My first “official,” under-the-table job was my Freshman year of High School as a receptionist at a nail salon. I was paid $7 an hour to sit at a front desk after school, Saturdays, and every other Sunday. On top of accidentally getting high on acetone through constant exposure, I learned a lot. I learned the differences between acrylic, gels, and pink and whites. I learned that mani-pedis are the backbone of the industry but dollar for time, really don’t make a lot. I learned some Vietnamese and I can still count to six!
What I really learned was that the nail industry is really toxic, and that it exists on a cycle of racism. This experience has become so ingrained in me, that its hard for me to untangle nail art as an art form from its social implications.
Don’t worry, we’re gonna talk about how gross nails are in a second, but it doesn’t beat how disgusting power differences are.
Let’s lay out the scenario. I was hired for a number of reasons. I would work for that pay, I was young and white looking but I also spoke Spanish. I had lied on my resume, because that seemed the only way to get a job, so, there was that. My job included making appointments, greeting customers, collecting payment and closing out every night. I also had to upsell.
“Are you sure you want acrylic? The gel lasts longer.”
“A mani/pedi is just ten more.”
“The pink and whites can be painted over and they last the longest.”
My job was essentially a liaison to customers before and after interacting in the very intimate interaction of getting your nails done. And it is intimate. It’s a service that has people touching hands and feet. Nail techs regularly rub, touch, and massage dozens of strangers a day. And that isn’t even getting to the parts where they pumice stone your thick calluses and remove your dried hangnails with tiny clippers.
They rub your soaked and softened feet, using scrubs to peel away the dead skin you’ve neglected to take care of. They rub and lotion you, intertwining their fingers in your leg hair or between your fingers. They touch our bodies, in intimate ways and places, all before stripping away your nails with power tools.
Nail techs deal with a lot of shit at their jobs. They touch people all day, clearing away our grizzled portions, ingrown hairs and bitten nails. And they do it for little pay and long hours. Most of the people I worked with made their money on commission, and worked six days a week. Because we were situated in a mall, the nail techs I worked with worked mall hours: 9 AM to 9 PM. Twelve hour days, six days a week, to make 50% on a ten dollar manicure. It was grueling and exhausting for them.
They did my nails for free. I didn’t ask, but they wanted my nails to help advertise. I had a free set of pink and whites, which I asked to be curved at the edges. To add these nails, the nail tech ripped off my cuticles, then with a small drill, shaved off and sanded the already shallow nails. He cut the nails down and with glue, added tips. He then took to shaping them, cutting them to a manageable size for me. He filed and smoothed the edges to soft curves. Then, after a few scraped and buffs, he dipped a brush in acetone and a small pot of pink powder. The powder gelled, forming the pink base on my nails. He repeated the process with white powder, creating a French Tip.
My nails dried under ultraviolet light for a moment, buffed out and coated. They smelled a little like burning rubber, chemical. They hurt a little, and were heavy. Heavy enough, in fact, that they made my hands cramp the next morning.
But they were pretty. Not only were they the pretty, lovely imitation of strong, perfect nails, there were other lovely things about them. The clicking sound it made on school desks or against one another was audibly pleasurable. Scratching an itch with the thick ends was amazing. And I felt strong. I had claws. If I wanted to, I could draw blood, could probably gash someone’s eye out. If I wanted to.
The nails, however strong they made me feel, were disabling in other ways. Small movements, typing especially, became a pain in the ass. Popping zits became a painful experience. Plus gross shit constantly ended up stuck on the underside- dead skin, snot, food. No to mention wiping in the bathroom became a balancing act.
My habit of biting my nails did not stop with these nails. They became another challenge, and beneath the nervous tick of a 15-year-old, the gels cracked and collapsed into jagged pieces.
Working at the salon meant I saw nails at different stages of this adaption. To remove gel nails, you had to soak them in acetone. It was my responsibility to make the acetone baths, the frigid liquid was kept by the case in the small back room. I set people up as they dipped and held their fingertips in, as the gels dissolved. When gels melt, they look a little like cloudy hot glue. Leaving in their wake, damage and shaved down nails.
It’s oddly poetic, to watch a thing of beauty and skill collapse on itself and leave a sort of wreckage. Nails, fake nails, however pretty, are a dangerous business. Not as much for the customer, but for the nail technician who is constantly exposed to chemicals linked to a multitude of issues, including respiratory and neurological issues.
I worked in a salon that primarily employed Vietnamese immigrants who worked ridiculous hours and were exposed to numerous chemical hazards.
On top of that, they would have to service a generally racist public. That year became a huge learning experience for me in regards to racism. While I present as white, and because of it, white people, especially white women, have no problem saying racist things to me about other people. The worst were middle-aged white women. They could be the most two-faced and duplicitous. They would smile and chat with their Vietnamese nail tech, then, when it came time to pay would complain about the tech’s accent to me, or how dare the nail tech be in the country without learning English. Sometimes they referred to techs as slurs, especially if they were unsatisfied.
These women wanted their nails done cheap. And the last thing they wanted to do was acknowledge that their laborer was a human being.
But that racism was cyclical. While white customers could be grotesque and deride the workforce, those same Vietnamese nail techs held their own prejudices to their Black customers. Some wanted to teach me Vietnamese words for black and white to discreetly distinguish which customers were coming in, in case they didn’t want to make room for them. This occurred after I learned the words for “manicure” “pedicure” “gels” “refill” and “full set”. This wasn’t the case for all the techs, but enough to make it easy enough to leave.
There’s a terrible irony there. While the place I worked at was just one salon in Florida, there are Black and Asian women who have written or talked about this kind of bias and racism from Nail Technicians, and also long standing issues between both communities. It’s ironic because nail art is booming in the instagram age, largely replicating styles associated with Black women that were once derided as “ghetto”. It’s ironic, because the younger nail techs spoke in a blaccent. It’s ironic, because not once did I hear a black customer refer to tech in a slur, but you better believe that I heard it more than once from a white customer.
When I think of nails, I can’t untangle that from the memory. I think of the chemical cold smell of acetone, and I think about racism, heaped and shifted from one group to another. Pain, the pain of getting a full set, and the pain of dealing with bias and bigotry.
I’ve had my nails done a few times since then. Once, a manicure by a good friend of mine who is also a nail tech. Once for my wedding, when I had a full set: stiletto and clear gels. Fake nails are beautiful. They are powerful feeling, heavy and weaponed. But to get them, you have to have an intimate moment with a stranger as they coat your fingertips, breathing close. In order to have them cheap, people work 12 hour days in toxic conditions.
It is nice to feel like you can pop someone’s eye out though. You know, if you wanted to.
Check out the rest of “Morbid”.
(Originally published by CLASH. Check out CLASHbooks.com, especially Tragedy Queens, edited by Leza Cantoral).