Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Equalizing Power in Salons and Spas, Or Why Spa Castle Is Basically the Best Place on Earth

This is what is usually promised in spas. This post is not about that.

This post is a part of this month's Feminist Fashion Bloggers prompt: social class. You can read other FFB posts from this prompt here.

As much as I adore being pampered, I’m also uncomfortable with sitting back and letting somebody else do the dirty work. My salon/spa beauty maintenance is pretty minimal as a result—eyebrow threading, maybe ladywaxing if I’m going swimming (though my recent conversion to “skirted pants” tankini bottoms has helped in that arena—so cute, really, I swear!), the occasional mani-pedi. I just find it so awkward to sit there and let somebody tend to the parts of myself that I’m unwilling or unable to tend to myself. Then there are the socioeconomic gaps between me and the worker—taken on its face, I’m white, middle-class, a native English speaker with American citizenship; in New York, the workers are likely not any of the above.

So I was bracing myself just a tad for my visit to New York’s Spa Castle. (I wrote more about it here—stealth shampoo!) For non-New Yorkers: Spa Castle is a Korean-style spa in northern Queens where you pay $45 for access to all of the facilities, which includes seven saunas (yellow clay! LCD light! Himalayan salt!) and a number of water jet massages. You can also get individual services, and since this was a birthday treat, my gentleman friend insisted I get a body scrub-massage combo.

It turned out that this class-conscious-but-man-do-I-love-being-pampered lady needn’t have feared. At Spa Castle, the power lines are drawn much differently: There is zero question that you are a visitor—a valued one, to be sure—on the workers’ turf. The workers claim the zone through a unified language (all appear to be Korean), and through other forms of unification—they sport matching black bras and underwear, which would appear to undermine their status as professionals were they not working in a hot, wet atmosphere, dumping buckets of warm water on clients all day. Plus, without exception clients are naked, baby-like, squirming on plastic-covered tables, on the receiving end of those buckets of warm water.

So all of the people who are paying to be there are literally stripped of their social signifiers and are left in a vaguely helpless position. The message is clear: The workers are there to provide clients with a service, yes, but they are not there to be servants. The subservience that’s so coded into most spas and salons was muted—I can’t say it’s absent, for at the end of any given day, it is my choice to be there as a client, but on a day-to-day level the worker doesn’t have much choice. But the message of subservience? Not there. This was not a spa set up to cater to my whims for cucumber water; this was set up as a space in which clients are clearly guests, who may or may not be confused about protocol (I certainly was, and there’s nothing like being wet, naked, and confused with a bunch of other wet, naked, confused people to drive home the idea that though you might be the almighty consumer, you’re not necessarily going to experience any glory for merely having purchased a beauty service).

The end result was that Spa Castle created a more genuinely comfortable experience than I would have had in a place where my role as customer was designed to make me feel somehow more special than the people providing the service. Yes, fluffy white robes are fantastic, but on the occasion that I’ve been to the sort of spa where you’re asked which kind of tea you’d like as you sit there waiting for your service, I’ve felt antsy, unable to relax (which defeats the purpose of spagoing, oui?). The relative leveling of the playing field at Spa Castle means that I can dignify the professionalism of the workers by maintaining my role as customer without having that role emphasize aspects of the worker-client relationship that make me uneasy. (Certainly the feeling of equalized power was aided by the relatively low barrier to entry—while the entrance fee isn’t inexpensive, for a day’s entertainment and rejuvenation, it’s not out of reach for the huddled masses either. The number of families and students present testify to this.)

I worry that this entire post reeks of class guilt, which is closely related to class privilege. I’ve never worked in a spa, and don’t want to presume anything about the experience of being a spa worker. (I’m also curious to know what a Korean or Korean-American’s experience would be at Spa Castle; perhaps I was able to perceive the workers’ socialization as solidarity only because I couldn’t understand the words, and they correctly understood that I wouldn’t.) I’m guessing that workers’ experiences across the board are like that in most professions—some love their work, others don’t. And regardless of environment, as a consumer there are ways to help equalize the power balance; Virginia Sole-Smith gives some great pointers, and indeed much of her blog is about the experience of the beauty worker. But in my personal work experience, I thrive in environments where I’m trusted to do my work and am free to chat with my coworkers as I please, in my own terms. Having an environment that is clearly set up for me and my needs is key, as is being able to communicate fluently and independently with all of my superiors.

In essence, my visit to Spa Castle was instructive in terms of what to look for in a spa. Can the people working there likely afford to visit? Is the layout of the workers’ space designed solely for my comfort, or for theirs? (Of course clients’ comfort shouldn’t be compromised either; it is a spa, after all.) Do the workers appear at ease socializing with one another in an appropriate way? Is the vibe of the place a relaxed quiet, a jovial banter, a tense silence, does one voice—likely that of the boss—dominate?

