You Shouldn't Feel Bad About Getting Your Nails Done (But That Doesn't Mean You Shouldn't Support Change)

If you haven't read the New York Times series Unvarnished, I highly recommend you do. And if you, like me, immediately feel uncomfortable after reading it, then the following is also something for you. 

If you don't have time for a several series investigate journalism piece, I'll sum it up for you: in New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the world, manicures and pedicures are cheap. Like, dirt cheap. A mani-pedi that might cost me perhaps $50-60 here in Oregon would cost may $20-30. Yeah, that's a big difference, especially considering that the cost of living in Oregon is staggeringly cheaper than New York City. 

Want to know the big reason nail services are so cheap in New York City? Surprise! It's because it's essentially slave labor! 

And it's probably not just in New York City, too. Several large chains are being investigated, which means that mall-based salons throughout the country are going to be under a microscope for their labor procedures. 

The main problem is that many of the manicurists working in New York City are here illegally; they don't speak much English; and they are desperate. The primarily groups are Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese workers, as well as some Spanish workers and other Asian minorities. 

There are lots of horrible stories in the first part of Unvarnished. You read about a woman charged $270 (more than her average paycheck) for accidentally dripping nail polish remover on a New York woman's sandal, and then being fired; she concludes with, "I am worth less than a shoe." You read about a woman paying $200 to start working in a nail salon--common practice, a fee for "training"--and then working for three months without being paid. When she is finally told she will be paid, she finds out her daily wage is less than $3. There are more stories: tips are skimmed or stolen by the owners, women go months without being paid or are charged for supplies and services they use in their work. Some women hand their entire paychecks over for childcare. Women suffer miscarriages from the fumes or get sick. 

It's devastating. The entire series so far is devastating. 

And if you enjoy manicures and pedicures, it can start to eat at you.

I occasionally get pedicures at a salon in my hometown. It is very small and owned by a Vietnamese family; the manager is their son, who has a degree in mathematics. The workers all seem to be family. They are friendly and seem very happy. I tip well when I go there and chat with them. If they happened to accidentally spill nail polish or drip remover on my shoe, I wouldn't freak out; accidents happen. 

The responses to Unvarnished vary. Lots of women feel guilty. And lots of others get mad about why anyone thinks it is ok to get a pedicure or manicure. "Doesn't it just stink of servitude to begin with??" one comment says.  The answer is, no, not really. It's like any other salon service, like getting your hair cut or colored. Yeah, you could do it yourself; but it's nice to occasionally have someone else do it. 

As long as they're paid accordingly, of course. 

The issue at play here is this: The minute we read about something horrible happening, it's a natural human instinct to think (or potentially say), "but how does this effect  ME???" 

The answer is: it doesn't. This issue doesn't really touch you, unless you are one of the hundreds of manicurists working slave wages. You can't think of this issue in terms of you and your feelings and your guilt. You have to think of it in terms of: What can I do to ensure it improves? 

Already, New York City has taken steps to make changes to their salons. There will be sweeps of all nail salons in the city. That's a big first step. If you truly want things to change, you shouldn't focus on what you feel about it; instead, you should make steps to ensure public policy change. Ask at salons you visit, write your senators and governor, sign petitions. Do something.

You don't have to stop getting manicures or pedicures, especially if you like them. You should support measures that would protect salon workers and ensure them fair wages and safe working conditions (including further testing on the chemicals used during acrylic manicures and their long-term health effects). You shouldn't be paralyzed by your own guilt, but you also shouldn't ignore the issue.