Is DIY The Only Path To Conscious Beauty?

Perched naked atop the lid of my paper-towel-covered toilet, legs spread, surrounded by shredded toilet paper, a battalion of Popsicle sticks, and several small squares of cloth coated with my pubic hair, I couldn’t help but think of Cesar Chavez. I’m a depilation veteran, but this was my first-ever self-administered bikini wax, and — please allow me to acknowledge the pomposity of the following phrase — it was a political act, if not exactly in the ways one might think.

Like pretty much every New York woman who has walked into a low-cost salon for an afternoon of cheap “self-care,” I was shocked by The New York Times exposés on nail salon labor abuses and worker health risks. Stolen wages, charging fees for shifts, blatant racism: Sarah Maslin Nir’s reporting made it clear that every time I’d been to one of these salons, for a pedicure or an offshoot service like waxing or a quickie shoulder rub, I’d essentially been sitting in a sweatshop, flipping through celebrity magazines all the while. Of the 100-plus workers she interviewed for the piece, all but three had had wages illegally withheld. With only about a quarter of the interviewees making even New York State minimum wage, workers are kept in a cycle of poverty.

There are ways to be a conscious consumer, of course, most notably by going to higher-end places that adhere to labor laws. My beauty budget isn’t that flexible, though, and having grown up with parents who would take a bowl of snack-time fruit as an opportunity to outline the principles of Cesar Chavez’s labor-rights grape boycott to their eight-year-old daughter, I couldn’t just go back to tipping well and hoping for the best.

DIY is the best response I’ve come up with. It’s a faulty response, though, and not only because my bikini-waxing endeavor left me with ripped skin and a lopsided pubic trapezoid. Pedicures, manicures, eyebrow maintenance — none of these look as good under my own guidance as they do under a pro’s. (Hey, anyone up for a consciousness-raising mani-pedi circle?) I’ll get more practiced with time, but when I was doing shoddy beauty work on myself, it became uncomfortably clear that I’d learned to rely on a certain level of professional care for services that I never meant to become reliant upon.
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Life Of Luxury
We’ve come to frame cheap mani-pedis and other beauty services as “affordable luxuries,” forgetting that the key word there is “luxuries.” You can argue that a manicure gives you a professional finish in the way a well-tailored suit would, bringing it closer to being an actual necessity. That’s not untrue, but in a way that’s exactly the problem: We’ve transformed these luxuries into something akin to necessities because they’re cheap, not because we actually need them. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind to outsource my eyebrow pruning were it not for the fact that it was so cheaply available; now it’s on my to-do list alongside grocery shopping and pharmacy pickups. I’ve seen women squeeze a manicure into an already packed schedule because they need one before a big meeting. There’s a logical progression here: Once upon a time, it was mainly boss ladies who could afford the luxury of a manicure, but with the explosion of cheap salons in the past decade and a half — the number of salons in New York has tripled during that time — manicures quickly became within reach to their assistants, too. Voilà, a salon finish becomes a tiny key of access for aspiring professionals. It looks like a democratization of sorts, until you consider at whose expense it has occurred.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t get waxed if we want to, or that we should “pedicure-shame” one another, or that we were all better off when it was just the boardroom ladies who could flaunt perfect 10s. I’m saying that we need to remember what these services are — luxuries — and treat them as such. Of course, some of the reasons I’ve used to shepherd myself into the salon do take this into account. It’s an afternoon of “self-care,” I’ll tell myself, even as it couldn’t be clearer that getting a beauty service isn’t self-care; it’s care from others that I purchase. Same thing with the beauty-as-personal-expression argument: nail art, maybe. But bikini waxing?

We value beauty a great deal, but we’ve decided to value beauty labor very little. Which makes me wonder about how we treat the act of becoming beautiful as something to sweep under the rug, as something to look away from or pretend doesn’t exist. (What, me beautiful? I just woke up like this.) A part of me was aware that something wasn’t quite right with the salon situation; it didn’t make any sense that my manicure could cost less than a beer. I was unwilling to look too closely at the exploitative economics of the services I was paying for — and it’s an unwillingness that’s echoed by the way I look at my own beauty work overall. I’ve been willing to squint a little at the fact that even though I’m fairly low-maintenance, I spend a good deal of time, effort, and money on beautifying myself. Yes, the results feel great, and the process can too. But I sometimes wonder what life would be like if I felt truly free of the mental tax that beauty collects from me. And if I’m willing to squint at that question in order not to see it too clearly, it only makes sense that until it was laid out for me in black and white, I’d been willing to overlook the shaky economics behind my $7 manicure, too.
Face Value
If beauty is going to be something we feel genuinely good about — all those rah-rah arguments about self-care, personal expression, and using mani-pedis as sorely needed “me time” — instead of something we feel bad about, we’ve got to start valuing beauty labor more. We need to start thinking of a $30 manicure as the norm, not as overpriced.

Everyone’s solution here might be different: DIY, researching better options, forgoing these acts of beauty altogether, a mishmash of all these. Some women are simply opting to triple their tips and hope for the best, and while that doesn’t solve the problem, I’m not about to start throwing red nail varnish on those who choose this path. (If you do this, hand the cash tip directly to the worker instead of leaving it at the front desk. Also, ask the manager to open windows or otherwise ventilate the space — as a client you have powers that workers don’t. And if you do notice something iffy, please call the New York State Nail Salon Industry Enforcement Task Force hotline at 1-888-469-7365.)

I haven’t gotten a professional mani-pedi since the exposé was published, but I imagine getting one while knowing that the workers are fairly compensated will add to the pleasure I derive from it, and not only because of my labor-rights bent. The first time I got a professional pedicure, I couldn’t stop staring at my toes afterward: Seeing the glossy, ridge-free finish that I’d never been able to master myself made me feel like a lady of leisure who used “lunch” and “summer” as verbs, even though in truth I was a 23-year-old magazine assistant who lived on microwave burritos. In the years since, getting a pedicure has become far more mundane for me, even a chore at times. Buying pedicures for what they're actually worth on the fair-labor market will be a reminder that not only are we paying someone to do a chore — there’s little glamour in sloughing off calluses, after all — but that this is also something we opt into for, among other things, pleasure. In other words, it will feel like a luxury. Which is exactly what it is.


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