Beauty IRL: It’s Okay To Feel Bad About Your Manicures

Late last week, The New York Times dropped a devastatingly thorough two-part investigation into the nail salon industry in New York City, and revealed a lot of things that made women very, very upset. Yes, Virginia, that $10 manicure you got at the place down the street was probably at the cost of one woman’s health and livelihood. The paltry $3 you slide across the table as tip is most likely going into the pocket of the salon owner. The gel polish that shines from your fingertips is possibly giving someone cancer or causing them to miscarry. Your moment of “treating yo’self” comes at a price, namely the well-being of the actual human beings who scrape an entire winter’s worth of dead skin off your feet for pennies.

When I read the reports, I was upset, I was angry, but I certainly wasn’t surprised. The tenor of the chatter surrounding these revelations was shock, women aghast at the fact that their $15 mani-pedi deal from the place around the corner wasn’t ethical in any way. If you were laboring under the impression that a mani-pedi that cheap, in a city as expensive as NYC especially, was in any way ethical, you’ve been deluding yourself.  That said, while I’m not condoning these business practices, the fact of the matter is that it’s not that easy to be a conscious, ethical consumer, given how much is unethically produced, at least in some way, and how limited the options are. Understanding that there are problems that need to be addressed is a good first step, but the sad fact is that there’s little we, the consumers, can do to change an industry largely made up of independent businesses operating under the table, using many undocumented workers.

By continuing to contribute to the nail industry, you’re technically complacent. But denying those businesses your patronage doesn’t really solve the issue either. If an investigative report blew the cover off of the abysmal and illegal working conditions in the factory that makes your body wash, you can certainly boycott. Put down the Nivea, make your own soap. Figure something out. They’re just one moving piece of an entire corporation. That’s okay. A boycott is more of a symbolic act than anything else – though doing so loudly would hopefully catch media attention – but if it makes you feel like a better consumer to wield your spending power as your form of protest, go ahead. Just don’t do it with the nail salons. These women still need to make money, no matter how much or little that it is. Until the emergency task force that Governor Cuomo put into place goes into effect, and actually starts shutting down salons and producing results, you honestly have no way of knowing how their workers are being treated.

You now understand that the woman sitting in front of you smiling and picking at your cuticles while sneaking glances at her phone is maybe not making a living wage. You could ask her, if you felt so inclined, but I can’t guarantee that will get you anywhere, especially if she’s concerned about keeping her job.  You can ask to see the manager or salon owner if you want, but who’s going to cop to running an abusive and unethical business? You might think that you’re pursuing justice by swooping in and waving the article in your manicurist’s face, but really, leave her alone. These women are trying to do a job, one that, at the end of the day, they still need. Your intentions are well and good, but seriously, don’t Khaleesi your local nail salon, because guess what, sister, that’s not going to work.

The salon I go to is run by a family. Their daughters work there as do a rotating cast of cousins and various others. They eat sautéed greens and rice out of thermoses in the back and chatter to each other in Mandarin about why Ivy’s running behind schedule and whether or not the music is too loud. It is obscenely cheap. I have convinced myself for a while now that whatever is happening behind the scenes seems okay. I have no way of knowing. To assume that the owner is underpaying her own family and her employees is not something I’d ever do, but neither is asking them. Maybe my continued participation in this ritual means that I’m just as bad as the owners out there who are siphoning wages and tips? I don’t think so. I hope not.

One thing I have concluded is that if you want to be a conscious, ethical consumer, use your eyes. Look around the place you’re going to get your nails done. Tip above and beyond the pittance you’d normally give — in fact, 100 percent would be ideal, given discreetly in cash. Smile at the staff when you enter and treat them well. If you get a bad feeling about a place when you walk in, turn around and leave. You have no way of knowing whether or not a salon is ethical, but if this is a matter that is deeply, deeply important to you, and you don’t want to take any chances, arm yourself with some OPI and a lot of cotton balls, and learn to do your nails yourself.

As I write this right now, I am tapping away at the keyboard with a manicure I did myself, having cut my nails short in anticipation of getting a fresh set at the salon next week. I feel badly about this plan, because I am not a person short on feelings or compassion. I understand that what goes on behind closed doors could be bad — or maybe this salon is an exception. I will probably still get my nails done, but from now on, I will tip very, very well.

[Image via New York Times]