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A Stranger’s Touch

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A mask at Think Pink spa, in midtown.  

Yet salon labor, in Kim’s account, is not merely a job; it’s also a performance, centering around the ability to conceal any behind-the-scenes struggle with a gentle manner—to be a smiling face with skillful hands, a persona that conveys intimacy while being blank enough that clients can project their needs upon it. This is how “professionalism” is defined in the industry: neutrality displayed as easy warmth. (“Professionalism” can also be a stick used by owners: An organizer for the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association explains that women at the mani-pedi chains are often told they can’t wear protective gloves because it wouldn’t be “professional,” which is to say, it might scare clients.) These emotional scripts come more easily to some aestheticians than others, and Kim jokes that on bad days, she puts a mask over her clients’ lips as well as their eyes, just to get them to shut up.

She’s also learned to set physical boundaries—which occasionally means rejecting what a client requests. At a job in Chelsea, a customer demanded a Brazilian: “She said, ‘I’m not going to pay if you won’t do it.’ But I’d spent 45 minutes working and—well, I think that area is private and personal. I’ll do eyebrows, upper lips, arm, back, and that’s it. Anything below the waist, I won’t do it. So I make a statement like that.” This is not really the ideal attitude for the industry, she knows. “The spa owners don’t like a personality like me. The immigrant people, they can be more easily manipulated.”

Still, Kim has a bemused sympathy for her customers, at least those who don’t “treat me like a maid.” When she asks them what they’re looking for, they tell her, “I just want a half-hour alone!” Many hurried workers she treats, she says, would be just as happy to take a nap.

Twenty years ago, salons were a treat for the idle rich or for women playacting that role for a day. While a subset of socialites were groomed by hired help, for most other women—working women, stay-at-home mothers, young girls—a massage was an indulgence, a facial a luxury, a manicure the type of thing you did at home. Other treatments were barely heard of: Waxing, for example, was rare, something the very, very hairy might do out of desperation. If you did go for a spa treatment, it was a giggly girls’ day out, a once-in-a-while escape.

It’s hard to pinpoint when this began to change, but it’s been a gradual creep, with one treatment after another redefined from an option to a necessity, the required armor of modern femininity. Treatments once performed at home, like manicures and eyebrow-plucking, are conventionally outsourced. Others, like massage, are regarded as cures, the antidote to an epidemic of female stress. Each day, a set of treatments—from exfoliation to bikini waxing—gets nudged toward the mainstream (in the pages of women’s magazines, in conversations between friends dressing for a party, in mothers’ comments to their daughters), shifting from treats to basics: the pubic “landing strip,” nearly a required part of the dating uniform for younger women; perfect nails and shaped eyebrows a requisite for professionals. Even little girls get spa treatments at birthday parties. Having such procedures done professionally is a signal (to yourself and to others) that you have it together: You are a pointedly urban creation, in control of your own body.

The result has been a huge spike in employment in a relatively new field of labor. Across the five boroughs, the number of people certified to do nails has more than doubled in the last ten years. Some specialties, like waxing, are particularly statistically striking: In 2000, there were 431 registered waxers in New York; today that number has risen to 3,301.

The most noticeable effect of this expansion on the landscape of Manhattan is the seemingly endless wave of glass-front mani-pedi emporiums, many Korean owned, that have popped up, often one to a block. Some are luxe, others low-rent. At their worst, they are glossy showcases that are, in effect, sweatshops in plain sight—replacing the old model of factory piecework with grueling, barely paid shifts of buffing, trimming, and polishing. A month ago, these workers had their first true labor breakthrough: a lawsuit against two Upper West Side salons in which three plaintiffs got more than $225,000 for overtime violations and compensation for retaliatory termination. The Erin Brockovich of this movement is Susan Kim, a manicurist who spoke up against her bosses and was fired for her whistle-blowing. (See “The Manicurists’ Heroine.”)

According to the lawsuit, plaintiffs worked six days a week, for more than ten hours a day. They received no overtime. They were allowed no scheduled breaks, even for lunch. Their salaries ranged from $300 a week to $460 a week. Winning the suit is a huge achievement, given the peculiar difficulties of organizing salons. Undocumented workers fear speaking up; owners may exploit tensions between Korean workers and newer Chinese and Vietnamese arrivals to keep the workforce divided; and language barriers keep women from sharing information, especially given that workers are sometimes forbidden to speak their native language in the salon because this might make customers uncomfortable.

According to the labor activists at the Chinese Staff and Workers’, the settlement has resulted in a flood of complaints. “We’ve had so many workers calling,” says Nancy Eng. “There’s never been any kind of organizing before, because this is a relatively young industry, and not on people’s radars. So it’s a big symbolic step: If I do speak up, something can happen.”


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