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Can people stop judging me for having long acrylic nails?

Salma Haidrani addresses the day-to-day snobbery she encounters for her chosen length of nails in a personal piece

Pretty much every time I head to the salon for a fresh set of acrylics, I notice a pattern. Not only am I inundated with compliments on my colour choice – this year has seen me sport neon green à la Rihanna, white for my summer spent in Ibiza and electric blue for impending autumn – but I’m also usually faced with a barrage of comments about how many inches long they are. (Admittedly, their length could give Cardi B a run for her money). 

In every instance, they’re often unsolicited. Just take how a nail artist once visibly stiffened in disapproval at my length and trimmed them without consulting me first. Much to my amusement, men have even stopped me randomly in the street to make passing comments. “Are those nails or are they claws?” one pointed in thinly-veiled horror a few months back. Even my mum once sent me several WhatsApp messages pleading with me to shorten them.

While this might seem shocking, perhaps the most surprising reaction has been the thinly veiled snobbery that my acrylics have elicited. The likes of Kylie Jenner, contestants in the latest series of Love Island and most notably, Cardi B, might have popularised acrylic nails to the masses in recent years. But less than favourable stereotypes of them have continued to persist. ‘Common’, ‘cheap’ and ‘tacky’ are just a few preconceptions that women like myself who wear them are often branded with. It’s these tropes I’ve found myself desperately trying to distance myself from since I started sporting acrylics last April. I’ve lost count of the number of times complete strangers have asked me how I get anything done, for one, or even how I wipe after going to the toilet. (The latter question is even the subject of a vlog watched by millions and countless articles online).

“‘Common’, ‘cheap’ and ‘tacky’ are just a few preconceptions that women like myself who wear them are often branded with. I’ve lost count of the number of times complete strangers have asked me how I wipe after going to the toilet”

Though earlier this year I might have laughed along, recently – and much to my frustration – I’ve increasingly internalised the negative reactions my talons have provoked. In recent months, I’ve felt the need to quickly reveal my profession as a journalist minutes after strangers dart shocked expressions at my nails. At times like these, I can’t shake off the urge to overcompensate and add that I have a Master’s degree or have won several writing awards in an effort to be taken more seriously.

Clearly I’m not the only one – a friend revealed that she once removed her acrylics before several job interviews. As she says: “I didn’t want potential employers to get the wrong impression of me or think I’m unprofessional.” One time when she couldn’t find time to remove them, she recalled having to “keep my hands tightly balled my fists the whole time in the hope that interviewers wouldn’t notice”.

It’s a predicament I can relate to. Much to my horror, I found myself recently telling a complete stranger that I only wear acrylics as it’s cured my trichotillomania, a lifelong hair-pulling condition I’ve been affected by since my mid-teens and something I wrote for Dazed Beauty earlier this year. There is a certain degree of truth to this. After all, soothing baths and deep breathing, both of which are NHS-recommended, have never quite had the staying power that fake nails have had for me. I haven’t pulled my hair in more than a year post-acrylics, a sentence that I never thought I could say a decade on from living with the disorder.

After all, most mornings pre-acrylics, I’d wake up with bald patches the size of 50p coins or empty gaps between my brows. At its worst, I’d tear my pubic hair when I’d run out of places to pull or there was none left on my scalp. But did I really need to reveal a condition that I’ve spent most of my mid-teens and adult life desperately trying to keep secret? I couldn’t even bring myself to tell my ex-boyfriend of five years, for one. I suspect it was just so this nameless stranger wouldn’t think ‘less’ of me once she knew my wearing acrylics wasn’t entirely a ‘choice’. It’s an incident that’s left me with a deep sense of discomfort.

Distancing myself from the ‘tacky’ stereotype that acrylics are long associated with does a disservice to the transformative impact they’ve had on my life. After all, acrylics have saved me from the painstaking ritual of applying several coats of bright red lipstick and kohl every morning to distract anyone from looking too closely at my lash-free eyelids. Long gone, too, are the seemingly well-meaning but hurtful comments from family and friends, the most memorable of which was the jibe: ‘How can you tell the difference between Salma and her identical twin? Salma doesn’t have eyelashes.’ Perhaps the most life-changing effect acrylics have had is that I look radically different than a decade ago. Namely, I have a full head of hair on my scalp, lashes and brows. Shouldn’t I then wear my acrylics with more pride?

Women downplaying why they wear acrylics might be more common than I previously thought. Fellow journalist Naomi* worked for a magazine targeted to residents from London’s wealthiest boroughs last year and cited bridesmaid’s duties for why she started wearing red acrylics. “At first, colleagues found it quite funny,” she tells me. “But there was a general consensus in the office that they hoped it’d be a one-off.” After continuing to wear them, she suspects it was a contributing factor for why she was later made redundant. “They’d suggested that I didn’t quite ‘belong’ or ‘fit in’, something I do feel my acrylics might have played a part in.”

I can’t help but feel it’s ironic that I – and countless other women – have continued to face such scrutiny for our nails when acrylics have arguably become as much of a staple of a British woman’s beauty routine in 2019 as contouring or a pre-holiday bikini wax. It’s not uncommon to see women on the average tube journey home, in the workplace or scrolling through my Instagram feed wearing them. Even a scene in the recent series of Top Boy sees character Lauryn liken her turquoise set to that of Cardi B’s. Getting an appointment at my local nail salon, too, has become as tough as getting a selfie in Santorini without being flanked by hordes of tourists.

And expenditure is only going to grow: British women booking nail treatments is expected to surpass £8 billion by 2021 according to Mintel figures. I only hope that as acrylic nails become more commonplace, the negative stereotypes that they’ve become associated with might soon be as passé as over plucked brows.

“I can’t help but feel it’s ironic that I – and countless other women – have continued to face such scrutiny for our nails when acrylics have arguably become as much of a staple of a British woman’s beauty routine in 2019 as contouring or a pre-holiday bikini wax”

Tellingly, though acrylics might be perceived as entirely associated with working class women, the prices – at least in London – certainly don’t reflect this. A fresh set can set me back as much as £45 and upwards for nail art and add-ons. Meanwhile, infills every two weeks can be up to £20. As a freelance writer, my income is often unsteady. Clearly, they could become an expense that working-class women like myself won’t be able to regularly upkeep as acrylics’ popularity – and inevitably, their prices – continue to rise. Surely if the demographics of the women who wear them have changed, so must the women associated with them should shift along with this?

It’s ironic, too, that the reception to WOC’s acrylics can radically differ from that of our white counterparts. Countless articles are dedicated to praising Kylie Jenner’s so-called ‘mani goals’ (whose nail length is identical to my recent set). Conversely, mine have continued to be demonised. Could my heritage impact how others – even unconsciously – have perceived my nails? 

Black women, for one, have long battled against the ‘ghetto’ trope that the likes of Jenner have never faced. Florence Griffiths-Joyner’s, perhaps the most prolific black woman to wear acrylics, success and athletic prowess was arguably sidelined by the negative rhetoric that surrounded her six-inch-long nails at the time of being named the fastest woman in the world at the 1988 Olympics. It’s exhausting that our choices as WoC come under significantly more judgment but our Caucasian counterparts don’t face identical struggles.

Snobbery – for now at least – might be as much an unwanted side-effect of wearing acrylics as having to book infills every two weeks. Even so, I’ve vowed to spend the remainder of the year resisting blaming wearing my acrylics on my hair-pulling disorder. For anyone that might dart one too many horrified glances at my nail length or a complete stranger marvels at how I can get anything done, I’ll let them make their own conclusions - ‘tacky’ or not.