I’m high on a table, wrapped in a white robe, my eyes covered by—I’m not sure what. A mask? Cucumber slices? Around me, I hear sounds: dripping water, metal instruments, and music of the kind that plays in every spa, faintly Indian, or possibly Enya, something with flutes. And then there is a white light, a puff of cold air, thick cream massaged into my cheeks, the prickle of the zapper as the facialist attacks my pores.
The first time I got a pedicure, I felt something similar: physical vulnerability, mingled with a lurid awareness of power—an Asian woman who didn’t speak English was kneeling in front of me, washing my feet. It felt distinctly slave and master. But that’s only true the first time you have a treatment like this. Pay once, twice, three times, and the aura of exploitation dissolves, and with it, the contradictions implicit in getting a massage, or a waxing, or a mud wrap: You’re naked, but nothing explicitly sexual is going on; the touch is intimate, but the toucher is a stranger. The name she tells you may not be her real name. What’s happening is not medical, though the props that surround you—the glass jar of blue fluid, the hygienic oven—encourage that illusion. And yet you are in charge: You’re the customer.
Spa treatments are marketed to women as luxuries, like high-end chocolate; as something healthy, like a workout; or perhaps as spiritual transformation, one ending with a glow and a lot less hair. But what flashes into my mind as I’m lying under the facialist’s care is the image of a slumber party, those light-as-a-feather, stiff-as-a-board trust games teenage girls play. How peculiar, then, to recognize that this ritualistic grooming—that potent, mutual currency of female friendship—has alchemized into an industry, reproducing that experience as an economic exchange between strangers, each hour, every 15, 30, 60, 90 minutes, on the clock.
It’s a new service economy, one enabled by the same wave of immigrant labor that has made cheap takeout so ubiquitous in Manhattan. And while this caste of manicurists, aestheticians, waxers, and massage therapists varies in their experience and background, their skills have become the invisible engine of New York femininity, making indispensable a new type of labor: a gift for decoration, for intimacy, for tasks that are at their best highly emotional, at their worst shriekingly mechanized, and sometimes both at once.
Three days later, I meet my facialist, Francesca Kim, at a Starbucks in Chelsea. At the salon, Kim is a soothing presence, explaining each step of the process, but sitting across the table she strikes me as deadpan, with a sardonic eye for the contradictions of her industry. Her family emigrated from Korea to New Jersey when she was 16, she tells me, and she became an aesthetician on a whim, when she won free tuition as the door prize at a local beauty school’s open house.
In more than a decade doing skin care, Kim’s witnessed the industry’s weedlike growth; her current employer in Tribeca has competition on each block, from the tanning joint with its bubble-gum-pink display to the Delluva Vinotherapy Day Spa, where you can dunk into a $120 “TheraVine Barrel Bath” with grape-seed oil. Such density in a high-rent area means constant price wars for owners, which has only sharpened the tension between a customer’s desire for relaxation and the pressured environment for workers. “The frustrating thing is that every single time the owners pay you, they come up with a different rule,” Kim explains.
In her current gig, she began at an hourly rate of $10 to $12—the industry maximum, she tells me—plus commission for each treatment she does for a client. But without notice, the owners started removing the hourly rate from treatment slots. Sometimes the commission was 40 percent of the treatment price, sometimes 25 percent. It varies irregularly, though the more expensive the procedure, the lower her cut (tips make up 20 percent of her income). The schedule can be maddening, since employees are penalized (and get lower tips) if customers feel rushed, and yet a treatment is paid out as an hour, even if it actually requires twenty more minutes for the client to change. “Women walking in are looking for relaxation, they want to get out from under the hustling,” Kim worries. “But it’s manufactured—someone is going to be chasing you.” Then there is the vexing issue of unpaid overtime and the fact that workers get no health benefits or worker’s comp; for non-English-speaking immigrants, conditions can be far grimmer, with “trial periods” of work, sometimes for no pay at all. Kim commands higher rates, but adds, “If you don’t speak English, they’re going to go down”—below minimum wage, to $50 a day (plus the lower tips that accompany cheaper treatments), with eleven-hour days, no breaks, and, for nail-workers, exposure to toxic manicure products.