Do Not Let Your Manicure Guilt Make This Labor Issue About You


The recent New York Times nail salon exposé and subsequent, appropriate government reaction has come accompanied by a lot of entry-level and highly limiting personal quibbling from manicure-loving women, who are here to remind us of the power of the internet’s dominant heuristic—which is to read something that does not address you directly and immediately think, “But what does this mean about me?”

I have received multiple emails about the Times piece, in which women state—maybe in jest, but over and over—that they have been “traumatized” by learning about the system that they are accustomed to exploiting. A new Times piece explores how the burden of guilt, feather light in actuality, comes to feel depressingly heavy to some women—so heavy that it becomes a problem to be solved in itself, which it’s really not; so heavy in many cases that the emotion becomes depressingly self-centered.

The Daily Beast covered a less blinkered but still self-limiting guilt response from “Brooklyn moms” after the Times piece came out:

“Well, I always tip the woman who works on me really well.”
This is true. I, and most people I know, tip somewhere between 30-50 percent of the cost of the nail service, a percentage most of us don’t match at, say, restaurants. But again, I have to ask: If you thought the women were earning a decent living, why did you feel compelled to tip at such a high rate?
Finally: “I’m done going to nail salons.”
We’ll see. But taking that vow to “make a statement” at face value, the question is: Who are you making that statement to? As the Times notes, many of the salons are owned by women who worked their way up from scrubbing callouses off feet themselves. And most are owned by immigrants who epitomize small business. If we all stop going, and all these businesses just close down, nobody from the One Percent is going to care much.
A couple of women told me that this summer, they have a fine excuse for gross-looking sandal feet. As if last summer’s pretty toes are being replaced by a polish of conspicuous moral superiority.

Well! Let me say first of all that—though it can quickly lead to defensiveness—I think guilt is a decent starting place. Guilt, at least, is a more open-ended reaction than pure, self-willed ignorance, which is a phenomenon the Daily Beast also covered: women in nail salons the day after the article was published saying they only read the first paragraph, that they thought it was full of “generalizations” (which is, of course, exactly the point).

But while guilt can get you going, it’s an absolutely horrible place to land. It’s true that it’s difficult to understand where a manicure consumer might fit into this issue; it’s true that guilt is probably a necessary emotional baby-step, and an inevitable feeling after you read that a fiftysomething immigrant who’s poisoned herself for decades to make you feel pretty knows matter-of-factly that she is worth “less than a shoe.” But, unaccompanied by action, guilt doesn’t do a damn thing for anyone—never has, never will.

There are individual actions a person could take, if many of them are imperfect and piecemeal (choosing your salons well) or controversial and potentially counterproductive (tipping a ton in cash). But, though social media (and terrible bloggers like me) often masquerade chatter as action, individual actions aren’t the game here, anyway; they almost never are. Sarah Maslin Nir’s piece was asking for and requiring collective action. With nail salons as with almost everything, personal emotions are but a wee little barnacle on the vast political whale.

The Nation published a pretty comprehensive discussion of worker organizing efforts in New York City: there’s a new Nail Salon Health and Safety Bill that members of the NY Healthy Nail Salon Coalition testified about at a recent city council hearing, in conjunction with members of Adhikaar, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, New York Lawyers for The Public Interest and the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health. There are ways of moving, existing structures to do so, people who have been involved in this effort for years.

And if you aren’t interested in collective action, or pragmatically going to take part in it, cool your guilt jets. Guilt is not a political problem to be solved; it’s a natural byproduct of luxury. Either accept it and take action on it, or have the decency to understand that it’s not about you.

Image via Dystopos/Flickr

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