and radical to manicure melanated hands, whether a dainty and neutral set that rebuts “I am soft and feminine” in the face of cartoonists who depict Black women as hypermasculine caricatures, or a loud and curved set that screams “I’m here!” to corporate America and preachers of respectability politics. And this refreshing audacity to express oneself in historically mundane settings is only on the incline among modern Black women who have both the qualifications to occupy these spaces, and the conviction to maintain their cultural identity. Samuel says that “Black women are currently the fastest expanding group of entrepreneurs,” in addition to rising up ranks in conservative sports, corporate, and political arenas. “So we are no longer searching for social acceptance.”

Melissa Samuel, celebrity nail artist and founder of Finesse Your Claws, shares a gallery of her editorial nail work with The Soulhaus.

The myriad of social implications make Black woman-owned brands like Samuel’s Finesse Your Claws and artist and entrepreneur Gracie J’s The Editorial Nail much more than cool press-ons. The Editorial Nail has captured the attention of media and Instagram scrollers for its innovative, reusable press-on nails and gorgeous imagery of brown hands adorned by stunning nail art. It’s powerful to see a Black businesswoman reclaim a space that has been infiltrated by cultural appropriation, and be celebrated for her work by both beauty outlets and consumers. As social and mainstream media’s face (or hands) of nail art continue to avert attention from the  Black women who popularized it, brown hands remain center stage in The Editorial Nail’s marketing for social media and ecommerce. The current price point for a uniquely designed set ranges from $30 to $125, and each set comes with a pro tool kit for application.

Pressed by Tiny is another Black-owned press-on nails company, founded by Tiana “Tiny Luxury” Hardy (as she’s known on Instagram). The brand offers a variety of nail shapes, like almond, stiletto, and square, in short to long lengths. Pressed by Tiny’s nails are reusable, and the brand prides itself on the products’ durability. With press-on nails’ growing popularity, Pressed by Tiny stands out with its themed collections available only for a limited time. The artist announces new releases at random, and the clientele has a window of time to purchase. Once a design is sold out, it’s unlikely for the brand to restock it. The limited-edition inventory is quite popular among nail aficionados, including superstar J.T. of the City Girls.

The future of extravagant nail art in white popular culture is uncertain. Like box braids, baby hairs, full lips, round derrieres, skin so tanned it looks brown, and other aesthetics heavily inspired by BIPOC,  it can be in one day and out the next. But for Black women who have been rocking fresh sets long before white celebrities and editorials jumped on the wave, nail art — whether long or short, curved or straight, studded or painted matte — is a living culture and it’s here to stay.

Finesse Your Claws

An editorial film from the mind of multidisciplinary founder Melissa Samuel of Finesse Your Claws

Film Commissioned by Finesse Your Claws, Creative Director and Nail Art – Melissa Samuel of Finesse Your Claws, Production Team – Ojeras Agency, Dancer – Cortney Taylor Key, MUA – Reneé Rob