Nothing says beauty quite like accidentally stabbing your eye with a fiberglass nail extension filed to a point and coated with layers of polish and rhinestones. For those unfamiliar with this hot trend—a look that exudes both raw sex appeal and deep impracticality—I am talking about “stiletto nails.”
A quick search on Pinterest pulls up a vision board of nail art from your wildest fantasies. Coachella tribal-chic? Corporate punk? Anime glam? It’s all there. The nails are the perfect expression of identity on a whim, a more permanent temporary tattoo. Most importantly, literally everyone who matters wears them, from Khloe Kardashian to Katy Perry.
The general visage of claw-like nails isn’t new—in the years following World War II, a slightly pointy manicure was in fashion, a symbol of status as the riveting Rosies returned home and took on more domestic roles, says beauty historian Rachel Weingarten.
But today, not only are stilettos pointier than ever before, they have become both an art form and “a symbol of strength,” Weingarten tells me. Albeit, one that seems entirely antithetical to living one’s life as a strong woman, given that they appear to render one’s hands useless. Intrigued by both the promise and the pain, I decided to try the talons myself.
Day 1: From rags to rhinestones
Here’s the thing. I hate long nails. Since middle school, I have kept my nails as short as possible (so that I could play piano, duh). Working as a barista throughout college, which involved burns and the occasional contusion, long nails seemed absurd. My hands are at their finest when they are callused from rock climbing and stink of Tiger Balm. And they make a great litmus test for potential dates: If a dude tells me my hands are soft, I know he’s a liar, because Lord Almighty, they are not.
Needless to say, when my manicurist, Tak—one of the pros at Akiko Salon on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which was highly recommended on Yelp and (bonus!) featured on Real Housewives of New York—first applied the plastic tips, I was concerned. They looked miles long and only slightly sturdier than a Solo cup. I could probably break them doing my job—that is, typing.
But after Tak filed them down and shaped them into the classic daggers, I relaxed. He continued applying layers of gel until the extensions actually felt like part of my nail. For the color, I chose the gaudiest pink I could find. After seeing how prevalent the Chanel logo was in nail art on the Internet, I had to get one—Tak created the logo on my ring finger within a minute, freehand. Finally, I asked that he slap an Eye of Providence on the other ring finger, throw on some rhinestones, and call it a day.
On the subway home to Bedford-Stuyvesant, I could not stop looking at my nails. They were the direct opposite of who I am (and much of what I stand for)—but I put all personal preferences and values aside to unabashedly gawk at my own hands. They looked beautiful. They didn’t even feel like my hands because of how Barbie they looked. Is this what Nicki Minaj feels like? I asked myself.
As I continued to stare, however, something strange happened. I have obvious scars on my right middle, ring, and pinky fingers. When I was a wee tot, maybe three years old, I got my hand stuck in the bottom of an escalator at a department store. By the time we got to the top, my poor mother had built up the courage to rip my shredded hand free.
It’s clear (to me at least) that my middle finger has been reconstructed, but the scarring has never bothered me. It’s never interfered with my dexterity (knock on wood). It’s essentially a birthmark. When I put on the stilettos, however, my eyes shot straight to the imperfections. My scrappy middle finger looked like she was playing dress-up. She was the ugly kid at prom, Cinderella at 12:01, a reminder that these nails are not who I am. Or so I thought.
Days 2 to 3: Having it all
I got the nails on Thursday. Come Friday, I had assumed a new identity.
I found myself dressing to match my bejeweled nails—trading my usual academic lumbersexual look for a more, well, Real Housewives aesthetic, complete with overdone pink eyeshadow and cheap gold accessories. It soon became apparent that I had been living my life as a slob, and as endearing as that was, I needed to step up my game. Sure, I missed rock climbing, and not having to be conscious of the daggers on my fingertips—which were, in fact, making it difficult to button up my favorite shirts and pick up any vaguely flat object from a table—but these nails were bringing out something new in me. They were bringing out someone new.
Traveling back from a Home Depot in Manhattan to my apartment—carrying groceries, tarp, and some rope—I realized that I had become the woman wide-eyed 5-year-old Isha had always wanted to be. Memories of attempting to attach lavender plastic nails (with Scotch tape) to my fingers as a child flooded my brain. As tomboyish as I was growing up, as much as I wanted to rough around with the boys like my brother, there was part of me who admired Aladdin‘s rather ornamental Princess Jasmine. As I trudged up the four flights of stairs to my apartment, clutching two enormous and heavy bags without breaking a nail, I realized, Oh my god, this is what it means to have it all. I was strong. I was pretty. I could still open a pickle jar. I was gonna be okay.
The next day, my roommates and I hosted a party to celebrate our cat getting neutered—hence lugging around the tarp and rope. (Okay, we just wanted to have some friends over and drink on our roof, but why waste an opportunity to throw a paw mitzvah?) My confidence with the nails increased as I handmade about 60 wontons (which later had to be reshaped into medallions because I forgot to flour them, but whatever). I realized that it was possible to get the nails dirty, so long as I thoroughly washed my hands afterwards, which as a mildly germaphobic person, was really quite easy.
So I decided to put the nails to the ultimate test. In South Asian culture, we often eat with our hands. (It tastes better that way.) If I could manage to eat some rice and curry with my hands, I figured, I could happily accept nails into my life.
Success. By the end of the weekend, I was simply and casually enjoying the nails. I liked how they looked. And for the most part, I could live my life with them. But something changed Monday.
Day 5: Get these things off of me
The novelty had worn off. I could already see evidence that my nails were living creatures that grew—they couldn’t be paved over, and I felt bad for suffocating them. I grew weary of the typos I continued to make, of my inability to use my fingertips, of having to be conscious of not stabbing myself when picking my nose. I felt like I had blistering barnacles at the end of my fingertips and I wanted them off. I wanted out.
But there was more to do. I attended a yoga class just to see how I would fare—a little too much pressure on the wrists to compensate for my inability to use my whole fingers, but it was fine. I climbed a very, very basic route at the climbing gym, and though I squirmed the two times my nails scratched the wall, it, too, was totally fine. I even finagled my way around tampons. Everything was fine. Just fine. I got it. Everything required a little more thinking and probably some different hand muscles, but I got it. I was over it. I GET IT.
I wore the stilettos for two whole weeks, which was probably 11 days too many. I did, however, manage to discover some very handy uses for the nails during this time:
I mean, in general, I suck at it—but the nails did help.
Or at least, I think they helped.
Actually, never mind, the nails worked totally fine.
Tricking cats into loving me
My roommate’s cat loved the nails, which means I was useful to him, which is about as close to love as cats get. And that’s all I need, really.
Day 14: Goodbye to all that
Of course, all good things must come to an end. After two weeks with the beastly beauties, I returned to Akiko Nails and Tak removed them—which required what appeared to be a miniature sander and some acetone.
Yes, my hands looked worse without the stilettos. The glamour was gone, forgotten, and my nails felt like an old chalkboard. But the ever-present fear of breaking a nail was gone. The niggling, tugging sensation of maintaining them—like a tooth that had just started to feel loose—dissipated. And the typos may not have completely disappeared, but for the most part, I can actually live my life as a free woman again.
Sure, I lost some fierceness that afternoon—but I did harness the momentum into a new manicure that is much more me. A nail-art ode to the fiercest bitch around: Sailor Moon.
Now if only the damn cat would love me again.