A Stranger’s Touch

Photographs by Elinor Carucci

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.

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.”

A massage at Janna Beauty Spa, in the West Village.

Salon workers are hardly the first immigrants to find themselves in poorly paid, unsafe jobs, of course: It was true back when New York was a factory town, and it’s true today. Many abuses at nail salons are already illegal; addressing them means enforcing worker protections already in place—and getting the government to take the health of these workers seriously, far more of a long shot. (Chinese Staff has started a trial program at Bellevue to treat women for health problems, including severe rashes caused by manicure chemicals.) But if factory labor is primarily physical work, done in isolated sweatshops, the new salon jobs require an additional skill set. Performing beauty treatments means negotiating regular, if fleeting, contact with clients, exchanges at once intimate and detached—a fraught style of communication that requires a worker, immigrant or native, but almost always female, to navigate a complex sea of emotional etiquette.

An academic specialty within the field of economic sociology has emerged to address this new type of labor, catalyzed by Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of the twenty-year-old classic The Managed Heart. That book examined the lives of flight attendants and defined what she termed “emotional labor.” “It’s not enough to really seem to enjoy your clients,” she wrote in The Managed Heart. “For flight attendants, part of it is to enjoy your job: to like the people that you meet, to cultivate a friendship beyond the edge of professionalism. That is a tacit job skill.” Hochschild attempts to define what she calls “feeling rules”: the invisible laws that enable the worker to offer a sympathetic smile as a commodity. “When the manager gives her company his enthusiastic faith, when the airline stewardess gives her passengers her psyched-up but quasi-genuine reassuring warmth,” it’s what Hochschild labels “deep acting,” the ability to call up sincere, not merely theatrical, emotional states.

In her more recent volume of essays, The Commercialization of Intimate Life, Hochschild explores what she calls “the intimate life in market times,” including the expansion of emotional labor within the household, such as that of migrant nannies and home-health-care aides. Salon work is distinct from these professions, which feature one-on-one relationships, built over time. But it has in common the necessity that a worker follow invisible “feeling rules,” even under duress.

Hochschild herself isn’t much for spa treatments, she tells me when I call her in California. “I confine myself to facials,” she says—everyone seems to draw her own line, whether waxer or economic sociologist. Jobs like this, she notes, “call on a whole range of new skills of how to relate to your clients. The new skill set is, ‘Oh, geez, how do I know when this is temporary and just a job from which I can feel alienated? When do I feel that this is a real person, and this is the real me talking?’ But what are we getting used to here? That is the real question.”

At 67, Hochschild has noticed the way these treatments have gone from being “a luxury to a tentative necessity; it’s a redefinition of needs.” And she wonders aloud about what all this means. “Are we subtracting intimacy from other areas of life, in order to get it in this controlled and titrated, professionalized way?” asks Hochschild. “Is there a subtraction, as well as an addition? That would be the question I would ask. Are the women who go to salons just not getting it anywhere, in which case, they’re getting it here? I think we all need a kind of a connection, we need to be touched. But that we’re getting touched for money, in a medicalized, spiritualized way, seems to me something as a culture we could be thinking about. I don’t want to go the route of moralizing this; I think it’s good to be touched, to relax, to be stress free. But it does seem like a symptom that something’s amiss that people actually pay for this.”

What exactly is required in these exchanges can vary depending on the demographics of the salon, according to Miliann Kang, whose 2003 article “The Managed Hand” in the academic journal Gender & Society examined three different Korean nail salons in Manhattan. In Kang’s observation, the wealthy white clientele of “Uptown Nails” sought out “pampering”: They wanted to feel catered to, with bonus services like creamy hand massages. At “Downtown Nails,” the African-American clientele was more concerned with expertise (reassurance that the designs were done skillfully) and respect (salon owners needed to reassure clients that they were part of the neighborhood, not interlopers). “Crosstown Nails” was a mani-pedi salon with a racially mixed clientele of working women: The labor could be physically exhausting, but the clients required only the most basic emotional services.

