Manicurists And Nail Technicians

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.

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