My first memory of nail polish is from the bathroom in my mother’s apartment. I must’ve been about six. She was in the tub, probably, a wisteria-scented candle burning in the corner. Her favorite color was purple, and this manifested in her wardrobe, her bedroom, that candle, and her cosmetics. The polish was an iridescent plummy color, in a spherical bottle with a long handle. I remember being transfixed by the color as I painted it, clumsily, on my nails. As a manicure, it was a total mess — gloppy, uneven, with as much on my fingers as on my actual nails. But it felt grown up and so, so beautiful. I was delighted with it.
Fast forward 33 years or so, and I was preparing for my very last minute TED talk (as some of you know, I was asked to speak three weeks before TED 2018), which I had suddenly learned was going to be the closing talk of the conference. The very last one! (No pressure!)
As a pick-me-up in between rewrites, I headed to the nail salon around the corner from my apartment, picked out a jelly bean jar’s worth of shades and had them painted across my fingers and toes. I had had a multicolor mani once before, as part of a visit to the Color Factory in San Francisco, and loved the way that it made me feel. It was a small thing, but seeing those nails as my fingers tapped away long hours at my computer gave me a little energy boost.
And upon arriving at TED in Vancouver, it became an instant conversation point. One of the challenges of going last at a conference is that people don’t know anything about you or your work until after you speak, so in addition to frantically trying to memorize your talk, you’re doing a lot of introducing yourself. The nails made for an instant conversation-starter, and a shortcut to explaining what I do at a time when I was both exhausted and anxious.
Then I got onstage. The whole thing was an out-of-body experience, but I did it! And after, people kept mentioning my nails. I couldn’t believe that they could see them from so far away, but because TED keeps a camera on the speaker at all times, my face was magnified many times over in the theater, and each hand gesture had a multicolored punctuation point.
When the talk was released a month later, people wrote to comment on something I said, but just as often they wanted to talk about my dress or my nails. I realize that some people might have been bothered by this, seeing it as a distraction from the deeper takeaways of the talk. But I was glad people had noticed. For me, this was just as valid and important a response as any other.
In a way, a joyful manicure is a perfect example of what I describe in the talk. It’s small and transitory, a way of finding delight in the immediate moment. It’s often dismissed as superficial or trivial; as an act of adornment, it’s coded as feminine, and the rainbow colors as childish. To paint one’s nails this way is an act of joy, but doing so exposes a person to the perception that they’re not as mature, serious, or credible as they claim to be.
In fact, I’ve long wanted to write about joyful manicures on this blog, ever since 2012 when nail art really started becoming a big trend. But time and time again I held myself back because I worried that readers who saw me as a well-reasoned voice for bringing a scientific perspective to design would write me off as frivolous. I could write about art, architecture, even fashion. But nails felt like a bridge too far.
Yet as I started to dig into the history of manicures, I discovered that their current status in culture belies a much more complex origin story. In the ancient world, men often painted their nails as a form of decoration before going into combat. Babylonian warriors painted their nails green and black, and a gold manicure has been unearthed from warrior tombs as well. In Egypt, upper-class people used henna or kermes (a dye made from crushed beetles) to stain their nails orange or ruby red. The Inca people are also reputed to have used nail treatments before battle as well, and have been referred to as the originators of nail art because they painted eagles on their fingertips before battle.
Knowing this, it seems particularly strange to me that men are made to feel their masculinity is in jeopardy for getting a manicure, and that little boys have been shamed and bullied for wanting to enjoy a little color on their nails. Or that some people have turned this issue into one of transphobia, suggesting that allowing boys to paint their nails is causing gender confusion, when in fact the practice has its roots in one of the most masculine domains in human culture: war.
Another thing that’s held me back from talking about manicures is that they’re often seen as a self-indulgent activity. In fact, I felt this recently when I posted this picture of a particularly inspiring piece of nail art by artist Hang Nguyen on my Instagram feed, and it drew the following comment:
Incredibly indulgent activity to draw attention to while the streets are filling with good people marching against hunger, homelessness and injustice.
Ouch! Does enjoying nail art mean that you’re callous and superficial, oblivious to the tragedies and injustices of the world around you?
