On Individuals Over Industry & People Over Products
Thoughts on “Is This The End Of The Manicure?”
Every beauty reporter has a beat, a type of story they like to tell. I cover the end of things. The end of shelfies. The end of sheet masks. The end of products and practices that put an unnecessary burden on the environment, that feed us false ideas of empowerment, that reinforce societal beauty standards.
This sometimes gets interpreted as negativity, which I guess it is, but I’ve always seen the positive in it: The end of the shelfie stops the glorification of overconsumption. The end of single-use skincare means a more sustainable industry. The end of a beauty standard makes for a broader interpretation of beauty.
Recently, I reported on the “end of the manicure” for The New York Times. The concept isn’t necessarily novel; plenty of people have noticed that former manicure buffs are giving up polish during the pandemic. The trend was mentioned in last month’s issue of Vogue. It was noted in a recent Harper’s Bazaar report, too. The article I wrote was not well-received by the industry, to put it mildly.
It’s obvious now that I didn’t give vital aspects of the story — the industry’s impact on women of color, in particular — the attention or nuance they deserve in the text, and for that, I am deeply sorry. It has always been important to me to cover issues that affect Black, Indigenous, and people of color, but I am clearly an imperfect ally. I’m always learning. I can and will do better going forward. I have set up a recurring monthly donation to the California Nail Salon Community Care Fund as a small way to support the community.
I’d like to address some of the questions and criticisms that the piece prompted.
First: As a reporter, my loyalty is not to the industry. My loyalty is to the individual — the wellbeing of the individual, the empowerment of the individual, the freedom of the individual, the ability of the individual to thrive.
That said, industry is mechanized by individuals, which is a paradox I constantly question in my writing and my life. Ethically, I don’t support Amazon. What does that mean for the 1.2 million people it employs? Environmentally speaking, fast fashion needs to end. What about the garment workers — mostly women of color, women who are underpaid and overworked, women who sometimes have no choice but to deal with dangerous working conditions — that will be economically impacted if it does? Are these industries beyond reproach simply because they employ women? Is employment — even hisk-risk, low-pay employment — equal to empowerment? Under capitalism, there isn’t one single, satisfying answer.
People have asked if I considered the women of color, mostly Asian immigrants, who make up the nail care industry before I covered the anti-manicure movement. I did.
I considered the fact that some of them experience chronic respiratory and reproductive issues in order to serve our nail “needs.” I considered the fact that some of them are over-exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals and under-informed about their potential impacts. I considered the fact that many of them don’t earn a legal wage, and that the average nail tech makes a third of what’s considered a living wage in the United States. I considered the fact that women of color have traditionally been ignored by the biggest companies in the nail care industry, a topic I wrote about in May.
I also considered the fact that this is not a universal experience in the salon space and yes, there are safety precautions and advocacy organizations in place to address all the ways the industry has exploited its workers.
Then I considered the somewhat dystopian fact that we’ve normalized making manicurists wear medical-grade N95 masks in the name of… *checks notes*… fingernails?
Like most beauty standards, the idea that manicured nails are pretty, professional, or put together is rooted in classism. Some have subverted this standard and turned it into an act of self-expression and self-care over the centuries. Black, queer, and non-binary people played a huge part in subverting this particular beauty standard and turning it into an art form. An increasing number of men are now wearing nail polish, too. Great! Those are all good things! (Although it’s worth asking: Should anyone’s act of self-expression and self-care require another to inhale hazardous waste?)
For others, though, this standard is still an obligation, something that has to be done in order to feel pretty or professional or put together. The pressure to conform to this standard takes a psychological, financial, and time-consuming toll. (The pressure to conform to any Western beauty standard takes a disproportionate psychological, financial, and time-consuming toll on BIPOC.)
Before writing the Times article, I gathered insight from about 100 people who had stopped wearing nail polish and conducted deeper interviews with about 20 of them. The majority of the subjects I spoke with — including manicurists and nail industry professionals — expressed a feeling of freedom, an emotional sigh of relief. Taking government-mandated time away from their bi-monthly manicure helped them realize the habit was not enhancing their lives. It helped their nails heal from years of consistent damage. It helped their minds find beauty in their natural nails.
That individuals are finding freedom from this specific beauty standard may not bode well for nail salons at a time when the nail salons are decidedly not doing well, due to pandemic-related closures and safety precautions. But no individual should feel pressured to funnel time, money, and worry into their appearance if they don’t actually want to, not even to “save” an industry. And anyway, if advocating for the wants of the individual truly puts the industry at risk, doesn’t that point to a deeper problem with the industry?
