Consuming Beauty

A break from our usual mindless blathering about the pretty in makeup and beauty products today.

I read a New York Times article about the inner workings of the New York City nail salon industry.  If you haven't already seen it, I highly recommend it.  It's a sobering read.  (NYT article)  (Part 2 of series) (the NYS Governor's response)

It's been years since I've been into a nail salon to get my nails done, but those salons are absolutely ubiquitous here in New York City and popping in for services is accessible and easy.  I work in Manhattan, and even in a very upscale part of the city, it is surprising how inexpensive the services are.  I often walk by signs for "mani + pedi" deals for $25.  That's a lot of work for so little money.

When I was in my twenties and finally first went for a manicure at a local place, I was intimidated by the rituals of receiving the service.  It has a secret code of privilege that I wasn't in the know about.  Everyone seems to speak a shorthand that I wasn't 100% sure what they were saying.  The whole, pick a color, submit to filing, trimming, lotion rubbing and brief hand-massaging, followed by the paying (mentally calculating the tip) and all the while being cognizant of the correct way to hold your hand and holding out a finger to be polished into something pretty.  But it ended up easy enough to learn the ritual and nice enough to enjoy a polished set of nails that is way beyond the skill set of what I can manage on my own.

Aside from learning the hows of receiving a manicure or pedicure, I experienced a great deal of personal discomfort being on the receiving end of these ministrations.  I am Korean American, and first generation (or 1.5 gen) immigrant.  The cultural norm of respect for elders is very deeply ingrained in me.  Having an older Korean woman seated lower than me giving me a pedicure felt deeply strange and counter to the way I would normally interact with an older woman.

Another observation was just how intrusive the interaction with the manicurist was in another way.  I think more than what I saw in her interactions with non-Korean clients, I was often asked some very personal questions.  Some were innocuous kinds, like what kind of work I did, but many of the questions were my age, if I lived in the (affluent Manhattan) neighborhood, if my boyfriend was caucasian (?!), and what my income was.  I learned much later in my life (even as an ethnic Korean, I lacked deep understanding of the culture), that in meeting new people, Koreans will often ask personal questions to establish relative rank vs. the other person.  When I lived in Korea, a common question was which school one graduated from among other similar questions.

At some point, I stopped going in to get my nails done.  Part of the reason was expense.  Why pay $20 for a service when I can buy my own bottle of fancy pants polish for the same price?  Part of it was my discomfort in these interactions, especially with other Koreans.  Stop asking me these weird questions!  Of course, that one time when the salon owner pulled me aside conspiratorially and offered the "extra special bikini wax" and the benefits of it, I thought she was coming on to me, but figured out a bit later it was a Brazilian wax she offered as it was coming into vogue.  No one said Belly is a smooth operator in interpersonal interaction or very bright!

I did notice some years down the road, that more salons had manicurists from other countries than Korea.  Many spoke very little English with only just enough to render service to the customer.  And it did rattle in my brain just how inexpensive the prices are.

In reading the article, everything clicked into place more clearly in my mind.  I am proud of the Korean immigrant work ethic and focus on education.  It propelled many children of these hard working immigrants into success in life.  My parents left careers in Korea, both educated at SNU, and started small businesses.  In many ways, I am also proud of the many Korean business owners operating these nail salons successfully. 

While I'm sure not every single salon owner displays all the illegal (and immoral) behavior cited in the article, that a whole industry exists in my city that takes advantage of a very vulnerable immigrant class is completely abhorrent to me.  Examples in the article about how non-Korean workers are treated as second class and the abuses in pay to all workers really upset me.  I think the world we live in often has people with vulnerabilities being victimized.  The nail salon small business industry is just an example of many in this city, in this world.  I think it just cuts close to the bone here because of my own pride in my ethnic heritage complicates my own feelings.  Hmm, and as a person of many privileges, I feel all sorts of guilt and sadness.  I am not always logical, you know.

I am not trying to be holier than thou.  (Perhaps we have a salon worker or owner as a reader here?)  But it does make me reevaluate the nature of mindless beauty consumption.  While getting my nails done in a pretty Essie color (Mademoiselle was a long favorite, you know) was a happy mindless treat for a long time, maybe I can't be the same any longer.  There are lots of other similar issues, aren't there and not necessarily makeup or beauty related?

I think, I hope, very small awareness, and very small changes can have a significant impact on me.  As I think about consuming beauty to an excess, which as we know I do in aces, maybe learning more and being more thoughtful can make changes for me.  Pan knows I am an excessive makeup consumer at heart, but maybe I can think about things differently than I have been with greater awareness for the larger world.

The end of this round of Belly Linting.

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