Bebeto Matthews / AP

Mandatory manicures come at a grave price

Successful working women have come to rely on an exploited female underclass to support their values

May 13, 2015 2:00AM ET

At some point in the last 20 years, getting your nails done became equated with being a put-together woman. A ritual that transcends demographic differences, having a manicure is a simple sign of affluence and self-care. It also offers a gateway into a variety of other maintenance procedures, from waxing to bleaching to eyelash extensions. But nails are usually the first and cheapest way to signify to the world, “I don’t use my hands.”

Last week’s gut-wrenching exposé in The New York Times by Sarah Maslin Nir revealed that cheap manicures come at a grave price. Many nail salon workers — almost exclusively immigrant and undocumented women of color — work more than 12 hours per day. They are rarely, if ever, paid minimum wage and are exposed to toxic chemicals that can cause serious health problems ranging from lung issues and cancer to miscarriages and children born with defects.

Such ill treatment highlights a problem endemic not just to the beauty industry but also to the gains of mainstream feminism. Women’s access to the work world has come at the expense of poor women’s labor to support these values. Middle- and upper-class women who work don’t have time to tidy (housekeeping), rear their children (child care) or cook (food industry), and they have to look professional (beauty care and garment industry). These services are provided by an underclass of largely people of color often living in precarious financial situations with little opportunity for upward mobility. Making matters worse, demand has allowed these economies to grow without sufficient regulation, taking advantage of vulnerable populations that need jobs and don’t have the social, cultural and often immigration status to demand better conditions or wages.

Activists and theorists have long decried the divide between different versions of feminism. First-world feminism is often billed as the leader — Western, modern women who set the global standard for what freedom and liberation mean (i.e., the ability to work outside the home). Women associated with poor and disenfranchised communities, on the other hand, are behind on this path to modernity. What is too often ignored in this dichotomy is how the wins of mainstream feminism have perpetuated the divide between women of different classes. Similar criticisms arose when it was revealed that birth control — a valuable need championed by second wave feminists of the 1960s and ’70s, who focused on women’s role in the family and pushed against puritanical beliefs about sexuality — was actually tested on women in Puerto Rico, sometimes at great peril to their health.

Buoying the industry is the daunting pressure that women feel to have the perfect life. The need to look beautiful and work-appropriate and the increased affordability of once luxury services such as manicures together create the perfect opportunity for a dark market to flourish. It’s unsurprising that an activity conducted almost exclusively among and by women — the women who need to get their nails done and the women who paint them — would fly under the radar.

Instead of condemning women for getting manicures, we should recognize our solidarity with the women who provide these services.

Complicating matters, many women of color participate in these services. I am typing this with a fancy designed manicure. I can’t say I did it because of the pressure to feel beautiful, but I do like to feel beautiful, and it’s hard to decipher how much of it is social pressure as opposed to internal desire. I also live so far outside what is considered mainstream beauty that certain beauty procedures such as waxing feel mandatory. Of course, I know they are not, but they feel that way, especially when not following them can lead to my being treated differently in the office. The thought of my South Asian sisters and me going to work without getting our facial hair waxed makes me laugh.

In this way, the conflation of pleasure and necessity is at the heart of the beauty industry. Nail treatments are a luxury, but many women see them now as a necessity. For many women, any moment to relax and be pampered is welcome respite from daily stress. The greater the pressure for us to produce and work constantly, the more such pleasure industries flourish.

It’s tempting to condemn women for getting manicures. On first glance, this makes sense. Why feed a system that exploits the labor of vulnerable women? What this view often forgets, though, is that the pressure women — particularly those of color or from poorer backgrounds — feel to look a certain way is equally exploitable. Our increasingly implausible standards of beauty and femininity work in favor of some women over others, but the standards nonetheless apply to everyone.

Shaming women isn’t the solution. If we spiral into a self-reflective blame game about why this industry is flourishing, we risk turning our attention away from the very populations it is hurting. Instead of condemning women for getting manicures, perhaps we should recognize our solidarity with the women who provide these services. We can engage women across the manicure table and challenge ourselves to join conversations about fairness and equality. It starts by recognizing how our lives are intertwined and how our ability to make economic and social progress comes at the cost of women not born to the same privileges.

After the series was published, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he has created an emergency coalition to protect nail salon workers, a laudably quick response. But activists have worked on reforming and regulating this underground economy for more than a decade. Adhikaar, a Nepali community-based organization, has distributed materials about the health hazards of the toxic chemicals used in nail salons, while the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum has published multiple briefs and an important paper on the health hazards and labor violated in the nail salon ecosystem. Last fall, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James published (PDF) a paper on the safety of nail salons.

In my visits to these workplaces, I have met many women who enjoy safe and fair careers in the beauty industry. Some of them are artists who express themselves through manicures, while others want to pursue careers in fashion. We have an opportunity now to push for those dreams, by regulating the industry and allowing these women to choose how they too can play an essential role in this flourishing global market.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay is a New York City–based digital strategist and writer and the author of “Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life.” 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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