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American Journal Of Sociology / AJS
“Overall Kang has written an exceptionally well-argued, insightful book.”
Two women, virtual strangers, sit hand-in-hand across a narrow table, both intent on the same thing-achieving the perfect manicure. Encounters like this occur thousands of times each day across the United States in nail salons overwhelmingly owned and operated by Asian immigrants. This study looks closely at these intimate encounters, focusing on New York City, where such nail salons have become ubiquitous. Countering notions of beauty service establishments as spaces for building community among women, The Managed Hand finds that while tentative and fragile solidarities can emerge across the manicure table, they generally give way to even more powerful divisions of race, class, and immigrant status.
"There's No Business Like the Nail Business"
In this most manicured of metropolises—there is a nail technician for every 1,000 New Yorkers—inexpensive nail service, for some women, borders on becoming an inalienable right.
Christine Haughney, 2003
The old American dream with a special Korean polish ... an American classic with a rich New York overlay. For it's about immigrants, with few English language skills, no great capital, but lots of hard work and widespread success. It's also the old-fashioned dream, for there are no SBA loans, no setasides, no subsidies.
Alair A. Townsend, 1989
A manicure is no longer a purely private ritual that a woman gives herself, her daughter, or a girlfriend in the quiet of her own bathroom. Instead, it is something she increasingly purchases in a nail salon and from an Asian manicurist. In the buying and selling of manicuring services, women both implicate their own bodies in intimate commercialized exchanges and expand the boundaries of the service economy to encompass regimens of hygiene and physical adornment that were once private. In so doing, they also encounter at close range women whom they would normally regard only from a safe social distance.
Why have nail salons cropped up on city blocks and in suburban strip malls across the United States? Why do so many women get manicures? Why have these services proliferated in specific cities, such as New York? Why do so many Asian women, and Korean women in particular, own and work in these salons? These questions recognize the simultaneous ways that supply, demand, and location shape the growth of the global service economy and the development of a specific ethnic-dominated niche like nail salons within it. While these are distinct questions, they are also closely interrelated. The question of why so many Asian women work in nail salons can be answered only in relation to the question of why so many women in the United States desire and purchase these services. Furthermore, in order to understand the proliferation of nail salons in a specific site such as New York City, it is important to examine not only the individual consumers who purchase these services and the providers who offer them but also the economic, political, and cultural contexts in which these exchanges occur.
In this chapter I respond to these questions—why nails, why New York, and why Asian women?—by examining the appeal of nail services to diverse customers, the growth of the nail salon industry in New York City, and the clustering of Asian women, particularly Koreans, in this employment sector. The politics of race, class, and immigration in the United States and the shifting dynamics of the global service economy provide the context that shapes the relations that women forge around the manicuring table. The growth in manicuring services reflects a general expansion of capitalist markets, the specifically gendered processes relating to the commercialization of women's bodies, and the positions of women in the labor market. The influx of women into the paid labor force has increased the demand for such services, because more women can now afford them. However, another important factor is heightened desires for beauty as a commodity. The purchase of body-related services is fueled by ramped-up social standards for women's appearance, as well as by women's own longing for the accoutrements of beauty, including the pampering services associated with it.
At the same time women's desires for beauty services would simply be longings rather than daily enactments if it were not for the presence of a ready fleet of immigrant women workers to provide these services. The lifestyle that many urbanites take for granted in cities such as New York is possible only because of the influx of new immigrants and their willingness to work long arduous hours for minimal pay in jobs that many native-born Americans view as beneath them. While immigrant women from specific ethnic groups are not the sole creators of these jobs or the terms under which they perform them, they contribute to creation of these specialized niches by capitalizing on the limited choices available to them.
The formation of New York City's nail salon industry and its domination by Asian women simultaneously draws on and contests two competing racial discourses. On the one hand, representations of Asian success in this industry exemplify praise for the innovation and diligence of Asian Americans and their independence from government "special treatment," as referenced in the Townsend epigraph. On the other hand, their success fuels the anti-Asian and anti-immigrant sentiments held by those who blame these groups for downgrading U.S. working conditions. Neither of these discourses, which are discussed in-depth in later chapters, adequately accounts for the composite factors that drive nail salon growth in New York and other cities. While Asian immigrant women are indeed hardworking and resourceful, these characteristics alone cannot account for their domination of the nail salon industry.
