Ever since I landed my first professional job 12 years ago, I have been getting my nails done every two weeks. Like clockwork. When it comes to appearance, the only things I obsess about are my hair and my nails — but mostly my nails. Having a fresh manicure makes me feel confident and complete. It puts a spring in my step.
But after reading Sarah Maslin Nir’s piece “The Price of Nice Nails” in the New York Times, which highlights that manicurists in New York City are exploited and underpaid, I found myself faced with a real moral dilemma. I’m not sure I can go back to a nail salon with a clear conscience. The eye-opening article made me worry that my manicures fuel the poor treatment of the women who work in nail salons.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that nail salon workers aren’t paid handsomely and often work long hours, but I had no idea just how bad things can be for them—from paying the salon owners ridiculous fees to working 10- to12-hour shifts with only $30 to show for it, to unpaid trials before they can even begin working in earnest. I didn’t know that these women often live in cramped conditions and are bused into the city to work. That the acrylic dust they inhale can cause miscarriages and cancer. That some are here illegally and are afraid to speak up about their rights for fear of losing their jobs. The differences in how manicurists of various nationalities are treated blows my mind, too. Nir’s piece mentions a Tibetan manicurist who had to eat lunch standing in a kitchenette with other non-Korean workers, while her Korean counterparts ate at their desks. Shouldn’t all workers be treated equally regardless of where they are from?
I’m due for a manicure right now. Most of the time, going to the nail salon relaxes me. It’s a chance to unwind and take a break from work, from being a wife and mother. Living in the manicure capital of the country, it’s a convenient escape, since there seemingly is a nail salon on every corner of every street in New York City. But now, I’m ambivalent.
On one (unmanicured) hand, I want to challenge myself to stay away from nail salons with the hopes that if enough people do the same, pay and conditions will improve for workers. But on the other (still unmanicured) hand, I know I’m depriving salon workers of my business, which doesn’t improve their situations in the short term.
It’s hard to say how long I can hold out. I’m terrible at doing my own nails. However, I do know that when I return, I am going to up my tip game in an effort to compensate my manicurists. I just hope they actually get to keep their tips, and that the money doesn’t go to greedy salon owners.
Part of me wants to talk to those owners and demand that they treat their workers better. But I don’t actually think that will make a difference. I’m glad that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered emergency measures to protect nail salon workers and investigate wage theft and health hazards. He says he will deploy a multiagency task force to conduct salon-by-salon investigations, without inquiring about workers’ immigration statuses.
In college, I wanted to be a TV reporter and anchor, so I’ve always had a thing about looking good or at least trying to look respectable. Being picture perfect boosts my self-esteem. Early in my career, most of my colleagues regularly got their nails done and I felt like I had to conform to get their approval.
Women definitely notice the best and worst things about each other, whether we say them out loud or not.
“Ugh, did you see her nails? When was the last time she had them done?”
Having perfectly manicured nails is part of my identity. When I was an adolescent, I used to bite my nails. They were terrible. I hid them because they looked like uneven stumps. It took me a long time to quit gnawing at them and now I proudly display them and talk with my hands freely.
Before Nir’s piece, I didn’t think too much about the women who work their magic on my nails so I can look good. Now, I can’t imagine what it’s like for them to be hunched over all day, breathing in plastic particles that can cause severe health problems. Only time will tell if the nails I wave around will be shoddily manicured by me, or if I break down and go back to the salon. It’s going to be hard to kick a 12-year habit.