I had the opportunity recently to judge a nail competition. The competition director was in a bind because one of her judges failed to show up and she needed someone who at least knew what to look for and how to evaluate a good nail. I so thoroughly enjoyed the experience that I wanted to share it with our readers – whether you compete yourself or not.

Besides developing a greater understanding of what goes on behind the judges’ curtain, I discovered a greater empathy for the competitors for putting themselves through a competition, and for judges, who have to quickly evaluate and score so many sets of seemingly perfect nails.

When that first set of hands slips under the curtain for judging you’re a little nervous. Score too high and you leave no room for scoring better nails. Score too low and you may be sorry if they end up being the best nails you see that day. (Fortunately, with the very objective 10-point system, that concern is somewhat alleviated).

When you’re looking at set after set of nails, most of which are excellently done, you begin to see how tiny the margin is between the winners and the runner-up. It’s the barely perceptible surface scratches and the slightly crooked smile lines that decide first and second places. Some competitors made odd – and ultimately score-lowering – choices on nail shape, length or product application (one competitor sculpted over very yellow nails with clear powder, a decision I didn’t understand at all).

Despite the fact that the classic square “competition” nail seems to win most major competitions, many of the competitors I judged elected to go with rounder tips and shorter lengths and they still ended up with very high scores.

I was approached by several competitors after the awards program for comments on their score sheets, and we got to talking about why competition nails can’t be more like regular salon nails. One of the competitors explained it pretty well: Competition nails are like Indy 500 race cars. They have all the basic elements of a street car, but to an extreme. Competition nails are still applied like salon nails, but they’re so perfect they look almost unnatural. The lesson? By learning how to create ultra-perfect competition nails, you learn to create better salon nails.

If you’ve never competed, give it a try. Who wouldn’t have a better appreciation of their own trusty automobile after spinning a few laps in an Indy car?

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