The Sublime Luxury of Press-On Nails in Moments of Crisis

When things get particularly chaotic, I find control and peace in an instant manicure.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
Close up of Fake Nails, Acrylic Nails, Gel nails on a woman's hand
mikroman6 via Getty

As the temperatures dipped and snow started falling over Texas in late February, I filled every bucket, bin and receptacle I could find with water (which was, blessedly, still running). I was in a state of abject panic; my electricity had been flickering and threatening to go out, and most of my friends had already lost power. Aside from frantically checking in on friends and family, donating to mutual aid orgs, and panicking over the ever-present threat of losing my heat, I didn’t know how to bide my time indoors. I wanted a sense of control and an hour of mindless activity. I reached for the stash of press-on nails I’d been hoarding for a few months. 


I’d done the same weeks earlier, when both my mom and step dad tested positive for COVID-19 a few days before Christmas. It was the exact thing I’d been dreading—many of us have been dreading—for nearly a year. After testing negative five times in the five days that followed, I packed a big suitcase and headed to a friend’s empty apartment to isolate for two weeks. The first thing I did after settling in was place a curbside grocery order, adding a set of press-on nails—candy red, with little gems—to my cart. 

The inability to get to a salon, plus a recent inundation of press-on nail ads on my Instagram feed, led me back to the press-on aisle for the first time in my adult life. What I found waiting for me was a completely revamped and reimagined concept of what a press-on nail is allowed to be. Rather than the French tips of my youth, I found square-tipped blush pink sets, deep-maroon coffins that could puncture a grape, even a round tip in a trendy sage green. Everything had changed, but the way a press-on can make me feel instantly glamorous and in-control had not.  

Before this past year, I hadn’t used press-ons since high school, more than 10 years ago. Back then, the nails I got were the classic drugstore set: a pinkish oval with white French tips that made my tan, teenaged hands look like that meme of hot dogs with a chic manicure, and made me feel like a true, fully assembled adult. I loved the sound my hands made clacking against various hard surfaces and the dainty feeling of using just the very tips of my finger pads to type. During moments of panic and despair throughout the pandemic, I’ve found myself craving those feelings. 

I’m not the only one returning to press-ons. Even before the pandemic, fashion and beauty magazines were declaring press-on nails as a “trend” that’s making a comeback. It’s also worth noting that nail art, press-ons, and their acrylic counterparts have remained relevant over the years for Black and Latinx folks, who established and paved the way for embellished nails and pops of flash at the end of a finger, and who often face racist criticism for wearing long, sleek nails. People of color have long understood that a quick set of press-ons offer a soothing sense of beauty when the world feels stacked against you. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that press-ons are being embraced by white people in a moment where we feel like everything (the pandemic, the government, those in positions of power to make all of this better) is stacked against us. Maybe the nail polish index really is the new lipstick index after all.

As I type, I’m rocking a pair of forest-green, medium-length, round-tip nails from Static, which a coworker recommended, having used them well before the pandemic started. I sat down on the couch and glued them on during that first snow day in Houston, as the temperature dropped and my tiny world got more chaotic. They’ve maintained their integrity for going on three weeks now, long since the snow melted and my friends and family gradually regained power and water.

Occasionally one falls off and I sit down with my tube of glue to reattach it. When these rot off my little fingers over the next few days, I’ll give my nails a breather, and then wait for the next imminent crisis to reach again for one of the few things, however small, that remains within my control. In this case, it’s a new nail set—a sage-green round-tip that I glance at every time I open my bathroom cabinet. Things are bad; we press on. 

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