The pungent smell of nail polish remover, hairspray, and acrylic assaults my nose as soon as I walk through the door. A young girl sits at the barber’s chair having the life straightened out of her hair in pursuit of perfect smoothness. An elderly woman faces the nail technician with her arms extended, moving her cellphone back and forth between available hands. A middle-aged woman smoothes her newly-coiffed hair before putting on her coat and calling out, “See you next week!”
I’ve been going to the nail salon with my mom since I was five years old. I remember choosing the brightest of the pink and blue polishes, and even once a neon yellow polish (as my uncle will never let me forget) to adorn my nails, detailed flowers painted on by nail technicians who love to make young girls smile.
Going to the nail salon has become a ritual. Every time I come home, one of the first questions my mom asks me is when we should make an appointment. Not whether I need one, but when. It’s a comforting routine; feeling the metal tools groom my nails and watching nimble fingers work lulls my mind into blankness. A moment of relaxation and tranquility.
But while the nail salon is a place of bonding and community for many, for me it is also a place permeated by shame.
I was always a pretty hairy child. I started shaving my legs in the fifth grade because I had stopped wearing shorts out of embarrassment. I remember my mom guiding my hand over the intimidating razor, so sharp and dangerous, so much power in my tiny fingers. I remember looking at my smooth legs and nearly crying with relief, feeling how smooth they were, how I could now expose them without fear.
Soon after followed my first eyebrow and lip wax. I hid behind my mom as we entered the same nail salon I had been to probably a hundred times. Now, everything was different. I was about to enter the mysterious room at the end of the hallway, the one I had only ever seen adults being led into. When my mother pushed me forward like a sacrifice, I wanted to run. But I didn’t. I laid myself on a table that felt eerily like the one at the pediatrician’s office. Flat on my back as hot wax was poured over all the imperfections, the fuzzy hairs on my upper lip and between my eyebrows. All that was undefined and untamed and uncontrolled would soon be stamped into submission.
I remember swollen eyelids, redness painted on previously untouched skin. Two thin, straight lines across my forehead. I burst into tears as soon as we got to the car. My mom insisted it wasn’t so bad, that she could help me fix it, but tweezers were even more terrifying than hot wax in my middle school mind, so I refused and swore never to go back.
I soon ate my words. Throughout high school, I got my eyebrows waxed once every few weeks, liking the renewal of the defined arch. I became familiar with the nail technicians, learning each of their names and building relationships with them as time passed. I loved the routine, but the necessity of constant, meticulous upkeep became overwhelming as school and other priorities took precedence.
Chipped nail polish is a grievous, unforgivable offense in my mother’s eyes. So I refused to paint my nails for months, letting the polish crack and crumble, unfinished and unrefined and ugly, until there was nothing left. And I didn’t paint them again.
But special occasions necessitate manicures and pedicures, of course. Can’t possibly go to the party with bare, unvarnished toenails. Can’t show your face at a job interview with chipped fingernail polish. Don’t you have time to keep your nails looking nice? Chipped nail polish is a sign that you have let yourself go, that you are an untamed woman, unsophisticated. Why do we shame people who can’t manage the weekly upkeep, who have other priorities occupying their time? Why do we feel the need to use nail polish as a status symbol?
Nail salons can be warm refuges, places of communal beautification for women (and men) of all ages. However, it’s important to consider the intersections of capitalism and sexism that influence our actions and determine our routines. In an economic system where it is profitable for businesses to exploit consumers’ weaknesses to make them consume more, it is easy and even logical to draw upon sexist standards of female beauty to influence behavior. And the cycle reinforces itself, with messages shoved down our throat that make it an instinct to recoil from all that is ungroomed. Sexism is profitable; women are profitable if their fears and insecurities can be exploited in just the right way.
I don’t blame individual nail salons for profiting off of sexist beauty standards. I think nail salons offer community for people, all experiencing societal pressures to maintain a polished image. But I can’t ignore the overarching sexism at play. It’s a complicated thing, to be so dependent on and feel so affectionately toward an individual place but to still condemn the system to which it contributes.
Since going to college, I have started to think about the cost of a manicure in terms of hours of work or time spent walking to and from the nail salon. Painting my own nails is a skill I never fully developed, necessitating coats of nail polish remover to clean up that which bleeds onto and stains my fingers, that which overflows, that which is mess. I’ve stopped painting my nails entirely while away from home. I can barely keep up with trimming them regularly as the whirlwind of school consumes all spare time.
But every time I come home, my bare nails and unwaxed eyebrows are red flags. And so my mom and I go to the salon. As I roll up my pants for the pedicure, I feel a familiar jolt of shame at my weeks-unshaven legs. Sometimes I just forget to shave while at school, a freedom I never felt in middle or high school, when the pressure for smoothness suffocated. But now, I find that I don’t care about making my legs soft to the touch. I realize that I only ever cared as much as other people seemed to. I was only ever ashamed when they were exposed to the gaze of others. And I feel it now, sacrificed and scraggly on the altar of the pedicure for all the nail technicians to see.
But no one laughs or scoffs or gives my legs even a strange look. I realize that these nail technicians come across all different shapes and sizes of feet every day. Even my dad, with his nearly sixty-year old toes worn down with calluses from rugby and working on his feet every day, gets pedicures from these women. These women have seen things. And their faces are blank. They don’t care. And that is a revelation. Although the world outside the nail salon tells women to tame themselves, to make themselves smooth, in here, none of that matters.
I’ll still go to the nail salon every once in a while. Ironically, it’s one place where I don’t feel judged at all. It’s a place where different women can relax and talk and take a moment to escape. It’s a place of warmth and community and carries memories of my childhood. But I refuse to allow the pressure to be polished to exercise undue control over my life.
Image Credit: Sienna Brancato