All my life, I have rejected the idea of paying loads of cash to sit in a comfy chair and have some Asian lady pick at your finger skin until your hands looks like baby’s hands. Why do I need baby hands and confetti nails? Why not just use that $30 to buy 3 awesome books?
Apparently, most girls do not think that way. I remember one girl in high school telling me how proud she was that before prom she shaved her legs in all four different directions. I just kind of gawked at her. Rudely, probably. I also remember my first mani/pedi experience at age 16 with two girlfriends, and what a rite of passage it was supposed to be. I probably could have been just as happy (or since this was high school, just as dopily miserable) with or without it.
Now, however, I appreciate the skill required to politely pluck dead finger skin away from your cuticles with the tiniest scissors ever made, the simple pleasure of resting feet in bubbling hot water and the complete surrendering of your hand muscles to a complete stranger. But it’s still fantastically weird. Tina Fey puts it best in her 2011 auto-funny-ography, Bossypants:
“That really is the craziest thing the first few times you go, getting used to passively flopping your hands into another woman’s hands. It’s like something they’d make you do at summer camp as a trust-building exercise, I assume. I never went to summer camp, as I was neither underprivileged nor Jewish nor extremely Christian, nor obese. (It would be a great exercise for someone who thinks they want to move to New York. Sit down in an enclosed space full of fumes and hold hands with a stranger for twenty minutes while everyone around you speaks a language you don’t understand. If you enjoy this, you will enjoy the 6 train.)
To take your mind off how weird it is to have someone else clean your fingers, there is a series of theatrical performances all around you. To your right you might find a New Yorker speaking animatedly about an apartment she has been. ‘It was sick. You don’t even know. Marble slabs.” The more New Yorkers like something, the more disgusted they are.’ … “To your left may sit an older woman eating cashews with one hands while talking on the phone with the other while still receiving a manicure and oversharing. ‘I know. I was crying about it on the phone this morning – don’t cut the cuticles, please.’
If all this becomes too much for you, just look up and focus on the poster of a hand with long red nails holding a violin incorrectly.”
Here in the sunny suburbs of California, just replace “loud New Yorker” with “bubbly soccer mom.” She’s most likely skinny and fake blonde with a new boob job venting to Hanh with a slight lilt in her voice about her sister’s husband’s brother’s son who has been in and out of rehab for heroin and just recently stole his Hummer for a trip to Vegas, the nerve. I always wonder whether the nail lady, one, understands or, two, cares about the string of babble coming out of her client’s mouth.
So, there are still some vaguely troubling things about being pampered at a nail salon. I got a manicure, pedicure and eyebrow wax today and some items of displeasure became relaxingly clear to me. I’ve never been in a more calmingly stressful situation, sitting in a massage chair while being flooded with immigrant guilt, class guilt and womanhood confusion. And that’s a very strange feeling. Also, not unlike a specific form of torture where the torturer alternates pain and pleasure to get the victim to spill the beans. Well, it worked.
1. Immigrant guilt.
What am I, some kind of empress or high-level concubine? It strikes me as a mite elitist to have multiple Asian immigrants waiting on me – literally – hand and foot. And I don’t think anyone would doubt my ethnic categorization there, because when is any nail salon not operated by twelve nice-smelling Asian ladies (usually Vietnamese in my experience) who don’t speak English that well?
If you have never been to a nail salon before, here is what it looks like walking in: a few well-dressed white ladies are reclining in massage chairs holding a magazine while an Asian woman – on her hands and knees – has her hands deep in the smelly foot water of said white lady, diligently scrubbing off her bunions. If I were fully white, I would have probably labeled this point white guilt, which is definitely storming around, too – my white mommy lady pays the Asian immigrant ladies – but I struggle with a guilt one step deeper. I’m half Asian myself, and I look much more East than West. Never have I seen an Asian woman sitting in those massage chairs, and rarely any women of any ethnic class other than Caucasian. (Note: I wonder if I would have a different reaction going by myself, rather than with white moms or friends.)
Blarrrgh, goes my brain. I identify both with the white ladies sitting in the chairs and the Asian ladies removing their foot fungus. I feel terribly guilty participating in this ancient race/class standard – say, Chinese peasant women waiting on upper class ladies of the court – and usually end up half-enjoying and half-hating my expensive pampering. I am the second generation to be born in America, and I know about a century ago, my grandparents had to cater to a foreign world that looked down on them. I haven’t forgotten, yet I am so distant from them at the same time.
