What Getting Your Nails Done Really Means

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Photo: Echo/Getty Images

Nail salons have always made me uncomfortable. I would like to tell you that this is because I don’t like the class implications of paying another woman — likely an immigrant who speaks little English — to scrape the crud out from under my nails, clip them, and paint them “Tart Deco” pink. The truth is that the source of my discomfort is much more mundane: I’m a lifelong cuticle-chewer who’s ashamed by the usual state of my fingers. So I do my nails myself.

I am, however, enticed to get a mani/pedi at least a few times a year, often at the request of a close friend who suggests we go together. I always say yes. The appeal of the nail salon is immediately obvious: It’s a women-dominated (often women-only) space where it’s physically difficult to do much more than be alone with your thoughts or chat with your friends. And unlike other traditional female-bonding activities like shopping, it invites far less physical comparison and sizing-up. Every woman has fingernails, and every woman likes to see them trimmed and painted to her taste. In the Fiscal Times last year, one woman referred to manicures as “the one luxury that is really a necessity.”

It’s a luxury that’s affordable because the women doing the grooming are often exploited, an investigative report in the Times revealed last week. “There is no such thing as a cheap luxury,” says the reporter Sarah Maslin Nir. “It’s an oxymoron. The only way that you can have something decadent for a cheap price is by someone being exploited. Your discount manicure is on the back of the person giving it.” There is a double-speak in how women talk about their manicures: Even if we want nail technicians to make a fair wage in safe conditions for doing our manicures, what makes a mani/pedi luxurious is ultimately the fact that someone else is doing the grooming.

To get a manicure is to be catered to for 45 minutes — or much longer, if you get some elaborate acrylics. While the polish dries, you are a woman of leisure, unable to so much as lift your own handbag or flip the pages of Us Weekly. It’s hard to even check your phone, which makes it a rare and welcome respite from the digital deluge. The language barrier between the customers and the nail techs is a positive feature for some salon regulars. “The manicurists usually talk amongst themselves in non-English, so there are no hard feelings if you decide to not talk to them,” says my friend Renee. “I just want to zone out and not think about anything, and it allows me the environment to do that."

Beautifully groomed hands and painted nails are associated with powerful women, not those who work for a low hourly wage. “Over the (relatively short) course of my career, I’ve found that my level of agency at work and grooming habits have moved in harmony,” wrote Haley Mlotek in an ode to gel manicures earlier this year. In 2012, The Wall Street Journal documented the dubious trend of professional women having meetings at the nail salon. And last year, the consulting giant McKinsey used free manicures to recruit female MBA students at Stanford, with some observers commenting that getting manicures had become the female equivalent of playing 12 holes of golf at an exclusive country club. Unlike other services that help some women find professional freedom, such as paying another (probably poorer) woman to care for her kids or clean her home, manicures are a way of outsourcing labor that women previously did for themselves in a way that seems relaxing and fun. There are no “nail wars” in which women are potentially judged for their decision to paint at home or go to salon. Paying for a manicure was not, until last week, a political choice.

“Nail care isn’t just grooming anymore; it’s self-expression,” writes Nails magazine publisher Cyndy Drummey. It’s also an easy way to find a superficial connection with women you don’t know well, or to cement a familial bond. “I got into it because my mom and I do it together — that's pretty much how we bond — and it’s a practice I've carried on with my girlfriends,” says my friend Samhita, whom I’ve accompanied to the nail salon many times. “I also think nail salons are a safe space for women to be on their own.”

“I noticed that women mostly go alone to get their nails done,” says Holly Evan, whose Vietnamese father owned a nail salon in Washington, D.C., when she was growing up. “I remember one time my father was trying to get manicures done quickly, and this woman explicitly said, ‘Um, I came here to relax. Could you please slow down?’” Evan added that because she speaks Vietnamese — like more than half of nail technicians do — she’s never felt completely relaxed in salons. The less distance you have from the women doing your nails, the less luxurious and relaxing the experience seems to be.

The $10 manicure is the equivalent of supermarket sushi or high-fashion knockoffs at H&M: It only feels luxurious until you consider what you’ve really purchased. “Many of my colleagues have already tied themselves up in ethical knots over whether to stop getting cheap manicures,” writes Dara Lind at Vox, in a guide that offers precious few tips for finding an ethical manicure. Some women have vowed to tip more generously; although, as Slate pointed out, that doesn’t seem likely to be effective. In California, at minimum, you can look for salons that meet Healthy Nail Salon standards. (There's also a Healthy Nail Salon Coalition in New York.) And on Sunday, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced emergency measures to protect salon workers with a new task force that will conduct site-by-site investigations and institute new safety rules.

Maybe the bigger answer, though, is to realize that part of what’s truly luxurious about getting your nails done is the time it allows you to spend by yourself or with your friends without distraction. Surely that’s replicable without gel polish and calf massages.