Kang, who is currently writing a book about manicure work, has observed the way new immigrants adjust to the power dynamic within months. “There are women who find it very degrading, particularly washing women’s feet. They’d tell me, ‘If I knew I was going to be doing this, I’d never have come to the U.S.’ But what starts out being shocking or surprising, when you do it on a daily basis, you can’t keep up that level of emotional sensitivity. When I speak to them a few months later, they’re totally acclimated.”

This is not, she adds, that they don’t “pay a high price for that adaption. Everything from the exposure to toxic chemicals to carpal tunnel syndrome to learning always to put others’ needs first.” This is true for customers as well, she adds. “The first time you get a massage, hire a nanny, have someone clean your house—all of these things, they’re right at this intersection of the intimate and the economic.”

When Janna Radevich came to New York at 26, in 1990, she spoke no English and had no friends. “You do whatever you can to make you survive here,” she says, shrugging, as we sit together in her salon in the West Village. “Babysitting; any store, wherever they hire you; working in the kitchen, doing dishes.” I ask where she lived that year, and she pauses. “It was a very hard time. You know, sleep on a building, on the steps? It was kind of tough. But slowly, one by one, you settle up, and here we are now.”

A music teacher in Belarus, Radevich eventually began doing skin treatments, and she purchased her own day spa eight years ago. Over the years, she’s built a family here: She has three children and is married to a Syrian who owns a falafel shop on Hudson Street. When I run into her, she’s in the midst of fasting for Ramadan.

“When you don’t speak English and you want a profession, you realize a nanny, a maid, that’s not a profession. But being an aesthetician is very happy job, because you do beauty, and it gives you good feeling—it’s emotional.” There are other benefits, she tells me. “You learn good English; you talk to people. You don’t talk, but they talk: very intimate, things they won’t tell to anybody. I have one girl, I think she’s in big trouble, with drugs. She feels very comfortable, I’m like a therapist to her. Some of it’s personality, yes, but it’s also that we’re not related to them—your world, your circle of friends, your family? I’m out of it.”

“Are we subtracting intimacy from other areas of life in order to get it in this controlled and titrated, professionalized way?”

Like Francesca Kim, she’s astonished by the exponential growth of the spa industry—not to mention the leap in women’s comfort level with the most intimate treatments, like Brazilian waxes. “Now, women don’t care; they take it off on the way in, right away. Back then, they’d take the underwear and move it to the side, a little bit in the back, just a little bit, oh, oh, oh—it takes struggle to get off the underwear! Now even for a regular bikini, they’re naked. It’s crazy.” Early on, she adds, her customers saw waxing as centered on sexuality, but “now they see it’s about being clean.”

Whereas Radevich enjoys the voyeuristic insight into her clients’ lives, salon workers often find these experiences draining. Jennifer Fried-Uman, 37, grew up as an earthy-crunchy girl in Southern California, and in her twenties she fled the corporate world to do spa treatments. “I was in the music industry. Oh, it was great and so glamorous! Not even.”

For Fried-Uman, salon work is less a job than a calling. She takes pride in her ability to empathize, even with her most demanding clients. “I have a client I’ve been seeing for so long, and no matter what, she cries. There’s always something: She’s overworked or overwhelmed with family problems. And she has all the money in the world! But there’s all sorts of stresses. The company is doing badly—or the company is doing so well, they don’t know how to handle it. The most famous celebrities come in and are just so vulnerable.”

Making that leap of empathy—which in her description sounds at once genuine and calculated—is a source of pride. “If you’re really sincere, they’re in! They’re your best friend for life. It’s all about them. It has nothing to do with you. I know workers who come in and they’d tell a client, ‘I got kicked out of my apartment.’” Fried-Uman tries never to share these details. “Do they know I’m from California? Or what my parents are like? They don’t really ask. It’s about professionalism and at the same time making them feel you are their sole confidante and they’re in the best hands they can possibly be in. It’s cerebral, something you’re conscious of—and then there’s the physical part, where you’re working very hard to be appropriate, to do a chest massage, but not the breasts, to walk them through it gingerly and softly, make them feel like they’re safe, like you’re not doing anything weird and creepy.” She is, she cheerfully acknowledges, “a little hippie about it. To make this person feel like they’re worth a million bucks, to be attentive to their every need!”