Rather, it is the context of the "global city" that shapes the consistent demand for inexpensive and convenient beauty services and the terms of who does this work. In other words, while customers' desire for manicured nails and manicurists' need to earn a living are certainly important factors in the increase in nail salons, these factors are driven by larger processes pertaining to the postindustrial transformation of cities and city life. Through a fortuitous convergence of global and local factors, rather than through their unique cultural traits, Korean women have successfully mobilized individual and community resources to sustain entrepreneurship and employment in this service niche.
WHY NAILS? MANICURES AND THE COMMERCIALIZATION OF THE BODY
Why do more and more women now pay for manicures instead of doing their nails themselves? The answer to this question, far from a simple story of women's innate longing for physical beauty, instead pulls back the curtain on the surreptitious but revolutionary reorganization of social life in the late twentieth century. Arlie Hochschild describes this sea change as "the commercialization of intimate life," in which more and more human activity that was formerly engaged in by family, friends, and community members has been subsumed into the global capitalist economy. In short, capitalism has expanded geographically to hinterlands previously untouched by commodity markets as well as into areas of human life once viewed as private and even sacred. Other scholars have similarly explored how formerly unpaid activities, such as raising children, caring for the elderly, preparing food, doing laundry, and mowing the lawn, are now routinely farmed out to paid service workers. In addition, market capitalism has spawned new occupations, ranging from on-line matchmaker to personal assistant, home organizer, party escort, and life coach. These services are designed to meet the emotional and social needs formerly met by friends, churches, bowling leagues, neighborhood associations and community groups and reflect an overall decline in civic ties. Most important for this study, a new range of service providers—personal trainers, massage therapists, plastic surgeons, and manicurists, to name a few—have staked out the body, its appearance, comfort, and health, as a profit-making venue.
Whereas Hochschild's study focuses on the commercialization of human feelings, the interactions in nail salons illuminate the complexities of buying and selling services that cater to both human emotions and bodies. These interactions are not unique to nail salons but reveal how the routine upkeep of the body and its appearance have spawned an array of purchasable services. Indeed, the growth in nail salons has been impressive—and the overall growth in beauty services has been staggering. Like the manicure, a child's first haircut is no longer a ritual performed on a stool in a family kitchen but is farmed out to hair- cutting chains around the country. Rather than giving each other backrubs at the end of a long day, two tired spouses can opt for a fifteen-minute chair massage on the way home. A child's diaper or an elderly parent's bedpan are increasingly changed by paid caregivers rather than family members. The process of assigning market value to bodies—their appearance, functions, and the forms of contact between them—generates new forms of work, which I refer to as body labor. By examining how body labor exchanges occur, and what the participants gain and lose through them, the study of manicures can illuminate similar patterns in other embodied services.
While the levels and kinds of consumption of these complex embodied and emotional services increase, the means to purchase them has been eroded for most segments of the population. However, rather than decreasing the demand for body services, these economic pressures can fuel the market for them. Just like going to the movies, indulging in body services can be the ideal escape in a recession. With unemployment and downsizing looming as constant threats, workday concerns take over more and more of individual and collective life. Rather than turning away from market solutions, people increasingly turn to the power of consumption, not only to obtain material goods but also to purchase services that provide care and connection, especially for tired and stressed bodies.
This process of seeking commercialized solutions for intimate needs, however, is far from fluid and care free. As Viviana Zelizer writes in The Purchase of Intimacy, while the arenas of intimacy and economics have long intermingled in various forms, the negotiation of the terms of this intermingling is often confusing and fraught, and increasingly so in new venues where social conventions are not fully worked out.6 Thus social actors must negotiate new forms of intimate relations within existing frameworks, even when these frameworks are not fully up to the task of making sense of how commerce and intimacy mix in both uncharted and ubiquitous ways.
Into this brave new world of commercialized intimacy enters the nail salon. In a day devoid of touch and beauty, the nail salon provides a taste of both. For $15 or less customers can brush their cares away while their manicurists dote on them, massaging the day's tensions out of their hands and putting polish on their cracked or lackluster nails. This belief in the manicure as cure-all is expressed simply in an evocative greeting card that depicts a young woman soaking her fingers. The caption: "Life is tough. I recommend getting a manicure and a really cute helmet." A manicure thus can serve as a quick fix to a host of problems, ranging from demanding children, nagging spouses, critical bosses, and needy friends to larger anxieties about seemingly unsolvable personal and social problems.
