I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable about the mani/pedi experience. There’s an element of power dynamic in play when someone begins to coax the grime from beneath your nails as if you are entitled royalty. As someone raised in a low-income family, rituals like these had always confounded me, leaving me wondering if I would ever indulge in the beautiful things: expensive clothes, on-trend purchases, well-coiffed nails, and makeup — things that, while alluring, profoundly confused me. I should mention that I’ve seen a lot of my own family members work tirelessly within the service industry, and when you see someone you love being treated like a means to an end rather than a human being, it can make adult life as a woman in NYC (who also writes about beauty) a little blurry.
This isn’t to say I don’t indulge; I do. I just make sure to tip well and use my manners (I’ve seen so many people use their manicurist as a psychological punching bag). According to a recent New York Times article, some manicurists are clocking in at under $3 dollars an hour – a disturbing and depressing low – all so that your fingernails can shine.
So, when I walked into the salon the other night to get a mani/pedi (let’s just say I’ve sorely ignored my winter feet for ages), I was made even more uncomfortable by the fact that a man — his name was Jin — would be doing my pedicure. I thought: Why is a man doing my pedicure? I stiffened in self-consciousness.
He began to roll up my leggings while a woman (I believe it was Jin’s wife) stood hunched over the sides of my chairs, massaging my hands and, almost religiously, painting and perfecting my nails. They both seemed so in tune with the goings-on as if this were either sheer monotony or simply their passion. I could not tell which.
Jin clipped, cleaned, filed, and buffed my toenails with thorough detail. He cleaned my feet softly, scrubbed my legs, and massaged my feet with peppermint-lavender oil. I entered into the idea of this pedicure, thinking of how I don’t normally let strangers, especially men, touch me intimately. But that wasn’t entirely true. I had done burlesque and acted in a very intimate theatre group for years. So, what was the issue? Was there some sort of innate fear in me towards men? If so, why would I automatically assume women were safer? Did it have to do with safety at all, or was I making a mountain out of a gender hill?
Perhaps, over the years, I’ve thought of the mani/pedi as a somewhat gendered, verging-on-sensual experience whereby two women — one the recipient — would indulge in a stereotypical feminine pampering session. But why would I think this? I’ve been nothing but a radical, vocal opponent to traditional gender norms.
So while Jin was exfoliating my winter-abused legs, I realized how unfair it was to assume that to have a man manicurist would be in any way odd. This is sexism, I thought. This is what I fight against. He was professional, and he was good at his job. So, why would I feel off-guard in sharing an intimate moment with a man? Was it even intimate at all? Perhaps, at that moment, it was me sexualizing the situation or reinforcing the idea of gendered expectations? I told my friend Stephanie, 29, what had happened at the salon and that I was thinking about writing about it. Her response was along the same route:
“I have had a couple of manicures/pedicures from the same man at my local salon. I feel like he was less meticulous/paid attention to details versus a female manicurist. I feel more comfortable with a female manicurist — it’s an intimate experience with holding your hands or feet and even a massage. I use the time to zone out and relax, and sometimes with a male manicurist, I feel more tense. I think because part of it is that I’m used to the “traditional” gender roles for this type of care/service. I don’t know why – I’ve had male and female hairstylists and colorists and feel comfortable either way. Maybe it’s the hand-holding. The physical intimacy with a strange woman (or a woman I see once a week and exchange pleasantries with and tip her) doesn’t seem so off-putting.”
She left me thinking that there was something about the physicality of self-care that made me feel odd about the male manicurist. On the other hand, my friend Liz, 35, said, “I got one of the best pedicures of my life from a man. He was very thorough, and the polish was perfect. I don’t think [gender] matters much at all.”
I later spoke to quite a few more people about their experience with male manicurists. Most just said, “Why would that bother me?”
While the topic of nail care might not be the most riveting, there are a lot of classicist and sexist issues embedded in the little things we do and think. I still don’t know what my feelings are or why I initially felt so uncomfortable, but I want to undo those feelings. In our great effort toward gender equality, I think it’s necessary for us to consider why we think women and men are different if those differences are real or learned perceptions and how we can unlearn dangerous stereotypes.
And PS: my color was Navigate Her by Essie. So, you tell me: would you get a mani/pedi by a man?