Respect the bubble nail

glitter bubble nails
Glitter bubble nails by @nailsbyann on Instagram

When I was in my final year of high school the administration introduced a peer support program. We were to mentor a group of students just starting high school, which here starts aged 13. And wow, when I’d been 12, I sure was terrorized by the stories of all the dreadful things they’d do to me – to all of us – at high school; acts involving assault, bodily waste, and humiliation. I would have been quiet and bookish anyway, but with the threat of a bogwashing constantly hanging over me I was utterly silent for fear of attracting attention. So a peer support program was probably a good idea, in theory.

During peer support “training,” i.e. two hours reading handouts in a circle of chairs, we had to fill out a worksheet to develop our self esteem. Because nothing gives you pride like a photocopied form. We had to list the things we liked about ourselves. I racked my brain for ten minutes. All I could come up with is that I liked my fingernails.

Through some genetic lottery, for all my flaws, I have pretty nice fingernails. And by that I mean they have the raw potential to meet ideal Western aesthetic standards – a long nail bed, smooth nail texture, on a hand whose skin color leans toward the paler end of the human skin spectrum. For years as a teenager they were the only thing I didn’t hate about myself. Right through my twenties I “did” my nails. I owned broad palettes of nail enamels. I still think fondly of a Revlon metallic green called Toad, and a Hard Candy turquoise that went by Sushi. I bought it from a shop on swanky Parnell Rise. It cost a small fortune, and was the first ‘weird’ color nail enamel I’d ever seen.
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Hard Candy ‘Sushi’; 4th from left
This all peaked in 1999 when I dated a guy who had a genuine fetish for fingernails and hair. As in, literally all that mattered was my fingernails and hair. I was getting acrylic tips and backfills every week, which was something I couldn’t really afford at the time. When it became apparent he didn’t know my surname, or birthday, and didn’t care, as long as I got my nails done every week, I quit the enamels, and him, picked up my scissors, and embarked on a pragmatic aromantic connection with very short nails I still have to this day. Because I hate it when they touch the keys as I type. *shivers*
My actual hand

But I never stopped loving “done” nails on other people. This is why I follow Canadian goddess Cristine aka Simply Nailogical, whose cat Menchie is the only pet I know of to have a eponymous nail enamel, Collette from My Simple Little Pleasures, cassis_p from Japan, and Absolute Nails from the UK. I can watch cassis_p paint nail decals All. Day. Long. *happy sigh*

Nail art has never been so popular as it is right now, arguably because of the “lipstick effect;” the assertion that in times of economic recession consumers pull back on buying big ticket items, and instead increase spending on small day-to-day affordable luxuries. Unlike 2000-2003, in this recession, actual lipstick sales are down, but nail polish and nail art accessories are booming.

So in 2015 it was interesting to see a new nail aesthetic make it into mainstream awareness. Bubble nails.
bubble nails @nailsbyann
Black and white nails by @nailsbyann on Instagram

You might have heard of them, particularly if you read any of the many, many, Beauty Trends That Must Die in a Fire posts that rounded out the New Year. Harper’s Bazaar had Craziest Beauty Trends of 2015 , in which they called bubble nails “painful-looking and impossible to pull off under any circumstances.” Or there was Fashion Spot’s Worst Beauty Trends of 2015 . Buzzfeed didn’t mince words, calling them Crazy AF and including them in their list of 13 Beauty Trends From 2015 That Will Make You Blind With Rage. And yes, bubble nails were #1.

Bubble nails are not new. They’ve been around for at least six years, first attributed to nail artist Hoa Bui at Ann’s Nail Salon in Philadelphia in 2009. It just wasn’t till now that bubble nails became one of the Nails That Defined 2015.

The bubble nail is a strong aesthetic. Sculptural. They challenge the idea of nail art as “pretty”. And boy, do most people – and websites – hate them. Bustle called them, “This year’s most WTF moment in nail art.”

So, you might thave an opinion about bubble nails, too. Do me a favor, k? Google image search “bubble nails,” right now. Go on. I’ll wait. 

Found some?

Now Google image search ‘gradient nails,’ another recent trend in nail art.

See it yet?

Take a look at the hands which are adorned by bubble nails, compared to those with gradient manicures.

Bubble nails are celebratory, bold, bright, and fun. And hands that have bubble nails are overwhelmingly hands of color. The mocking that occurs seems inextricably linked to a denigration of hands that are unacceptably dark, frequently unacceptably older, and often show the wrinkles and lines of a working life, not a pampered one.

Look at the Daily Mail’s August article on bubble nails, titled, Manicures gone mad! Bizarre new ‘bubble nails’ craze sees women piling acrylic on their talons to create bulbous 3D effect; a headline that manages to work in notions of women as irrational, monstrous, and excessive, all in one lede. Every one of the eleven hands pictured is the hand of a woman of color, with the exception of the embedded video showing how to create the look (in a relatively ’tasteful’ and subdued red, white, and black polish finish.)