So, my already somewhat socially anxious hardwiring kind of over-circuits, and I just sit there with an obedient Asian lady cutting my toenails thinking, Should I be talking to her or would that just come out flat and pretentious? Should I compliment her lower leg massage or would that be insulting? (What would actually come out of my mouth in a non-judgmental world is something along the lines of OH MY GOD THAT FEELS SO GOOD YOUR HANDS ARE LIKE POWERFUL INSTRUMENTS OF PLEASURE, but so far, this proclomation has never escaped me.) Where should I be looking? Should I read a magazine, or pretend to read a magazine? Can I close my eyes? Do I look relaxed enough? What would my grandmother think? I wonder what village I came from…
And so on until the painfully amazing pampering comes to an end.
2. Class guilt.
I had a very strange and off-the-wall manager in Santa Cruz who was usually full of himself and overtly awkward, but one time he made an interesting point. He said he doesn’t ever go to restaurants, choosing to always cook his own food instead, because he doesn’t like to participate in the subjugation of servers. Serving food used to be a job reserved for peasants, indentured servants and slaves, and he thinks it still represents an oppression of the lower class, especially when food can be cooked yourself. Aha, so when he wasn’t talking about bingo or the Godzilla action figures in his collection, he was actually making sociologically astute observations, and, more impressively, following through by avoiding the service industry. It doesn’t mean servers think of their jobs as demeaning, but its origins are worth considering.
So, I think it’s even more apparent how the vestiges of feudal times and aristocracy carry over into nail salons. Except now, the rules of capitalism make like it’s all fair game, and anyone could work at a nail salon if they wanted to, cleaning out toe jam and dealing with athlete’s foot. Or anyone could not. But then, why are all nail salons full of Asian immigrants? Why aren’t there wealthy white people choosing a career in nail aesthetics? See above: foot fungus, bunions, athlete’s foot, toe jam. What isn’t servant-like about cleaning other people’s feet for your job?
3. “Womanhood” is something that has always been very confusing to me.
I think many young girls are initiated into this scary thing dubbed womanhood in certain similar ways – learning how to shave your legs, how to catch your period blood when it’s leaking, how to put on make-up, how to do your hair, how to shop and how to use facial creams for skin that isn’t even old enough to have wrinkles or zits yet. What do all but one have in common? Girls are taught that being a woman is about looking good. Sure, cooking and sewing and flirting and cleaning are often picked up along the way, but they’re all pointing toward the same offensive neon sign that reads, “Take care of yourself so a man will want to claim you as his prize.” Of course, lots of progressive households also teach their daughters how to play soccer and volleyball, how to get onto the debate team, how to get into college and make their own money.
But this is not what you see at a nail salon. A nail salon is the epitome of the female beauty standard. Pay lots of money for services you will have to repeat in about 2 or 3 weeks. Women who frequent beauty salons are making an economic and time commitment to adhering to certain norms. This doesn’t mean she doesn’t like being pampered, just that she is subscribing to the idea that she needs to keep herself looking good all the time, even in the smallest details like nails.
To me, I couldn’t care less if I have colored fingernails, and in fact I prefer non-colored nails. Looking at them now kind of creeps me out, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why, maybe because they look like someone else’s fake hands and not my own, but it just seems a little unnatural. (What’s unnatural about sticking my hands in mini-tanning beds to cement the chemical gel?)
The point is, I don’t personally care whether I have nice-looking nails, but for some reason, it’s important – and perhaps notably, it differentiates women from men. Especially as I float around in semi-adult world, I recognize I choose to participate in pre-set standards of beauty, but it still makes me feel a bit uneasy, like a plastic doll or something. Why are these standards so deeply ingrained, and why should a man’s standard of female beauty affect me? (See this Cracked article for a really good breakdown of why men are trained to think they each deserve a beautiful woman, and how women in politics are judged heavily on their attractiveness rather than their political views.)
Womanhood, beautyhood, nails in the hood – being tethered to a lamppost that says, “You must be beautiful all the time” sure is tiring. How can you spend all your time doing that? I came home fucking exhausted from my relaxing trip to the spa.
And what really drove it all home was happily running across my two awesome, vivacious, warm-hearted housemates who both felt the need to apologize for “looking like shit.” Wha-huh? Neither of them did! They’re both radiant and beautiful! But apologizing for times when we feel we’re not looking our best just solidifies the painful conclusion that women are expected to give pleasure in their appearance at all times. But for whom? Even amongst three girlfriends, it was enough to apologize – literally, say, “I’m sorry,” as if not wearing make-up is an offense.
And it’s not just an isolated incident; women feel a great pressure to look attractive at all times, even in their own homes. Pooey, I say! Beautify yourself for you, if that’s what you want, but never apologize for presenting your natural self to the world. Men don’t apologize for their appearance – have you ever heard a guy say, “I’m sorry, I’m looking terrible right now”? So why should we?