In a recent post I suggested that our society needs nurses more than we need manicurists. That’s true, of course, but I didn’t mean to belittle nail workers. Sure, good nursing can save your life, but a manicure-pedicure, especially in this toe-baring season, can make it worth living.
Unfortunately, for the women who provide this excellent experience, the work is not always pleasant. According to a report recently released by the National Asian Pacific Women’s Forum, the nail salon industry wreaks havoc on workers’ reproductive health. Most of the workers — over 95% of whom are female, and 42% Asian — make less than $17,000 a year, and lack health insurance coverage. They tend to work very long hours, exposed to poisonous chemicals. (The FDA doesn’t regulate the chemicals used in cosmetics.) Studies have found that prolonged exposure to some of these toxins can be linked to miscarriages, infertility and even birth defects. This will ring true to anyone who’s ever walked into a poorly ventilated salon while pregnant; as consumers, we take that wave of nausea and dizziness as a sign to get the hell out, and quickly, but the workers don’t always have that choice.
If you think you’ve been seeing more nail shops than ever before, often with names that sound odd to the native speaker (e.g., “Cozy Nails”), you’re not mistaken. According to the NAPWF report, the nail care industry has tripled in size over the last two decades, partly because the field is welcoming to immigrants with limited English language skills (unlike, say, hair, about which customers want to discourse with endless nuance and detailed specifications). Interestingly, however, this very point can creates status indignity for some workers. Ji-Sun Oh, a nail worker and LaGuardia College student, has written a fascinating ethnography of Korean-owned salons in New York City, in which she observes that the language barrier between customer and worker highlights the sense that the manicurist is a “servant”, even though she is a skilled professional. She quotes a worker who had the same job in Korea, before she came to New York: “When I was in Korea, I suggested, explained and recommended many things to customers. I was a professional. But here in America, since my English is bad, I just doing nails without any act of profession while my customers talk to her friends over her cell phone.”
Ji-Sun, in her paper, notes that in Korea — the country of origin of many New York City nail workers — a manicurist is called a “‘nail artist,’ which sounds more respectful.” In Korea, tipping feels insulting — it is generally reserved for beggars and prostitutes — thus many nail workers feel degraded by the practice when they first come to the U.S. As I read Ji-Sun’s paper, I thought that another reason for the status difference here in the U.S. may be the low price of the service; a discount nail industry flourishes here, unlike in Korea. In the U.S., getting your nails done is a cheap way to look and feel a whole lot better; you’ll notice plenty of nail salons — and fabulously polished nails — in poor or working-class neighborhoods. As with discount shopping, however, the low prices often come at the cost of workers’ health and safety. It may also be that because customers pay so little to get their nails done, they don’t respect the women who do the job.
From Houston to Boston, nail salon workers are organizing to clean up the toxins in their workplaces. But like the nursing shortage, cosmetic safety affects consumers as well as workers. One promising project, POLISH (nice acronym, but I defy you to remember what it stands for: Participatory Leadership, Organizing and Leadership Initiative for Safety and Health), works to educate both groups about the dangers, and to organize for change. Let’s hope they will eventually push companies to make these products safer, and pressure the salon owners to improve workers’ conditions. As for the more subtle respect issues Ji-Sun Oh raises in her research, let’s hope she and others continue to document the experiences of this long-overlooked group of workers.