Fried-Uman works at Soho Sanctuary, one of the high-end salons that occupy a special niche in the industry, dominated by workers like her who identify with their companies’ philosophies of natural healing. When I got a massage at the spa, I was struck by its cunning layout: You are led through quiet chambers, into a private tent decorated with bowls of polished stones, wooden benches, and that same omnipresent tinkling music. It feels a bit like entering one of the virtual caves in Myst. Then your therapist appears, seemingly out of nowhere—only to disappear as soon as the treatment is over: As with the women at the mani-pedi parlors, she’s an invisible messenger in a neutral uniform. But there is a back room, Fried-Uman says, where she and her co-workers “purge,” venting about their most difficult clients.

The work is also physically grinding. At the end of the day, “you’re fried, exhausted. Your hands are fucked, are screwed. My lower back hurts from leaning over.” She has her own natural remedies: “Ice cream is good! I always try to run cold water over my hands, it pulls out energy. I try to just put myself together a little bit. Take a deep breath. Get on the train and get some chocolate. Reality TV helps.”

Like Kim, Fried-Uman tells me initially that she does work from the neck up. Then later, as we talk, she acknowledges that she does waxing as well, including bikini waxes—it’s a big part of the industry, though many workers find it unsettling, a game of Twister with undercurrents of anxiety. “It’s very clinical,” she says. “It’s very, ‘Oh my God, I have a naked lady on my bed’—I’m not going to just rip the towel off.” She imitates her calm manner as she guides a client through the process: “‘Now we’re going to move the leg over there.’ Do I want to do waxing the rest of my life? It’s not my favorite thing. So many women, they feel like, I’m the hairiest person in the world. I try to make them feel fun or light. It’s your job to pull the sexuality out of it.”

There is, it’s true, a direct analog to some of the contradictions of this profession: prostitution. It’s a parallel that is maddening to many in the industry, who have to cope with the shadow version of the spa, the quasi-legal massage parlors where male clients get “happy endings.”

These services are generally not available for women, though I’ve heard rumors. But even in standard beauty spas, workers have to learn to deal with an unspoken erotic dynamic—it’s one reason for the medicalized atmosphere, which keeps touch in the realm of healing rather than kink. Yet part of the reason women seek out these treatments is, perhaps, the anonymity, the freedom to ask for exactly what you want, to feel vulnerable but never to see the person touching you again, unless you want to—to be touched without owing anything.

There are other parallels to the sex trade. Like sex workers, new immigrants often adopt “salon names”—Susan, Linda, Jenny—all-American labels that obscure their foreignness for customers. They draw on private hierarchies about what is intimate, and what is too intimate (nearly everyone I interviewed began the conversation by saying she did just nails, or work “from the neck up,” only acknowledging she’d done waxing when I brought it up myself). And they make choices about how to deal with moments when it becomes impossible to ignore the sexual undercurrent of a spa treatment.

Kim has had several absurd experiences with male customers who mistook the spa for a bordello, including one in which an old man tried to feign a leg cramp in order to induce a sexual massage. But she also described a subtler dynamic during facials or massages, when a client is “kind of … enjoying it. So even though I’m providing the service, I feel kind of weird and awkward. In those situations, it’s really hard to keep the neutral feeling and try not to bother them, and finish my work.” She doesn’t want to shame her clients, she says. “Not to intimidate whatever personal feelings they have. I’m trying to be calm and finish my job, because this is the thing I have to do, this is what my license stands for. But in the end, I have a little bit of the bad feeling—the hangover, the leftover feeling.”

For spa workers, finding the right balance can be elusive: to be neither so jaded that work becomes a grind of mechanical falseness, nor so invested in each client’s needs that they soak into you like manicure fluid. But for the rare person—the woman for whom the economic and emotional stars slide into place—it’s possible. Like Radevich, Maria Kachkoff is from Eastern Europe. A Russian Jew who migrated in 1975, she has nostalgia for the Manhattan spas of the seventies, filled with celebrities (she waxed Cheryl Tiegs’s legs) and a party atmosphere. “They were falling off the seats,” she recalls fondly of her clients.

