Long, Acrylic Nails Aren't New—Society Just Used to Call Them "Ghetto"
"We need to be very clear about how white supremacy is rooted in the beauty world, and that starts with a conversation."
"Inclusivity" may be a buzzword, but for anyone who has ever felt left out of conversations in the beauty space—it's so much more. In Shades of Melanin, we celebrate Black beauty, support the brands and founders that are fighting for inclusivity in the industry, and unpack the issues that still need to be addressed.
We all remember that iconic scene from Bring It On, while the Toros are performing stolen routines at their football game and the Clovers pull up and reclaim what was originally theirs. "Tried to steal our bit. But, you look like sh*t. We're the ones that are down with it!" The exciting drama I felt when the movie came out when I was 10 years old vanished with my naivety and emergence of my deeper understanding of the bigger theme addressed: The stealing of Black culture, erasure of history, and ignoring who originated it in the name of 'trend' cultivation to profit from creativity that wasn't theirs.
Cultural appropriation is the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, or ideas of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary. From adopting Black hairstyles to black face/phishing, we constantly are seeing clear examples of appropriation on runways and from celebrities. It happens across cultures, and brands have a history of imitating or taking bits and pieces from different cultures without acknowledging where the idea originated.
More specifically, manicures and acrylic nails have a long history of being intersectional as they encompass undertones of classism, racial discrimination, and politics. In 1988, Olympic athlete Florence Griffith Joyner broke the 100-meter track world record. She was catapulted into the public eye and the coverage of her extraordinary abilities made numerous headlines. However, her achievements were always paired with comments about her nails and appearance.
In an essay written by professor Lindsay Pieper, she highlighted the issues with the way the media covered Flo Jo. "Regardless of intention, French manicures and pastel colors signal white, middle-class, heteronormative beauty. Long, sculptured, airbrushed nails, on the other hand, are markers of blackness, sexual deviancy, and marginalized femininity." This issue isn't isolated. Even Serena Williams has been described as "rule-breaking" for the way she wears her nails.
We see time and time again the difference in language used in the media to describe Black women in relation to beauty and trends. White heteronormativity is the beauty standard to which we have been indoctrinated to compare everything to. The Eurocentricity of the beauty industry as a whole has made it commonplace to leave Black women out of a conversation that they deserve to be in—often, a conversation about trends they created, from acrylic nails to cornrows and locs.
Are acrylic nails appropriation? This question will never have a clear yes or no answer because it is context-specific. I am in no way saying non-Black people shouldn't wear acrylics, but it's time to give Black women their flowers. It's time to change the rhetoric and give credit where credit is due. What I do know is that I don't want to see another article that highlights a Kardashian/Jenner for spearheading long acrylics as if they have pushed the boundaries of nail art. In reality, Black women were rocking fake nails before they were "cool." Wearing them proudly when the words used by the world to describe them were "ghetto," "tacky," and "how can you do anything wearing them?" Once again, we see the recurring theme that it's the color of a person's skin that makes something trendy and acceptable. Repackage something from Black culture in whiteness and boom, it's mainstream and those that appropriate are seen as trailblazers.
New York City-based manicurist, Anna Miles, perfectly articulated the slippery slope that is nails and cultural appropriation. "It's the push-and-pull between appropriation and appreciation, and the visual impact versus the intention behind it," she says. "For example, I'm a white woman, and if I were to wear a style that was distinctly reminiscent of an early-mid '90s long square acrylic with brushstroke flowers and rhinestones, and you see me on the train, you'd have no idea that my understanding of where this trend came from isn't disingenuous. That silent misunderstanding is inherently the case with culture blending. People assume you're appropriating because that's the historical norm. The education of all people is important."
So, how do we combat a trend that teeters on appropriation?
"My constant struggle and life purpose is to talk to people about their nails," explains Miles. "This includes detailing the differences between the cuticle and proximal nail fold; between the nail bed and nail plate; how polish, acrylic, and gel all become plastic on your nails; etc. It's biology and chemistry—that is half. The other half is the art of it. What designs have what origins, and properly and correctly sourcing and acknowledging original artists. So that's where the discussion of how we take white supremacy out of our beauty standards comes to the manicure table. I'm positive we won't easily have everybody on board until we start having more conversations that center the contribution Black culture has made on current nail, hair, and other beauty trends."
The goal is for progress. For anything to change, we need to be very clear about how white supremacy is rooted in the beauty world, and that starts with a conversation, restructuring beauty norms, and expanding representation.
I spoke with anti-racist educator Marie Beech, who uses her platform to share her experiences, resources, and perspective to combat unconscious bias, discrimination, racism, environmental racism, and oppressive systems. I asked her what she would say to people who write off cultural appropriation as appreciation.
"I think this conversation requires nuance, but we don't sit down and talk long enough to set up a dialogue of understanding," Beech says. "I think that if we communicated well, white people would understand how it can be disrespectful, and Black and Brown people would see that the white people had no ill-intentions. That said, if it seems the culture you're appreciating doesn't appreciate your appreciation, it's probably time to think things through again."
We need to take the policing of cultural appropriation out of the way we dismantle the issue and start by rebuilding the foundation.
If the norm becomes inclusivity and representation, and if the language that permeates beauty and fashion pieces became devoid of negative signifiers based on the race of whom is being spoken about, then there would be room for appreciation without the assumption of ignorant intentions.
"Cultural appropriation can feel like a slight because other people are being praised for the very things we are mocked for," says Beech. In regards to acrylics, it's more about how we move forward citing trends.
The next time you're getting your nails done, think about the history of acrylics and nail art. By definition, something becomes appropriation when it goes unacknowledged. Taking the time to educate yourself on the history of the contributions of Black women gives back to those same women who have coined the very trend but never received the recognition they deserved.