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Our Fascination with Fabulousness: A Historical and Cultural Examination of Nail Art

An illustration of a Black femme-presenting person holding her nails in front of her face and looking seductively through her fingers. Her nails are long with squared tips. They're painted gold with a red design on top of it, and they're sparkling.
Charnel Hunter

Tens of thousands of nail salons across the U.S. are places of connection, reinvention, and community. They also make up a multi-billion dollar industry that tells stories about power and economic mobility. Why are nails so culturally and economically significant?

The modern manicure isn’t simply a Sunday pastime or vain beauty ritual; it’s a form of self-expression with a significant global history. From mummies with henna-stained nails in Ancient Egypt to the first salon opening in New York City in 1878, the history of nail art covers topics of race, culture and class. It also tells deeply personal stories about identity, family tradition and immigration.

Host Anita Rao speaks with fashion historian Suzanne E. Shapiro about the connection between nails and what’s happening in the outside world over the centuries. Suzanne is the author of “Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure.” She talks about the origin behind some of Anita’s favorite nail colors — like Chanel’s “Vamp” — and the communities that contributed to the industry as we know it today.

Anita is also joined by her personal nail artist Crystal Sanders, who talks about entrepreneurship, her design inspirations and the legacy Black women have had on nail art — including that of Olympic track star Florence Griffith Joyner, whose jeweled acrylic nail extensions were broadcasted on national television.

Vietnamese-American writer My Ngoc To also talks with Anita and shares her experiences growing up in her parents’ nail salons and the observations she made about the lives of nail technicians that often go untold. My Ngoc speaks about her own complicated relationship to manicures considering her intimate exposure to the challenges of the business and working conditions.

Thank you to Leslie, Náosha, Merissa, Mimi D, Crystal, Reign and Megan for sharing with us for this episode!

Please note: This episode originally aired July 21, 2023.

Update: Crystal is moving her salon from Durham to downtown Raleigh with a mid-July opening date.

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Paige Perez (she/her) is a Caribbean-American audio and photojournalist born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. Her work covering sexual and reproductive health, the climate crisis, and racial inequity is published in The Guardian, HuffPost Voices, and Bronx Times. Paige is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, where she concentrated in health/science reporting and specialized in audio and video. When she is not reporting and producing, she is probably visiting local art spaces or making images.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.
Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.