People who work at nail salons are usually called manicurists. But when it comes to more skilled manicurists engaged in some complicated and refined method of manicuring, they are often called nail technicians. Although manicurists have worked in barbershops and beauty salons since the early 20th century, they typically served only the well-to-do. However, by the 1990s, dramatic changes were plainly visible as Korean and Vietnamese women (and increasing numbers of men) came to dominate the nail industry, transforming the manicures and pedicures into a mass market phenomenon that caters to women and some men across class and race boundaries.
For most of the 20th century, work culture and popular culture have cast manicurists as the least-skilled and least respected worker on the beauty shop floor. In films, the manicurists played the profoundly working-class, dimwitted gossip mongers who could not even do hair. In barbershops, the manicurist was often the only woman; she was hired and placed in the front window to attract a male clientele interested in something other than a shave and a haircut. In part, manicurists’ assumed servitude reflected class distinctions that were often more abrupt than the divisions between hairdressers and their patrons. Until the very late 20th century, manicures were a luxury associated with society ladies and the country club set or a very special occasion. In the 1980s and ’90s, nail salons began to appear everywhere, including working-class neighborhoods and business districts where now immigrant-owned and operated salons provided quick, inexpensive manis and pedis that could be had on the way home from work, during lunch, or while shopping. Nails salons also offered more than shape and color, but intricate designs and massages that pampered and pleased a new working and middle-class clientele. Despite the democratization of the services, xenophobia and racism have often mitigated the intimacy of touch and conversation and thus potential relationships between the nail tech and patron, and thus prevented her from attaining status as a skilled artisan.
Contradictions In Body-Related Labor
Korean and Vietnamese women who work in nail salons tend to be recent immigrants with limited English proficiency and job skills. Some of them are college graduates and were professionals in their homeland prior to immigration to the United States. In New York, for example, Korean manicurists often enter into a line of work that is at first entirely unfamiliar, since they were not only oblivious to the existence of nail salons but also could not have imagined providing pedicures could be a line of work. Korean culture generally looks disparagingly at nail salon work because it involves intimate physical contact with another person’s body. Such body work is considered shameful and humiliating, as in the metaphor “lowering oneself to cleanse another’s feet sat on the throne-like pedicure chair.” Polishing one’s nails with colorful enamel also threatens the dictates of tradition. Despite the foreign terrain of nail work, immigrant women and men have managed to carve out a formidable wedge in the beauty industry through the establishment of nail salons. Immigrant manicurists have both creatively (voluntary) and disgracefully (involuntary) come to participate in a body-related service sector in a foreign country.
The physical contact between manicurists and customers of diverse backgrounds evokes intense feelings among manicurists. Manicurists occupy an awkward position straddling the requirements of their job and the cultural narratives about body-related labor. This skin ship—serving their clients in close physical proximity, touching their hands, feet, and often other parts of the body—contributes to the formation of relationships between manicurists and women of other ethnic identities. In an attempt to synthesize these conflicting relations, the concepts eye to eye and nail to nail reveal two dimensions of interaction between the immigrant manicurists and their clients that are not separate but overlap to form complex relationships.
Characteristics Of Interaction With Customers
Eye to eye speaks to the relationship the manicurists build with their customers at a human level, as they get acquainted. While working, women may share information with the clients about health, children, and family matters, depending on their English conversational abilities and their feelings about the depth of their mutual intimacy. Through conversational encounters with their clients, immigrant manicurists are able to ascertain knowledge about Americans and American culture. In their encounters with Americans from various ethnic backgrounds, manicurists also learn a lot about a range of customs and lifestyles.
Nail to nail refers to the relationship that exists between manicurists and clients based on the racial/ethnic hierarchy in the United States. This relation speaks to the differences and otherness between them as underscored by the performance of servicing the body. In the act of tending to the physical body of another, manicurists experience conflicting and competing views over the meaning of nail work in terms of labor on another person’s body and in terms of the different cultural meanings on specific body parts (nail, foot). The difficulty of assigning meaning to the experience of laboring on another person’s body is particularly noticeable. The discrepancy between the manicuring body (manicurist) and the manicured body (client) is heightened in the process of gendered practices for the production of beauty. Some manicurists, for example, attempt to legitimize, compromise, or negotiate their work by using Christian concepts of service (cleaning the feet of others like Jesus), likening their job to that of a foot doctor, or defining themselves as nail artists, and adopting the Puritan work ethic. This speaks to the intense feelings they harbor toward their body labor. While manicurists on one hand may be economically empowered as the main breadwinners in the family, they, like many service workers, often hide behind their smile while on the job, masking feelings of anger, pain, and confusion to ensure that that manicured body of the customer is rested, refreshed, and adorned.
