But in the past few weeks, three separate people have offhandedly (heh) mentioned to me that they love getting manicures--that they feel it gives one that extra little polish (okay, I'll stop). I quit the professional kitchen life several years ago, and my home cooking consists of little more than defrosting precooked chicken strips, so after person #3 today mentioned manicures, I went in for one.
Snap decision: today's $8 manicure.
It's not hard to see why manicures top many women's lists of beauty musts. It's frivolous, meaning it's for pleasure only; it's affordable (or at least it is for women who live in cities with plentiful "pink collar" immigrant labor, at a rock bottom of $7 a pop); it creates at least half an hour of forced lassitude, time in which you can literally do nothing--not even read, unless you've brought along a servant to turn the pages of Us magazine for you--other than sit there and let yourself be treated. Part of the New York manicure ritual (which has been the same at literally every salon I've visited, which has been a good handful despite my seven-year hiatus from fingernail polish) is the miniature back rub, which comes, unasked for and free of charge, from the manicurist. (Virginia Postrel argues here that the economy can't afford to scoff at nail salons. That was in 1997, and time has proved her right: Spa visits went up in 2008 and 2009, presumably the $12 pedicure kind, not the $200 massage kind.)
And sure enough, it felt good tonight to go in and let myself be treated--and, of course, my bitten nails look much better than they do when left solely under my guardianship. Still, I feel weird about the whole thing. When I put on my coat, an aesthetician came around to help me button it lest it mess up my nails; it was a practical move on her part, ensuring that the just-performed labor wouldn't be for naught, but still--I felt in that moment like she was my servant, not someone I had merely paid to do a service. (Is there a difference, though?) This was compounded by the race/class intersection at the salon: Like 80% of all New York-area nail salon owners, she was Korean. The steady flow of Chinese labor has actually diminished that percentage, just as it has in California, where 75% of all nail salons are Vietnamese-owned. Asian women are often depicted as being passive, and a demure sensibility is indeed considered a feminine asset in many Asian cultures. As I sat there while this woman bent in front of me to button my coat--after, of course, washing my fingertips, rubbing my arms and back, clipping off the dead skin around my fingernails, and then carefully painting ten tiny canvases--I couldn't help but feel a bit like one of those creepy dudes who frequents Asian dating sites.
Now, if I withdrew from any fiscal interactions involving a race/class disparity in New York, I'd pretty much do nothing but sit in my apartment eating dirt. This is a city of immigrants, particularly brown immigrants, many of whom are on the first step of the great American journey. Indian men drive me home late at night, Mexican men deliver my dinner, Chinese women wash my clothes, Arab men sell me sodas and bubble gum. And I'm paying for those services, and presumably that price has been set by the market and is remotely fair, so I just sort of have to guess that it's all okay after all.
What makes manicures different; why am I more uneasy with that exchange than I am with others? Part of it is the unseen damage done to the workers: In a 2004 survey of salon employees in New York, 37% report eye irritation, 66% report neck and back discomfort, and 18% report asthma (compared with the 6% general rate in America). I left the salon three hours ago and I can still smell the solvent on my fingertips, even though I've washed my hands--and that was one half-hour visit, not 10-hour days, six days a week. [Edited 4.19.2011: Virginia Sole-Smith's investigative feature at The Nation gets more into the labor conditions in nail salons; I wish I'd known about it when writing this originally!]
But I think the real reason I'm uneasy with bargain-basement salons is not because of labor issues, as left-wing-righteous as I occasionally fancy myself. (And it's not like my friends who love manicures are gleefully exploiting cheap labor. Certainly I'm not condemning salons nor their clients--among whom I count myself--even if some of the labor practices that have garnered protest from the workers, detailed in this Times piece, makes me cringe. Let's all just be sure to tip well.) The real reason is that I still see beauty as being frivolous--and despite what I wrote above about frivolity equaling pleasure, the fact is that I feel guilt over taking those indulgences for myself, even when I know I needn't. I'm slowly coming to realize that what I thought was resistance to beauty culture is actually a deep negative engagement with it--sort of always wanting to explore its lands more but being afraid to, for fear of seeming too frivolous, too girly, too weak, even though I don't look at women who more comfortably inhabit Beautyland in that way (unless they prove themselves through their actions to be so). I'd like to try to engage with beauty culture in a more positive way, on my own terms, without always looking over my shoulder for its folly.