The cry to save and support industries throughout the course of the pandemic is justified but misdirected. It is the responsibility of the government to provide financial support to nail techs, salon owners, and anyone else in the supply chain to account for pandemic-related wage loss. It is not the responsibility of the individual to engage in behaviors that will keep the industry afloat — especially if those behaviors are strictly aesthetic, especially if those behaviors perpetuate an arbitrary beauty standard that doesn’t actually enhance the life of that individual.
Of course, there’s the argument that painting our nails is not just about aesthetics — the argument that aesthetics affect our self-confidence, that beauty is a basic human need. And that’s true! It is! We need beauty, we are entitled to beauty. But we also are also entitled to reevaluate what beauty has become, what we find beautiful and why. Like: Why does covering our nails in paint chips and plastic press-ons equal beauty? Must feeling beautiful always mean buying and applying products? Can we find the same sense of beauty in our naked nails?
Again, these questions don’t always have answers, and some have very depressing answers. For instance, studies show women are treated better in the workplace and in the world when they perform beauty. Is the solution here to help women better perform beauty — to perform it with less effort, with safer ingredients, with an expanded perception of what is beautiful? Or is the solution to push toward a future where beauty has no bearing on how women are treated, on how women feel about themselves? Both are valid.
In my work, I’m more interested in covering how to question, subvert, and free yourself from beauty standards. I have no interest in covering how to better perform beauty (there are many, many, many journalists on this beat already!), even though — as has been pointed out to me — the latter path creates and sustains more jobs in the beauty industry for women.
I can’t stop thinking about how this relates to fifth wave feminism, which Mary Retta recently wrote about in her Substack newsletter, Close But Not Quite: “While second and third wave feminists fought hard for women to be included in the workplace, many fifth wave feminists today embrace an anti-work framework, believing that people should not have to perform endless meaningless labor in order to be able to afford housing, food, education, health insurance, or other social and essential goods. Fifth wave feminists … do not believe any job, even one that is conceived as powerful or ‘empowering,’ can bring about liberation. Fifth wave feminism is also invested in several anticapitalist frameworks, such as defunding the police and prison abolition.”
People have called the content of the Times article “anti-feminist” or anti-woman, since it implies the end of an industry that’s built on women’s labor. By that thinking, does anything that involves women’s labor count as feminism? Is women’s labor always “pro-woman”? I don’t know. But I find it more compelling to explore the anti-industry, anticapitalist, fifth wave feminist narrative than the pro-industry, pro-labor, “products are empowering” narrative.
That angle won’t speak to everyone. Not all people want to “free” themselves from beauty standards and embrace their nails, or hair, or skin, or body as-is, and I support that. I’m not trying to change that for them. Adornment is an important and inherently human thing.
But ethically, I do feel obligated to call attention to any sign of the “end” of any standard, in the hopes of speaking to those who don’t actually enjoy performing beauty, those who might see it and feel like they’re finally allowed to stop — stop performing, stop perpetuating, stop polluting the planet with products and practices that don’t spark joy for them, personally. Particularly if said products and practices may have negative effects on their health.
Nail health was not a part of my original pitch to the Times. After reviewing the feedback from nearly 100 sources, I couldn’t leave it out.
The majority of subjects cited health as the main reason they’re not interested in manicures at the moment. In light of the coronavirus, some were concerned about the C.D.C. guidelines for cuticle clipping and nail length. (This checked out.) Some physically saw their nails growing stronger and longer and clearer and healthier after months without a mani. (This checked out.) Three sources brought up the Ayurvedic idea that the health of the nail signals the health of the whole. (This checked out; the concept carries over into Western medicine, too.) They questioned why they were covering up their natural nails in the first place.
This led me to look into how the component parts of a manicure became the component parts of a manicure and — surprise! — the concept of the manicure is not predicated on nail health. It’s predicated on appearance. It’s not about the nail itself, it’s about how well paint applies to the nail. We all know this. This is not news. It’s like hair dye, or chemical hair straighteners, or makeup. We don’t do these things for our physical health, we do them for aesthetics.
Sure, there are options that are healthier and options that are less healthy. But there is nothing inherently healthful about the process of clipping, sanding, thinning, gluing, shaping, painting, UV-setting, acetone-soaking, or otherwise removing any kind of polish. (“Gluing” meaning “to fasten or join with or as if with glue,” not necessarily the literal use of glue.) This has been studied, but it’s also observable. Nails can be thinner, discolored, and prone to breakage post-manicure. They are thicker, clearer, and stronger sans manicure. It is not shocking or controversial to acknowledge this. It is common sense.
