I get my nails acrylic-ed, shellac-ed and top-coated every three weeks without fail. However tight money may be, if I have to search every handbag for the odd 50p coin or sacrifice a couple of post-work shandies, my manis are not a movable expense. Every month I go to my favourite salon, run by a lovely Vietnamese lady called Nung (I discovered when she asked me to talk to her insurance providers on the phone when they couldn’t understand her accent), ask her about her babies, check out her latest colours, and spend 45 minutes unable to check my phone while she files, scrapes, and paints me beautiful (well, at least from the wrists down). I’ve experimented with a million colours: pastels, glitters, matts, shimmers, and odd-coloured ring fingers (which my Argentinian housemate affectionately called my cocaine fingers). Beautifully-shaped talons give me joy for weeks – and at less than £20 a month, that’s more cost-effective than dropping £10 on an eyeshadow or £20 on a top you’ll wear for three weeks and never again. It’s not bad for my health (unless you count the parchment-brittleness of my natural nails under their acrylic armour, a small price to pay), and unlike other “pampering” activities, many of which involve managing body hair, there’s no politically-unfriendly undertone (not that THAT’S what stops me from waxing my bits), and it doesn't hurt (THAT’S why I stopped waxing my bits).
When I was little my Mam used to bring home red circular price stickers from the pyjama factory where she worked. I’d carefully place them over my own (short, stumpy) nails and squeeze the top together, to create a long, pointed nail. The first time I got acrylics, I paid homage to my younger self’s vision of unassailable glamour. They were FABULOUS – scarlet with silver tips, Alabama Worly-tacky, yet sleek and stylish. They made my fingers look graceful and slender – like piano players’ fingers. I had no idea that over the following week, as they grew just a few millimetres, disaster was brewing like a cuticle infection. You see, I wear contact lenses. Apologies if you’re squeamish, but in order to remove contact lenses, you have to pinch them out with the pads of your fingers. It doesn’t hurt a bit, and I’ve been doing it since I was sixteen when Mama Thomas, sick of having a wilfully ugly bespectacled daughter, dragged me to the opticians and wailed “there must be SOMETHING you can do!”.
That morning I’d put my contacts in as usual. No bother there, the pad of my single index finger could get close enough to put them in place. But at the end of a very long day, when my poor eyes were tired and sore, and I attempted to pinch the dry discs out, I couldn’t reach them. My claws just wouldn’t let them near enough to get a purchase. I kept trying, desperately trying, until my eyes stinging and raw. After fifteen minutes it was agony to blink, and I was haphazardly clawing at my eyes like Oedipus in drag. I begged my friends to help - “all you’ve got to do is pinch my eyeball!”. Eventually (under some duress it must be said) a true friend, my beautiful friend Ally, stepped up, washed her hands, and half-gagging, pinched the desiccated lenses out of my eyes.
Despite the near-loss of my sight, I’ve been addicted to manicures ever since. There’s no satisfaction like flawless nails. There’s no joy like admiring your fingers as you go about your chores; doing laundry (ooh, nails!), filling the dishwasher (ooh, they look so nice against the white plates!), emptying the bins (hello again, shiny ovals of joy!). There’s no delight like comparing your latest colour against your clothes, your furniture, book covers, cans and cartons in the food cupboard.
When I feel low, the first thing I abandon is personal presentation. I stop caring what I look like, what I wear, what my hair looks like. Applying makeup is a chore, an expulsion of energy that could be better spent hating myself. Even when I’m perfectly well, when I start a 6.00am shift I don’t always feel like applying make-up. But when I’m pulling coffees with beautiful nails, I feel nice. In spite of the bed hair, the lack of make-up, and being dressed for cheap comfort under a distinctly un-foxy grey polyester tabard, catching sight of those little discs of loveliness at my fingertips gives me a lift.
Manicures are a part of my self-identity. They’re a method of self-care and self-love, and a creative inlet – no one else benefits, they’re just for me. But most importantly, my manicures are proof that I care enough about my own happiness to spend time and money on it. They are one of the everyday ways I keep my joy-muscles limber, and stay healthy and happy, and I’ve got a freshly-painted middle finger for anyone who suggests otherwise.