I certainly don’t think so, and I know many of you agree, because what followed was a fascinating thread of 25 responses to that original comment discussing the ways in which small joys can help keep us hopeful and inspired as we try to imagine and build a better world. One commenter who struggles with depression mentioned that the image had lifted her spirits, but that the negative comment made her feel guilty for the moment of joy she felt. Even the woman whose nails were featured in the photo chimed in, sharing that guilt was a factor for her too. As a busy small business owner with a toddler and another baby on the way, and a desire to live a “low maintenance life,” she often held back from manicures because they felt indulgent. But she observed that working with a nail artist like Nguyen was a chance to spend some time doing something that inspired her. For her, it was about “creativity, art, and joy!”
Now, as we face the protracted threats of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic devastation it’s causing, it would be easy to raise the same objection. Yet small joys like a colorful home manicure can be a salve for the sense of deprivation many people are currently experiencing. In quarantine life, we face a reduced palette of sensations, so a little color or sparkle can go a long way toward reducing the sense of boredom and agitation we might feel. Bright nails can also be a source of joy to others, which in turn can boomerang that joy right back to you. When I was going through the daily appointments and blood draws needed for IVF, I can’t tell you how many times the doctors and nurses would notice my joyful pedicure in the stirrups, smile, and comment, which boosted my mood during an otherwise stressful experience.
With this in mind, I thought I’d share a little inspiration and a few tips for creating your own joyful manicure, right in the safety of your own home.
Since TED, the rainbow gradient has been my signature, and I quickly found that it was both more affordable and quicker to do it myself than to go to the salon. Plus, having a range of polishes on hand creates the possibility of experimenting with other ideas, such as a gold-dipped version, an abstract painted one, a confetti nail, or the Yayoi Kusama-inspired dots that you see here.
My first palette was composed of Essie and Zoya colors, mostly because they are easily available and I was familiar with them. Pro tip: I ordered mine off of eBay at a big discount, which made the initial setup cost about the price of two in-salon manicures. You’ll also need a top coat and a base coat (don’t skip this, as dark colors can stain your nails) and it’s handy to have a white and a metallic (gold or silver) in your kit as well for fun effects. I also like to have quick-dry drops at the ready because I am very impatient and do not like sitting around waiting for polish to dry! I do cool colors on the left hand and warm ones on the right. The palette I use most often is this. (Feel free to save or pin this graphic so you have the colors handy!)
Since being pregnant, I’ve been looking for cleaner alternatives. While Essie and Zoya are both free of the most harmful ingredients, I’ve managed to switch all my other beauty and skincare products to clean ones, and I thought I’d see if I could do the same with my nails. So now I use a mix of Olive & June and Coté polishes. I really love the Olive & June nail kits, which come with a file, a clipper, cuticle oil, a nail polish remover pot, and a holder they call “the Poppy” which makes it easier to apply nail polish on yourself. For colors, though, Coté has a range and level of saturation that really can’t be beat.
Doing your own nails takes practice, but all I can say here is that it gets easier with time, and embrace joy, not perfection! Early on, I bought a bottle of a rubbery substance that you paint on your cuticles before applying polish. Then, when you get polish on them, you just peel it off after. But it was too fiddly for me, and honestly, that extra polish washes off in a day or so after the polish dries. I just give it a day before I take any nail selfies! I’m also impatient and often ruin a nail or two because of it. I’ve learned that if you smush the polish back in place gently, and give it another topcoat, it usually evens out enough that no one would notice. (For example, in this photo below, if you look closely you’ll see that the orange nail on the middle finger is messed up. But is anyone looking at that and judging me for it? I don’t think so. And if they are, do I care? Nope!)
Also, don’t forget your toes, especially as we’re entering sandal season here in the Northern hemisphere.
And be prepared for joyful, serendipitous occasions, like the day I discovered my nails matched the NYC Subway!
I started painting my nails as a personal pick-me-up, and over time started to notice that plain nails just didn’t give me the same lift, so I kept it up. Over time, many of you have shared your joyful manicures with me, and it gives me a joy that never seems to get old.
Ultimately, a joyful manicure is the kind of thing we often deride as a “guilty pleasure,” but as I’ve thought about it, I find it hard to see much to feel guilty about. Which is probably the case for most things we put in that category! So if you’re feeling motivated to bring a little color to your fingers and toes, I hope you’ll do it. And if you’re looking for more joyful nail inspiration, check out our Joyful Manicures board on Pinterest, where you can find lots of different ideas to spark your own creativity.