Last Saturday, I found myself in a huge shopping plaza to fetch a race packet for a local half marathon. In my 13 years of racing, I've never had to pick up a race packet from a fancy, outdoor shopping mall where women push small dogs in large strollers and purchase $28.00 bar soap in the shape of wine glasses and high-heeled shoes; where men causally dress in Gucci for a weekend of window shopping and coffee tinder dates; where it's possible to spend an entire paycheck on buttery stationary and moisture-wicking socks. California, in all it's sprawling, gorgeous natural beauty, is full of surprises and contradictions.
There was a nail salon adjacent to the tent where I picked up my race packet, and my nails had been naked for months. I walked in and said, "I'd like a manicure, please" to the Vietnamese woman who greeted me. She smiled broadly and said, "Gel?" and I smiled back, nodding. We settled on opposite sides of a table and she handed me a pile of color samples to choose from. I flipped through them, undecided between two. "Which one do you like better?" I asked her. She paused, holding my hand against both samples considering which polish would look best against my skin. "I like this one," she declared, pointing to a charcoal grey hue. "I like it too," I said, "I'll do that one."
She looked at me happily and began the long, tireless, thankless work of shaping my fingernails perfectly, filing them, trimming my cuticles, and massaging my hands with lotion that smelled of rosewater and felt cool and fresh against my skin. I wondered how long her own nails had been bare. She mostly worked in silence, occasionally turning to one of her colleagues to say something in Vietnamese, bubbling with laughter. She periodically gave me instructions, and complimented one of my rings. We chatted about her two daughters, one in college and one in high school. They like when she does their nails. Sometimes, they help out at the salon to earn some extra money.
As she quietly transformed my nails, I looked around me. Women of all ages sat around chatting, as other women rubbed their feet, poured lotion on their calves, dipped nails in acetone, and labored tirelessly to make feet and hands smooth and beautiful. One man, the owner of the salon, stood in the middle of the shop, chatting with the women who were bent over hands and feet, occasionally giving orders and keeping careful tabs of everything going on. Nail salons are overwhelming owned by Vietnamese families, giving immigrants ties to community networks and stable jobs. Nearly 60% of nail technicians nationwide are Vietnamese, and that statistic is even higher in California.
I have often heard women (white women, specifically) complain about how nail technicians don't speak English. "It's uncomfortable," they say, or, "I feel like they're talking about me." Not only is this attitude ridiculous and shallow, but it is racist. It is racism that is rooted in fear and uncomfortability, just as sexism (or any "ism" for that matter) is inherently fear-based. Not understanding the words of another human could be considered uncomfortable, but it is certainly not intimidating or dangerous. The desire for everyone in America to speak English is grounded in nothing more than the fear of change, the fear of someone taking space that does not "belong" to them, the fear of not understanding and therefore being hurt or wronged by another human being.
What's more, the work of a nail technician is hard. They work long hours. They are surrounded by chemicals. They work weekends and handle even the most undesirable feet with care. Those who are annoyed by the presence of a non-English speaking nail technician would be challenged to trade the privilege that comes with receiving a manicure for the grueling work of giving one.
As I watched this lovely woman carefully paint my nails, my heart swelled with gratitude. Her English was choppy, but she tried to communicate, and I tried too. She was from Vietnam and had been working in the same salon for almost four years. Think how terrifying it would be to find yourself suddenly living in a country where you couldn't communicate with anyone, and where any attempts to communicate were met with disdain. Think how isolated and lonely you would feel, and how huge a relief it would be to find someone, anyone, who could understand your language. As she finished painting my nails, she said, "Do you like them?" and I said, "I love them.".
If we investigate the root of racism, sexism, xenophobia, et cetera, there is always fear, but the point of this post is not to underscore something so obvious. I want to note the power in a nail salon, the irrefutable strength and tenacity of the workers who bend over hands and feet for hours each day. The undeniable confidence and self-care that comes from getting a manicure or a pedicure. The friendly atmosphere of a salon, where women (and men!) of all shapes and sizes came to find solace, beauty, or share community. I could argue that having my nails done is deeply rooted in patriarchal assumptions about the female body. We are expected to look a certain way and spend money on our appearance. This is true, but there is power in self-care, also. There is confidence in presenting yourself to the world in a way that makes you feel good. And the tradition of painting nails does not actually begin with patriarchy or sexism.
The origin of nail polish began in Babylon, where warriors (men) would have their hair curled and their nails painted red before battle. I find this oddly serendipitous. The women painting nails are waging their own battles; for fair pay, safe working environments, community, their livelihoods. We are all waging a battle against the institutionalized sexism we face every day, on both macro and micro levels. If getting a manicure is a form of self-care that helps to arm us against the uneven landscape we must traverse every day, so be it.
P.S. Read some interesting stats about the beauty industry HERE.