My personal sensibility means that I’ll get everything I want from a spa out of Spa Castle, but I know a sprawling complex of hot tubs and naked people being scrubbed isn’t for everyone. Ritzier places are capable of supporting workers’ needs (though I’d argue that my loose thesis from yesterday’s post on the Jersey Shore holds true for spas as well) if they’re run well. The #1 thing I’d ask myself here is: Realistically, is this situation set up to make me feel special for having enough money to spend on a spa service—or is this situation set up to treat everyone here well, albeit in different ways? Without knowing the background of a place you can’t be sure, and I don’t think you need to do labor interviews every time you get a manicure. But paying attention—to the workers, yes, but also to how you feel, why you feel that way, and the reasons that the environment might be engineered to make you feel it—can tell you a lot too.


  1. Oh shite, my computer crashed and my massive long comment disappeared! I'm actually not massively into beauty things (i've never had a mani or pedi), and a big part of that is being uncomfortable with the worker customer realtionship. I don't think I could ever properly relax.

    I don't recognise the thing i often read about most beauty workers being non-white/immigrants, and I think the beauty industry is structured differently here in the UK. I used to work in the cafe in a department store, and that's where all the minimum wage, temporary and immigrant people were. The beauty girls were long term employees, whiet Scottish and were certainly acting like they were very secure and confident, though I have no idea what they were actually paid. But I can't imagine they would go out of their way to be subservient and bend over backwards to make the customer feel special. As generally, people don't in shops. Some American owned companies like Gap go in for that overinvolved US-style customer service, but I know very few people who actually like it. I certainly don't.

    Sorry, total tangent. Spa castle sounds amazing!

  2. Your post reminds me of a similar experience- I studied abroad in India for 5 months ad while I was there I went on a week long yoga retreat. The intensive yoga camp ended up being more like an elite spa, and I was really uncomfortable being pampered because the class/racial/national power difference were so great. And it almost felt like the camp/spa was designed to emphasize the privilege of clients. I don't often go for beauty services, but would love to find a place like the one you mentioned.

  3. The concerns you voice are exactly my thoughts about any kind of spa / wellness / beauty treatment. I feel that cleaning and adorning my body, just like cleaning my clothes and the place I inhabit, should be my own task and not someone else's obligation. Along the same lines, I also find it very difficult to imagine the culture of only a century back when having servants was common even for middle class families (or the experience of living in a place where it is still common today and belonging to the privileged class)! Still, the setting at Spa Castle that you describe seems a valid compromise.

  4. This is a really interesting post... I recently had my first mani-pedi ever (as a bridesmaid in my best friend's wedding), and definitely found myself uncomfortable with the class situation, especially when one of the Vietnamese workers was telling us a bit about her family, including a one-year-old nephew that she hasn't seen yet because she hasn't been able to afford the trip back to visit her relatives there. I felt pretty uncomfortable sitting back and paying someone else to scrub my feet and try to make my toes look pretty... (at least it was for a special occasion, which helped me feel a bit less self-conscious).

    Spa Castle sounds better in terms of class-related comfort levels, though. You're paying for beauty/spa services, but not in a way that's putting you above the workers providing those services.

  5. "Plus, without exception clients are naked, baby-like, squirming on plastic-covered tables, on the receiving end of those buckets of warm water."

    ...which makes wearing a black bikini sound downright formal!

    I wonder if "class guilt" is sometimes just "compassion guilt," and has as much to do with your sensitivity as a person as with your perceived class. I'm a total softie and often feel guilty about all KINDS o' things.

  6. Franca, that's so interesting--I didn't realize that there was a difference in how beauty work is structured. Perhaps in areas of the U.S. where there are fewer immigrants it's different--certainly beauty treatments are one of the things that are cheaper in NYC (unlike everything else) because of the low (and easily exploited) labor costs. As for the U.S.-style customer service, I so long to be European and not want it, but then I'm always surprised in Europe by how much I have to adjust to not having it!

    Krystal, I've heard complaints like that from friends who have been on similar retreats. It can really go either way--it can be an outfit that really works with the community to provide an experience for tourists without being exploitative, but it can be difficult to know which way it'll fall until you're there. In any case, I'm sorry you had that experience! And if you're ever in NYC, Spa Castle is the place to go...

    Poet, the BBC miniseries "Downton Abbey" became very popular in the States, and I think it's because we were all so alternately fascinated and repulsed by the strict class systems depicted. It seems crazy to me that there are actually butlers in this world, for example, but then when I think of the various class structure that are actually in place in supposedly egalitarian societies, it seems much less weird. I wonder if in some ways there's a comfort in knowing that you're of a strict servant class--you know the rules, the etiquette is laid out for you--as opposed to supposedly being equals but not actually having that be the case?

    Elly, I think it can feel particularly difficult when we're talking about pedicures, because then there's also this sort of physical position of supplication going on. It's a job and nothing to be ashamed of, but there's a reason that Jesus washing lepers' feet made for good parable, you know?

    Rebekah, absolutely. It's funny that people get accused of "guilting" others into action--that wasn't how I was raised at all, but I certainly internalize a lot of guilt, and I think it's because my parents were pretty sensitive people. Damn them! I'll never be a snarly New Yorker!

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