While the avenues for relief or distraction from the cares and demands of domestic, work, and social life are many and varied, the combination of emotional and physical attention offered in a haven of women who cater to the needs of other women carries a particular appeal. The changing dynamics of women's place in the home and workplace, as well as their substantial increase in earnings, are thus important pieces in understanding the growth of the nail salon industry and, more broadly, the commercialization of the body and body-related services. Since the late 1960s women have entered into the paid labor force in historically unprecedented numbers. While their paychecks are usually central to maintaining basic economic survival for themselves and their dependents, women's paid labor also gives them greater control over discretionary spending. Work provides them with income to purchase nail services but also fuels their consumption of these services, as many women feel that professionally manicured nails are an expected part of their work attire (see chapter 3). Even in workplaces where such appearance standards are not explicit, well-manicured nails can augment professional appearance and give some women a confidence boost.
Manicures can also be a way of reassuring women and those around them that they do indeed conform to norms of traditional femininity, even as they challenge and redefine these standards in various areas of their lives. On the other hand, some women use original nail designs to express an identity that is distinct from or in opposition to mainstream feminine norms. Given the wide-ranging needs that a weekly manicure can fulfill, is it any wonder that nail salons have become a major growth industry?
NAIL SALONS AS A GROWTH INDUSTRY
"There's No Business Like the Nail Business" trumpeted the headline in a Vietnamese community newspaper, Nguoi Viet, reporting that revenues from nail salons in the United States topped $6 billion in 2004 and the number of nail salons in the United States grew from 32,674 in 1993 to 53,615 in 2003, an increase of more than 60 percent in a decade. In 2006–2007 Nails magazine estimated the United States had 58,330 nail salons and 347,898 nail technicians in a $6.16 billion industry. Even the much more conservative figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected 28 percent growth between 2006 and 2016. Despite this tremendous growth, the job of manicurist and the workplace of nail salon easily slip below the radar of both official statistics and everyday perceptions.
Nail salon growth has also been fueled by two technological innovations—the electric file and acrylic nail products—often to mixed reviews. By adding speed and versatility to the manicuring process, while also fostering dependence on regular salon visits, these innovations have substantially increased the volume and kinds of services the salons offer, enabling them to reach out to a much wider consumer base. Of the nail technicians who responded to a Nails survey, 63.2 percent use an electric file, and such use is no longer disparaged as a "symbol of a lazy nail technician or an assembly-line salon. What used to be called a drill is now used by even old-time filing purists." These technological breakthroughs have revolutionized the techniques and products available for nail care and design. Unlike old-fashioned press-on nail tips, acrylic compounds form a durable, thin, and natural-looking surface that holds various colors and applications. Acrylics can be used to repair broken nails, smooth out uneven or damaged nail surfaces, discourage nail biting, and to create long and thick nail extensions. However, they require particular skills to apply and maintain, necessitating frequent return visits to the nail salon.
While greatly expanding the overall industry, advances in technology and products have not necessarily translated into greater profits for individual nail salons or technicians. Mass marketing means more customers who pay less. By speeding up and slashing the price of a manicure, the electric file allows a faster turnover in the salon chair, thereby expanding the market for potential nail care customers. At the same time the number of dissatisfied customers increases with this assembly-line style of service provision (see chapter 6).
Furthermore, the increase in customers also draws more competitors into the industry. Whereas many major cities once had one nail salon for every three or four blocks, now it is not uncommon to see several salons on a single block. Long-time nail salon owner Jean Hwang lamented, "There are too many nail salons today. When I first started there weren't as many. However, the number of people getting their nails done have increased tremendously. Everyone, from little children to grandmothers, are getting their nails done. But the prices have gone down and my income remained pretty much the same. The only way it could go is down." In aspiring to keep up with competitors, many salon owners have upgraded their services to include massages, eyebrow and leg waxing, name brand products, and high-tech equipment. With salons opening up across the street from each other, a 2001 New York Times headline proclaimed, "Success, at a Price, at Nail Salons; Anxiety Tempers Good Times for Koreans in Business."
Excerpted from The Managed Hand by Miliann Kang. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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List of Illustrations ix
Introduction: Manicuring Work 1
1 "There's No Business Like the Nail Business" 32
2 "What Other Work Is There?": Manicurists 57
3 Hooked on Nails: Customers 96
4 "I Just Put Koreans and Nails Together": Nail Spas and the Model Minority 133
5 Black People "Have Not Been the Ones Who Get Pampered": Nail Art Salons and Black-Korean Relations 165
6 "You Could Get a Fungus": Asian Discount Nail Salons as the New Yellow Peril 201
Conclusion: What Is a Manicure Worth? 239