These dichotomies stem from the two different socioeconomic positions represented by these two groups of women, which has developed through the feminization of the service sector caused by global and national economic restructuring. In this process, first-world women sit in positions of power as wage earners who possess the means to consume beauty-related services, while third world workers comprise the workforce in response to increased consumer demand. Through their work experience, represented by the aforementioned characteristics of interaction, manicurists learn about the nature of their role in the workplace and forge a new identity in line with the new social and cultural context of immigrant life.
Contests Over The Use Of Language
Contests over the use of language highlight underlying systems of power and control. Immigrant manicurists pose challenges to the status quo with the practice of talking about their customers to coworkers in their native language, or pretending not to understand English in order to avoid responding to a customer request that they believe is unreasonable. On the surface, these practices appear to be a means for the women to vent their frustrations or a strategy to avoid unreasonable demands. Deeper analysis, however, indicates that by using their own language, immigrant manicurists are engaging in a form of resistance that undermines the power dynamics of class and racial hierarchies, while at the same time allowing them to create a sense of solidarity among their cohorts.
For manicurists, tips are not only an important part of their income, but also a meaningful token that represents social relations and hierarchy. Clear differences in tipping emerge according to the race and class of the clientele and the location of the business. Such variations in tipping patterns by clientele are also important factors that influence identity and the nature of interactions between the manicurist and her customer.
The wage systems of different nail salons reflect an understanding of this variation in tipping patterns according to the race, class, and cultural background of customers. Manicurists working in some neighborhoods may be paid weekly, but almost half of their weekly income comes from tips and this justifies their lower wages to nail salon owners. In contrast, manicurists in other locales are paid weekly wages plus a commission because tips are rare and few, if any, and such a wage structure guarantees manicurists a somewhat stable and sufficient income. The commission, which is based on the number of customers served, also acts as a deterrent for manicurists who might otherwise turn away undesirable clients. This wage system entangled with tips and commissions reveals that the nail salon industry is not a free wage economy determined simply by supply and demand, but is instead shaped not only by class but by such other factors as race, ethnicity, and locality.
The sharply contrasting tipping patterns result in dissimilar service patterns. Service patterns are the outcome of what the entrepreneur believes to be the tipping habits of their respective clients, which in turn, are also influenced by the customers’ sense of racial distance and bias against immigrants. In other words, tipping patterns, the quality of service being provided, and hierarchies of class and race are all intricately intertwined. It is hard to discern the primary factor at work in determining the sharp differences that exist according to race and class in the provision of services, namely, whether different tipping habits are a result of cultural patterns or whether perceived quality reinforces a sense of social distance between manicurists and customers.
Ranks Based On Skill Level
Manicurists are divided into three categories according to their skill level: most skilled, medium skilled, and novice. This classification figures importantly not only in hiring, but also in defining work positions and relationships among manicurists in a nail shop. It typically takes almost five years to rise from a novice to the best. Given the cultural meaning of nail work, the practice of ascribing skill levels to different classes of manicurists seems rather incongruous. The professional connotation attached to the concept of skill becomes inappropriate: skill is not counted as enhancing self-evaluations, and all manicurists are collectively dismissed as service workers, irrespective of skill level. Being skillful at nail work, therefore, is in itself unlikely to be a factor that dramatically alters the manicurists’ sense of job satisfaction.
Like other aspects of the beauty industry, however, nail salons reflect a segmented industry. Often family owned, nail salons afford many immigrant women an entrepreneurial niche. Even the manicurist who never owns a business often develops a steady clientele with favorites who tip well and engage in meaningful conversations. In urban spaces noted for poor relationships that redraw race hierarchies and tensions, nail salons at times offer some interracial relationships that seem more tolerant and owe much to the touch of someone often deemed other. In more swank spas, admittedly less likely to employ Asian immigrants, manicurists who offer services work in luxurious locations at a slower pace; here, their skills and position are far from the bottom of the beauty chain.