We have a handful of celebrity *ahem* tastemakers to thank for the trend, which is currently taking nail salons by storm. Kourtney Kardashian was one of the first soldiers to fall to the mushy movement, hitting this year's Met Gala red carpet with a gothic black mani featuring the letter 'T' (a nod to her husband, Travis Barker). No stranger to nail polish himself, Travis returned the favour with a 'K' etched on his thumb in a matching style.
A loved-up Kim Kardashian followed suit a few weeks later, flashing a diamanté-encrusted 'P' on her ring finger for then-boyfriend Pete Davidson, while Jennifer Lopez took it one step further and debuted some crest-style nail art, combining a gold foil 'J' and 'B' to celebrate getting re-engaged to actor Ben Affleck.
Celeb stans might've rushed to the nail salon with these examples as manicure inspiration but the trend hadn't really caught on until now. Cuffing season certainly has something to do with it: on Pinterest, for example, searches for 'boyfriend initial nails' increased by 150% this month. So who are the real people getting behind the initial nail art trend? More importantly, why is it so controversial?
Initial nails have gained the most traction on TikTok, where the hashtag #initialnails has an enormous 12.7 billion views and counting. There you'll spot an abundance of lovestruck content creators trying to bring you over to the soppy side. "This is your sign to get your boyfriend's initials on your nails," one TikToker captioned a video with 3.4 million views over Nicki Minaj rapping: "He could tell I was wifey material." Cute or cringe? You decide. Beyond initials, there are explainers on colour theory with nails in mind. These viral videos suggest people who are 'taken' should wear light blue nails to let everyone know they're not single. Meanwhile those who are on the hunt for a new partner should wear red nail polish to flag their availability.
Most of the TikTokers who R29 reached out to said that wearing initials on their nails is simply a "cute gesture" or a "temporary" and "sensible alternative" to a partner tattoo, especially when you consider that countless inkings are lasered away each year. Some admitted to using the lovey-dovey design as a way to "soft launch" their relationship on social media, while another took a photo of her nails to send to her long-distance boyfriend as a "sweet surprise" — a hint that he is on her mind.
It's no coincidence that initial nails are seeing a spike in interest as the weather gets colder in the Northern Hemisphere. Therapist Sally Baker thinks the trend will continue to grow as more people inevitably couple up for winter. "Autumn is traditionally the beginning of 'cuffing season', when people want to declare their happy couple status," she says. ('Cuffing' derives from 'handcuffing' and essentially describes the desire to handcuff yourself to another individual and form a relationship with them.)
It makes sense. After all, it's nice to share body heat when it's cold outside (and heating bills are set to soar). But Sally thinks there's another reason why the trend is taking off, and it speaks to our fragility. "The initial nails trend feeds into a desire to want to add weight to new relationships," she explains. "These can be flimsy and embryonic."
The trend for initial nail art might seem harmless to most but therapists agree that it could in fact be a red flag, an indicator of coercive control.
Despite a handful of disdainful comments — "I may be cringe but at least I ain't paint my bfs first initial on my ring finger nail cringe" — professionals agree that, on the whole, the trend is tasteful. "I've been doing initial nails for quite a while now and see it come up a lot around Valentine's Day, particularly in old English lettering," says nail artist and Booksy ambassador Alice McNails.
Alice adds: "I think this trend is really sweet and wearable, and you can experiment with different fonts, colours and textures. You can do it in a minimalistic way or go extra with an initial on your ring finger for wedding nails." Natural nail manicurist Laura Massey reckons the trend is so viral right now because of its relatability. Anyone who is in a happy relationship — no matter their age, gender or sexuality — may feel tempted to jump on board. "People love a personalised manicure."
Tasteful or otherwise, the desire to label yourself with your sweetheart's name actually stems from evolutionary urges. "Claiming someone visually is not new, it has just evolved over time," says psychotherapist Dr Daryl Appleton. "We've seen this throughout history in wedding bands, for example, or wearing someone's letterman jacket and getting matching tattoos. Psychologically, your partner's initials may be a symbol of commitment to help ward off any unwanted advances or to show pride in a relationship."
Certainly, as human beings, we like to prove our accomplishments. Some breakups unfold very messily over social media but posting your initial nails to your story? That's solid evidence you're going strong. Does anyone really care, though? Maybe, considering we've lived through two tumultuous years of on-off isolation. Wearing your heart on your sleeve (or in this case, your initials on your nails) shows that you put yourself back out there, or that your relationship survived against the odds.
Considering that the hands are one of the most visible parts of the body, Dr Appleton's theory, which suggests that initial nails are some sort of claim, is interesting. Sure enough, the comments sections under countless TikTok videos are full of not-so-subtle exchanges between couples. "You better do this 😑," writes one TikToker, tagging their partner under an initial nail art video. Is it true love if you don't wear it on your nails? A few years ago, initial nails might not have been such a hit. But the trend was born post-pandemic — an incredibly lonely time for many. These days, public displays of affection are encouraged, even fashionable.
Kravis are pretty PG when you look to Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly, who arguably spearheaded the move towards unbridled public intimacy (think: tonguing on the Billboard Awards red carpet and drinking each other's blood). Initial nails are an extension of this craze, according to Chaun Legend, celebrity nail artist and artist in residence for Lottie London. "PDA has never been more popular," he says. "Celebs that may have normally played it coy are screaming from the rooftops about their new partners and what better way to say you're off the market than including it in your mani?" Is it sickeningly sweet? "Yes, but you can't deny it's possessive in the best way."
Can that really be a good thing? A quick whip round my Instagram followers suggested that as well as "possessive", some find etching your partner's initials onto your nails "objectifying" and almost like being "branded". The trend might seem harmless to most but Sally agrees that it could in fact be a "red flag" and says she can imagine friends, family or colleagues questioning someone's motivation for doing this. She adds that as the trend gains momentum, it could become an indicator of coercive control, or could be done in response to pressure from a partner to prove that you're their exclusive property.
Remember, not everybody is a fan of showing their love publicly. The aforementioned celebrity couples have been the subject of think pieces and debates for months, the appropriateness of their behaviour dividing the general public. And for Brits in particular, points out confidence and mindset coach Hattie MacAndrews, PDA is a particularly touchy subject. "Brits aren't known to be gushers and an outward sign of affection like initial nails can make people feel uncomfortable," she explains.
"Wearing your significant other's initials on your nails is quite a statement," continues Hattie, adding that your motivation will determine whether you like the trend (in which case, nail stickers are probably the easiest option) or whether it gives you the 'ick'. Certainly not everyone on TikTok is taken by the gesture. "Looks like someone drew it with a sharpie," said one boyfriend in response to his girlfriend's personalised initial manicure. "Looks shit."
From glass nails to aura nails, trends come and go. But whether you love it or loathe it, initial nail art isn't going anywhere just yet. Taylor Swift gets it right when she sings: "I want to wear his initial on a chain round my neck / Not because he owns me but 'cause he really knows me." Apply this concept to initial manicures and you might have some sound advice.