How Black queer women are finding agency in a full set

The longer the nails the closer to god, I always say.

Stylin' On You
ByClarissa Brooks

I normally hold my breath while the nail tech paints on the fine lines and attaches tiny rhinestones, so I don’t break their focus. It’s a dance that requires patience on both sides of the manicurist’s table. It takes a few hours from start to finish but it's always worth it. Watching the process and being able to decide how you want to adorn your fingertips has been a method of power and agency restoration for centuries.

Walking out with a fresh set is almost like watching a phoenix rise from the ashes. In a way, I’m able to make myself over and over again. Seeing Black women dedicate time and a specific kind of trust to their nail tech — to implement a nail design that best showcases their energy — is a beautiful and deliberate choice that goes beyond beauty. It’s about expression of identities.

My barometer for acceptance begins and ends with Black queer femmes because the care, time, and love that goes into our physical appearance is a political act. My community gets why I sometimes spend two hours at a nail salon. They understand why asking me to go out when my nails — or hair, for that matter, isn’t done feels hateful at best.

Literally, long nails are a way of taking up space in a world that sometimes wants to diminish your spirit.

It isn’t about vanity. Many of us have spent our entire lives in the margins and medians of visibility and safety, even in queer spaces. This is often why our expression of self, specifically through our nails, means so much. For me, it has been a source of confidence and pride in my own self-making. When making decisions about how I want to come across, I think critically about how I’m read in the world and how I want to shape that image rather than letting anyone else do so.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc/Getty Images

The way in which I express my identities varies, and it feels critical to me to counteract any of the attributes cast upon me by others. In other words, I get to tell you who I am through my nails. Much of my time since coming out as queer in 2017 was centered around deciding what femininity looked like to me versus letting society decide. I found a home in the nail salon, much like many other queer Black women.

This experience of finding agency and power in a fresh full set is not mine alone, of course. “The more confident I became and more powerful I feel — the longer my nails get as I evolve,” said Twitter user @baddiegalore. Literally, long nails are a way of taking up space in a world that sometimes wants to diminish your spirit. The history of class, race and respectability have long intermingled when it comes to Black women’s legacies of nail design and their rise in pop culture.

For Black queer women, these -isms continue to show up in the racial divide of what nails represent in intercommunal queer spaces. Anecdotally speaking, white queer and lesbian women have stereotypically been known to stick to shorter nails and tend to not be as invested in flamboyant nail design. Lauren Strapagiel, a white queer femme has written, in depth, about the anxiety she felt after coming out and “finding out that my love of fancy, femme nails, and my new identity were at odds was a major blow.” If Strapagiel felt this tension — the pressure to somehow adhere to a box that society put her in, you can imagine how Black women and femmes (who are even further marginalized) might recoil at the many ways our bodies and styles are policed.

Thankfully, I have found a nurturing energizing space for myself with other Black queer femmes who religiously post new sets every two weeks. We trade new trends and giggle about the rush of joy it brings us to find new ways of being our most authentic selves. Even as long, elaborately designed nails are appropriated by celebrities, they will always remain a sacred talismans for Black femmes looking to find themselves in the reflection of the glitter.