Now Kachkoff rents her own chair at the Riccardo Maggiore spa on the Upper East Side, which recently served as a set for the Sex and the City movie. Of all the women I’ve spoken to—from fearful workers at chain salons to Jennifer Fried-Uman, who loves her job but can have “one bad customer” ruin her mood for months—Kachkoff seems most satisfied. She works with a set list of long-term customers, gets commission and sets her own hours. (She has health insurance through her husband’s job.) And she has a sense of control foreign to many workers in this industry—not least because the intimacy with her customers is the real thing.

“I know my clients, but it took a while,” she says. “Back when I didn’t speak English, I smiled a lot.” Now, she says, “they know my children, I know their children. They tell me their week, and I tell them my week.” Kachkoff gets spa treatments herself; when we meet, her hair is shiny and styled, and thick eyeliner sets off her eyes. (She’s picky about who works on her and went on a long hunt for the perfect manicurist.) For Kachkoff, the slumber party is less of an illusion. She’s cracked the code of emotional labor, making her relationships feel genuine and mutual.

A few weeks after Kim and I first meet, we get together again, for a trip to the Upper West Side, near the salon that just lost the lawsuit. We’re planning to get pedicures and talk to the workers, but it looks too small to have a real interaction, and we don’t want to get any workers in trouble. Instead, we walk around 72nd Street and Broadway, where Kim marvels at the sheer density of salons: eight of them on this one block. There’s an inexpensive massage/nails place run by a Korean woman, with Mexican employees and signs advertising “callus eliminators.” There are two salons, one upstairs from the other: an antiseptic-looking joint offering mani-pedis for $25 and another place, with a carnivalesque street sign, into which we’re waved by the owner, who shouts “Excellent treatment!” and touts his prices—$19, which he says he can offer because he has lower rent on the second floor. He’s been there 21 years, he tells us; when he arrived, there was just one salon nearby. I get a manicure; Kim gets a bikini wax and comes out alarmed by the fact that they use no antiseptic and soothe the skin afterward with plain Vaseline.

Afterward, we grab another cup of coffee. Kim tells me she’s planning to leave her job at the Tribeca spa: It was “not a good week,” with a misunderstanding about scheduling that left her cooling her heels for an hour. Instead, she thinks she’ll work in New Jersey while she studies for her qualifying exam in acupuncture. She’d like to get a treatment herself, she says, but she’d prefer to do it in a more “suburban, family-oriented” area, where she could get to know the technicians.

I try to imagine what Kim describes, this homier vision of the salon. Like Hochschild, I don’t want to be moralistic about beauty, to scorn women for wanting massages—right now, I could use one myself. A pedicure may not be a necessity, but it’s benign; if workers were better paid and treated as worthy of respect, if the hours were fair, their labor might be regarded as a kind of artistry. Prostitution might be one analog to spa work, but there is another: child care, another female-centered profession that requires tremendous emotional skill and physical intimacy. Like spa work, it is often underpaid and exploitative—not because it is intrinsically humiliating, but because it is coded as feminine and therefore invisible, undervalued.

And yet there is also Hochschild’s question: Is something missing in our lives that we’re trying to replace with spa services? Kim and I talk again about why her clients want these treatments—why so many more, right now. “These days, people don’t have family, that’s the problem,” says Kim. “Because at least before, even though they don’t get married, they have their intimate partner, or they live with brothers or sisters, they always have company. These days, they travel a lot. Every family member is living so far away. And when they go home, they do their computer, they watch TV, then they go to sleep; that’s it. You don’t have your sister to say, I do your nails, I braid your hair—even with your family, you’re not really keeping company; people are so individualized.” She smiles and gazes out onto 72nd Street. “How many people do they have to do the braiding of their hair?”

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A Stranger’s Touch