People talk a lot about "breaking points"—moments when, through some tremendous strain (or the accumulation of a lot of little strains), you’re forced to make a choice, take a stand, or do something to address whatever personal issues/demons. For me, it was less a "break" than a split: the other day, my right thumbnail fractured down the center and right into the quick, where no hardening topcoat could save it and where it later snagged on a loose thread in one of those lip-biting, eye-watering, bellow-at-nobody-in-particular, day-ruiningly painful moments. It hurt, it looked awful, and it was depressing. I was just sick of it, of having nails with jagged ends that chipped and snagged and ripped without regular maintenance. (Plus, as you might recall, I get so bored during the dry time. So, so bored. I have ruined probably 60% of the pedicures I’ve ever gotten by shoving freshly painted toes into my shoes to get out before they were dry.) But I’m supposed to be something of a beauty authority, right? I was embarrassed. How long can I have a band-aid on my thumb? I thought about drastic measures, I tried nail glue, and I scheduled an appointment at the consistently-booked-up and very-buzzed-about NYC nail mecca, Sakura.
Let’s dial it back: I am not really a fan of fake anything (tans, hair, teeth, etc), but especially not of fake nails. At best, they pass for real; at worst, they’re tacky and verge on scary. And they come with a certain high-maintenance, low-on-substance connotation I’m ashamed to admit I care about, but that I can’t avoid taking into consideration. In seventh grade, I got acrylic tips, obtained without my mother's knowledge, and regretted the whole procedure almost as soon as it had begun—in my experience, any process that requires the aesthetician to wear what looks like a SARS mask is usually best avoided. And when those acrylics began to grow out and expose a tell-tale topographic error—my cuticle and natural nail started a good deal lower than the appliqué—I systematically pried all of them off with a safety pin (more fun and less painful than it sounds), only to reveal nails that were more damaged than before. I elected to grow up, accept my forever-short nails, and just hoped to keep them “neat.” I learned to favor nude polishes (elongating!), and the fact that a lot of women I consider very chic never had particularly elaborate manicures, or for that matter, particularly long nails.
Back to the present: I have friends with good nails and great manicures. I am constantly exposed to intricate, delicate, generally non-tacky and fun nail art—Piet Mondrian's iconic Broadway Boogie Woogie on the fingers of another backstage reporter, 3-D fruit salads, airbrushed skylines, snakeskin overlays and jewels and sequins—and jealousy has become an issue. But I've also heard horror stories about Shellac and nail damage from over-buffing, of natural nails smothered by the fake substances applied on top of them. Time passes, I get my hopes up every time I seem to be making headway with my nail strengtheners, and then another split damns it all to hell. Then, “Try CalGel,” a friend told me like a secret. “They’re low-odor, and they let your nails breathe. Go to Sakura. They’re basically wizards.” I did my research on gel manicures, and the thinness of the layered gels and the promise of flexibility and protection. So, I went to see the wizards, the wonderful wizards of nails.
Though I'm no authority on the matter, I expect that there comes a time in most of our lives when we have to face the fact that the image we hold of ourselves may not be, in fact, the truth. I admit that when I arrived at Sakura, which is very clean, very calming and famed for their CalGel manicures, I struggled with my initial feelings of superiority. At first, I spotted a woman with her fingers wrapped in tin foil, furiously attempting to work her iPhone. You see, I’m low-maintenance. I’m no-makeup makeup. I’m all about (relatively) healthy living and getting your hands dirty. I just want a manicure that I won’t wreck in five minutes. I am not fussy Miss Tin-Man-Fingers over there. At Sakura, I am presented with tea and a plastic tray full of what look like disembodied nails in a variety of shades, half of which are chunky glitter. I ask for nude, and everyone looks dejected. There are other trays—day-old Valentine’s Day-inspired pink and red hearts, trays of pearl- and rhinestone-encrusted ruby nails, peach and turquoise ones scrolled with gold wire. These are too advanced for me, I try to explain to the aesthetician, who smiles pityingly and leads me to a raised platform to soak my feet. It occurs to me that I could fake an emergency, be overly apologetic, duck out, and just try another type of protective topcoat. I opt to be adventurous in the name of beauty (!), avoid making eye contact with the girl with the tin foil, and attempt to read Elle Japan.
And, dear readers, I did it. In a little over an hour, I got ten fingers and ten toes of rock-hard, chip/flake/smudge- and probably bomb-proof, UV-cured (for this part, I slathered myself in SPF-fortified hand cream, and offered it to everyone nearby, in case you’re wondering), and strong-looking nails that appear totally natural and healthy. They're nude with gold-glitter tips. (Once you start to concede territory in the area of nail-enhancement, I think you'll find, it's hard to stop.) I thought the design looked both relatively subtle and appealingly regal, until I met my sister for dinner, and she suggested that I had “engagement fingers,” which, she explained, is when women who are anticipating marriage proposals get sparkly manicures so as to draw attention to their hands. But anyway, it’s now been two weeks, and, like Edith Piaf sang, Non, Je ne regrette rien. The grow-out has been subtle (thank you, nude color!) and painless. In fact, I have a follow-up appointment this week, which I am certain will involve some tin foil on my fingers. And I don’t even mind. I like to think it's because I’ve grown—even if my nails haven't.
-According to the company, CalGel is a soak-off, gas-permeable gel that doesn’t interfere with nail-bed metabolism. It can be used on tips or as a natural overlay, is notably flexible, and is available in over 100 shades.
-For maintenance, you should avoid overly acidic products (e.g., cleaning agents), excess heat, ink/newspaper/paint, and excess sun exposure. For shine, you can remove the top coat with Calcleanse or another non-acetone polish remover, and apply another top coat to re-up the luster factor. Daily cuticle oil application is highly recommended.
To find a salon that uses CalGel near you, here's a guide.
Photos by Elizabeth Brockway.