(It’s worth noting that in a small study from the California Environmental Protection Agency, the majority of nail polishes claiming to be “3-free” were found to contain at least one ingredient from the “Toxic Trio” — formaldehyde, toluene, and DPB — when tested. “When nail care products claim to be free of unsafe chemicals, despite how the label reads, just the opposite is often true,” reads the first line of the government report. Studies have also shown that solvents, a key class of ingredients in polish formulas, weaken the nail plate. Other studies have shown that certain nail polish ingredients can absorb through the nail and into the body.)
Here’s where I need to stress that “healthy” and “unhealthy” are not value judgments! Health is not a moral imperative. It is not inherently “good” or “bad.” It is a human right, though, and it deserves to be addressed in articles about beauty products and practices objectively.
Objectivity, or my apparent lack thereof, was another consistent criticism of the Times piece.
I’ve thought about objectivity a lot since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the subsequent media reckoning. Something that’s stuck with me is the idea that “journalistic objectivity” takes the side of the oppressor. “Objectivity” takes the side of industry, too. I constantly see articles like this one, that feature industry professionals professing the safety of certain polish chemicals without offering a single sentence on the very real, life-altering effects some of these chemicals have on salon workers. Where are the people calling the objectivity of stories with a positive spin into question? They’re few and far between, because we’ve come to see the industry’s stance as the objective stance. It’s not.
Objectivity in beauty reporting in particular fascinates me, because those who report on and read about the beauty industry tend to be immersed in the beauty industry, and once we’re immersed in the beauty industry, boom, our objectivity is compromised.
Beauty marketing has normalized so many things that, from a totally unbiased, totally removed, totally objective point of view, should not be seen as normal. Attempting to erase our pores. Surgically enhancing our lips and cheeks. (All the lips and cheeks.) Bleaching our goddamn assholes. It makes me think of this viral tweet: “If capitalism didn’t already exist, and somebody suggested we all work under a guy for 40 hours a week while they make all the money and decisions, we’d beat the shit out of them.”
If manicures didn’t already exist, and somebody suggested we expose people — primarily immigrants and women of color — to chemicals and acrylic particles that will potentially impact their respiratory and reproductive health while we pay them an unlivable wage to remove and reapply colorful globs of liquified plasticizers onto our fingertips just because we think colorful globs of liquified plasticizers are pretty (even though removing and reapplying said colorful globs can impair the inherent ability of our own cuticles and nail plates to protect us)…. we’d probably have some concerns.
I know that this is not the only way to frame the nail care industry.
The industry empowers and employs and brings art and joy to many, many women. There are safety precautions and labor organizations and people pushing for healthier products and salon setups, and that’s wonderful. The industry was hit hard by pandemic, and that’s heartbreaking.
Both of these things can be valid and true. The industry is in danger and the industry puts people in danger. Saving the industry is ethical and questioning the industry is ethical.
I don’t believe this is the end of the manicure. If you read the original article through to the end, you’ll notice I said as much. I noted that 50 percent of the subjects I interviewed intend to go back to the salon as soon as coronavirus precautions are no longer prohibitive. I noted that salons serve an important sociocultural purpose, and that purpose will be even more important post-pandemic. Those who find beauty and empowerment and meaning in getting their nails done will continue to do so. Those who don’t, won’t — but they probably won’t abandon the nail industry entirely, either. Perhaps they’ll skip polish but, as I noted, continue to support their manicurist by going into the salon for a more innocuous buff and shine.
The article also highlighted the emergence of a new category that’s captured concerned consumers: “nail wellness.” The fact that sales in this category are soaring shows me that it’s not “the end of the manicure,” but — again, as I noted — perhaps a new beginning.
I deeply regret that I did not directly link to any “nail wellness” offerings from companies owned and operated by women of color in the Times article. I promise I will not make this inexcusable and very avoidable mistake again.
If “nail wellness” interests you, please consider purchasing Pear Nova Growth Green Tea Cuticle Oil, JINsoon Extract Honeysuckle + Primrose Cuticle Oil, or People of Color Beauty Lavender Bliss CBD Cuticle Oil. And if it doesn’t — if you’ve made peace with your unpolished nails, if you’ve found a way to resist the pull of all the pretty products amidst the pandemic — that’s fine, too.