Above works by Helen Maurene Cooper
I wandered around the basement of the Chicago Artists’ Coalition and spent time examining large photographic prints from Helen Maurene Cooper’s “Hard Candy” series. Each print was illuminated by floor-level spotlights used as a way to set the mood for the evening – a benefit for the organization. Designs with pony and party favors (2009), stood out to me immediately as it ilicited two distinct memories from my childhood: My Little Pony and BAPS.
Early last month, Danielle of Final Fashion sent me and a couple of other writers and bloggers tweets asking for our thoughts on the phenomenon of nail art. She also forwarded a link from BuzzFeed, "Why Everyone Suddenly Cares About Nail Art." In the article, writer Hillary Reinsberg argued for the inclusion of the history of black women and nail art when discussing its recent popularity. The comments on the article made me cringe as most comments on any article even vaguely discussing race often do. Readers are uncomfortable with ideas of privilege, of history, of appropriation and do whatever they can to ignore and deny the influence of one culture on another.
As a young black woman who grew up in the 90s, I always associated nail art with black women. That’s not to say that intricate or complicated nail art was not practiced by other cultures, only that its prominence in the black female community in the 90s was so strong that I could only (and still only) attribute it to the culture I grew up in.
Nail art to me is sitting in my hairdresser’s chair on a Saturday afternoon and watching the women in their 20s stroll in and out of the beauty shop getting their tips refreshed. Nail art is my aunt answering phone calls and barely typing on her keyboard at her job at a cable company.
I used to purchase fake nails with designs embedded into the surface as a young teen and wear them for a day or two. Nail art is my mother telling me that no one will take me seriously as a black woman “trying to make it.”
"You don’t wanna look like them … look like that,” she once said. So I stopped wearing them. So I stopped doing anything to my nails. It’s because of the flute, I used to say. It’s because of dance practice, I used to say. It’s whatever, I used to say.
My recent nails:
I’ve been trying to put my finger on why certain aspects of Lana Del Rey (though now I like her) and especially Iggy Azalea bothered me when they first came on the scene. Part of it at least is tied to nail art. Both are photographed with the sort of long nails I remember other people (friends, acquaintances, strangers, the media) referring to as “ghetto” or “trashy” on black women during the 90s. The styles themselves have changed little but the rhetoric surrounding nail art is changing, at least for certain populations. The longer style is rarely seen as “cool” or “fashionable” and instead, nail art is done to be embedded on the type of shortened and pristine nails that were seen as appropriate before the last couple of years.
A month ago, I came up to the counter of my favorite local coffeeshop and was stopped immediately by one of the baristas.
"Holy shit! Pause! Let me see those nails!" she exclaimed.
I still had the extravagantly long nails on from a recent photo shoot.
"They’re not real," I said, almost weary to admit. I realized how much I had internalized ideas of "good nails" and "bad nails," (much like "good hair" and "bad hair") during my childhood. I try to think of myself as an independently-minded person, but I am still a product of a middle class black home and what it means to succeed, to be taken "seriously," to be "appropriate and right" still resonates within me in ways that make me uncomfortable. I present one version of myself to the world, but have internalized something different and class-based internally. The freedom of adulthood has meant examining the things I love and why it has possibly taken me so long to love them in the first place.