the manicure conundrum: What’s right? Op-Ed

| 19 May 2015 | 12:42

Growing up, I painted my fingernails in my best friend’s room while we gossiped and watched MTV. Once we had licenses, we drove to the nail salon a few towns over and splurged on $50 acrylic French tips, a treat reserved for prom and graduation. But mostly, my nails remained bare.

I still rarely get manicures. I’m content to save the money and polish my fingernails at home while casually watching a baseball game or marathoning the latest season of “The Voice.” But I do get manicures, perhaps three or four a year, and the slightly more expensive pedicures when I’m attending a wedding or rewarding myself at the end of a particularly busy week.

If I let too much time pass between manicures, I find I’m self-conscious, especially around women with well-maintained fingernails and cuticles. A fresh manicure is part of feeling put together, but when did it become a frequent necessity, as common as a haircut?

When visiting a nail salon for the first time, I often look for visibly sanitary conditions—do the manicurists remove cuticle nippers and nail clippers from a sealed pouch, in front of me? Do the floors appear freshly swept, the pedicure tubs newly scrubbed? And does the salon carry a wide selection of brightly colored polish?

The time spent with a manicurist often passes in silence, which, paired with what I’ve imagined is repetitive, laborious work, and the shoulder massage I receive for free while I sit with my freshly painted fingernails under a fan, always made me a bit uneasy. But I guess never too uneasy.

That’s not true anymore, for me and I imagine many women and men in New York, after reading Sarah Maslin Nir’s investigative piece for The New York Times that revealed the exploitation of mostly female nail salon employees and the devastating health effects of breathing omnipresent toxic fumes in the salons. I don’t imagine I’ll visit a nail salon in the city anytime soon. If I do, I’d rather spend double for the knowledge that the employees are fairly paid and ethically treated. But how will I know? If I pay more for a manicure, does that mean the employees are fairly compensated? If I tip more, how do I know that money is going to the manicurist and not to the salon’s owners?

Awareness doesn’t always make us ethical, responsible consumers. I’ll buy a piece of clothing that I know was likely made in a factory with unsafe working conditions, by an employee who isdrastically overworked and underpaid, because the clothing fits and it’s reasonably priced. That employee is not handing me my new shirt.

Living in New York, we can develop a relative immunity to our surroundings—the loud sirens at night, the gentle rumble of the train below our apartments—and those with whom we share this city can become remarkably anonymous. For me, it’s easy enough to withdraw my patronage at inexpensive nail salons and assuage the guilt that comes from being complicit. But somehow that doesn’t seem like quite enough, when it’s also easy to sit at home, tune in to a baseball game and distractedly paint my nails.

Gabrielle Alfiero is arts editor of this newspaper.