A swirl of pink, perhaps a smattering of lemons or each nail a different pop of colour, nail art can make you smile in times of stress 

Words: Catherine Hufton

Around three years ago I visited a nail salon in Shoreditch on a whim. It was a rainy weekday, I was feeling pretty stressed with work and I was looking for a distraction.

As my nails were buffed and filed, I sat admiring the collage of designs that decorated the salon wall. From Kardashian-length extensions brandished with Gucci logos to monochrome graphics, hand-painted florals and futuristic chrome, each design seemed more complex and statement than the next. I loved it. I was hooked.

Nervous and slightly unsure of the outcome, I opted for something simple on that first visit (candy stripes on a neutral base). But I left knowing I’d be back again soon for something much bolder. I suppose like tattoos or dying your hair, I’d had a taste and wanted more.

Fast forward to the present day, and nail art has become something of an addiction: a part of my beauty routine that is now my trademark. I love that it allows me to add some fun to a look while expressing how I feel and what’s going on in my life.

My fertility and IVF journey was a hard and emotional time. After two years of trying unsuccessfully for a baby, my husband and I had been offered a round of assisted fertility treatment that involved hormones, an operation, invasive checkups and immeasurable worry. It was all-encompassing.

During this time I found that luxuries such as my nails became even more important. Everything around me felt scary and unpredictable, but my monthly appointments were a comfort that allowed brief respite. I could chat away about lighter topics – from the latest Netflix binge series to celebrity drama – and forget the stress, even for just a short while. There was never any need to bring the seriousness of real-life in.

When I began the IVF hormone injections, I asked my nail technician, Pria (@bhambnails) for a rainbow manicure – each nail decorated in its own pastel shade from palest yellow to primary blue. This simple but cheerful design reminded me to stay optimistic, even on the dark days when I felt riddled with anxiety and fatigue. They were a juxtaposition to what was going on inside my head.

As I approached the first invasive procedure that meant I needed to go into theatre, I opted for neon yellow with black gothic lettering spelling out Scorpio: my star sign. It was Halloween and my 32nd birthday and I’d gone from feeling weak and worried to strong and resilient; like I was going into battle and wasn’t prepared to fail. 

When I visited the assisted fertility clinic for a check-up a few days before the op. The nurse looked down at my hands and told me apologetically that I’d need to have the gel polish removed.

“What, really?” I said grumpily. “Do you know how long it took to get this lettering right? They were all painted by hand”.

“Okay,” the nurse replied while trying to suppress a smile. “They’re beautiful. How about just the small finger – as way of a compromise?” I agreed that I would, very reluctantly, remove <just> the little finger.  

Funnily enough, on the day of the operation, the last thing I remember – before falling into a deep anaesthesia-induced sleep – was the doctor saying, “Oh wow! Your nails are amazing”.

Of course, there are many lighter reasons that I have nail art, too. When I was six months pregnant, my husband and I planned a trip to Marrakech as a last break before our imminent arrival. Pria was given the brief of Morocco and she created the most beautiful tile-inspired pattern in gorgeous shades of pink, green and yellow. I worked my holiday wardrobe around the design, packing floaty kaftans and embroidered dresses in complementing colours and prints.

At eight and a half months pregnant, we were in the midst of a heatwave. I felt fat, cumbersome and utterly fed up. I asked for something light and refreshing and the result was pale-pink and white marble swirls that reminded me of raspberry ripple ice cream. The effect worked its magic and I gave birth wearing this design. In fact, I’m pretty sure I remember the midwife gushing over them mid push.

Since having my baby, my taste has veered towards the pretty and dainty – perhaps a reflection of my new persona as a doting and contented mother who finds it hard to watch the news or stay out past 11pm. But I always try to push the boundaries where I can.

“I’d like florals please, but with an edge. Nothing too mumsy,” I said to Pria during one of my most recent appointments. “Okay,” she replied. “We’ll make the base black”.

A couple of weeks ago, I was set for a day at Ascot Races where Pimm’s, champagne and sunshine were the backdrop. Pria hand-painted Dolce & Gabbana-inspired lemons and leaves atop each nail, using a gorgeous matte top coat to give them a sherbet-like finish. They worked perfectly and received just as many compliments as the outfit I’d spent weeks planning. Most importantly, this design celebrated my first girl’s day out without my baby. A real treat after a year of breastfeeding and not being able to leave my son for more than a few hours. They represented perhaps my biggest achievement yet, not to mention the return of a little freedom.

I think what I enjoy the most about nail art is how creative and reactive it can be. I tend not to repeat designs for the most part, as each one always reminds me of a specific time of my life – like a diary. I love looking back on my Instagram feed to see what design I had the year before, and it always transports me right back to what was going on and how I felt. Each life experience cemented in time as a tiny, transient piece of art.