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Screenshot from the Daily Mail article

Media commentaries on bubble nails have been pervasively mocking in tone, like the slideshow half way down this article which likens bubble nails to sticking a variety of food on one’s finger. In one of the most insulting takedowns, Heather Chicowski of The Gloss made her own lumpy, amateurish bubble nails from Elmer’s glue – I repeat, Elmer’s glue – and wore them for a day to elicit the “horrified” responses and “laughter” of her friends, including the gleefully reported comment, “It looks like you have some sort of infection.” Her ‘experiment’ ignores all the skill and creativity required to actually make any kind of acrylic nail, and entirely fails to grok the complex interrelationships and communities that exist both globally, and locally, between nail artists and their clients. Chicowski’s sole aim is to have us laugh along with her at the foolish women who voluntarily and non-ironically choose such outlandishness.

It’s truly difficult to avoid the conclusion that bubble nails get all the hate because they’re on the wrong kinds of hands. In image macros reblogged across the internet, blonde Western media icons ridicule bubble nails.

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britney nails
Nails Magazine featured fifteen trends that defined 2015 in nail art. This includes ‘aquarium nails,’ with encapsulated water/oil, with glitter and sequins. (No actual fish. As yet. That I’ve seen. No promises.) All are equally as impractical as bubble nails.
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Aquarium nails with encapsulated glitter hearts
glass nails @nail_unistella instagram.jpg
Broken glass nails by @nail_unistella on Instagram
russian cathedral nails. image by @leximartone
Saint Basil’s Cathedral nails by @leximartone on Instagram
cinderella nails @pinknailsny
Cinderella nails by @pinknailsny on Instagram

But only one trend was visually associated with women of color, and only one trend received widespread ridicule. This isn’t about the nails. This is about who is wearing the nails. This is about the color, and texture of the skin around the nails. This is a race issue.

In terms of aesthetic, what the bubble nail brings to mind is Alexander McQueen’s famous Armadillo Boot.
armadillo shoes


Originally produced as 21 pairs purely for McQueen’s 2010 Plato’s Atlantis runway show, it has since been released in limited editions for sale of upwards of USD$10,000, often for charitable causes. Contrast the language used to describe the WTF, crazy, bizarre bubble nails, with the rapturous acclaim from within the fashion industry of the Armadillo Boot. Fashion icon Daphne Guiness described them as, “a Brancusi on your feet,” and fashion historian Beth Dincuff Charleston called them, “fashion design [that] takes into account an awareness of the body that’s beyond even most brilliant designers.

But the Armadillo Boot is designed by a rich white guy, “hand-made in Italy, in an elaborate process that spanned five days and involved 30 people, using material from three suppliers and passing through three factories,” and available only to private collectors: “people who understood they are pieces of art rather than just ‘shoes.’” Indeed, they have been auctioned at Christie’s, the fine art auction house, and exhibitied at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Armadillo Boots have white privilege. And that’s also the reason people aren’t mocking, to anything like the same degree, the creations of someone like Alla Kestenko from Kazakhstan, winner of the 2014 London Nailympia. Because those hands are white, and young, and slender, and without the grooves and creases of a lived life.

Alla Kestenko, Kazakhstan, winner 2014 Nailympia.jpg
Nails by Alla Kestenko, Nailympia 2014
‘Under the sea’ themed nails, Nailympia 2014

The irony is nail art, in terms of bright colours and patterns, nail jewelry, images on nails, and feature nails, was traditionally associated with the African American community (p. 218), before being cycled through Japanese nail artists and fed back into mainstream American culture through social media.

Beauty salons within the African-American community, offering hair and nail services, have a tradition as being more than a business, but as what academic Pangela H. Dawson refers to as a “place that cultivated unity, collective work, cooperative purpose, creativity, and faith” (p. 185). Dawson notes,”The safety of the space and the camaraderie among the women offered a security, which allowed them to find their individual and collective voices” (p. 187).

Tiffany Gill points out historically the beauty salon was the only space that was both a “Black space” and a “woman’s space.” The importance of the local beauty shop in a local community was so well-established that in 1957 Martin Luther King gave a speech entitled “The Role of Beauticians in the Contemporary Struggle for Freedom.”  And now nail art is having its moment in the sun  in mainstream presentation of the self – search for nail art on YouTube and be staggered by the numbers of tutorials – an aesthetic innovation from the African-American community is dismissed as excessive, ugly, and downright offensive.

Nails reflect agency. Milliann Kang describes how nail art allows women an outlet for “expressing self-confidence and creativity” (p. 105). In an era where so many of us have the life sucked out of us by the rules and shibboleths of working life, nails give women the opportunity to “assert control over their own bodies.”

Bubble nails embody a unique aesthetic right now, one that is bold and takes no shit. Bubble nails reject mere facile prettiness.

It’s only a matter of time before some designer sticks bubble nails on a catwalk, they cycle through ready-to-wear, bounce to Instagram via 18-year-old Russian nail artists, and get spat back at us in six years, or sixteen years, as the hot new trend. And when they’re on suitably white and suitably young hands, the world will adore them.

So, you know, until then, respect the bubble nail.

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