In progress of the 4th Beauty Demands Workshop, Louise Rondel (Goldsmiths, University of London) considers the wider impact of the toenail industry and queries the notion that a manicure takes its form of ‘regular maintenance’. Costing from as little as ten pounds for a simple file and Polish and twenty pounds for a complete set of acrylics, it would seem that getting your nails done is becoming increasingly routine.
£450 each on their nails. Indeed, walking along a 2 kilometer stretch of street from Camberwell to the Castle and Elephant in south-east London, I counted 37 places where you can make your nails done. I want to problematise the notion that a manicure is ‘routine maintenance’, looking at the corporeal results both on the client and instead, and more critically, on the nail technician to position getting your nails done as an ‘exceptional method’. During my fieldwork at an upmarket toenail salon in the town of London specializing in a well-known brand of long-lasting gel Polish, I became interested in the nail care advice the manicurists gave with their customers.
The Polish itself and its own removal (that involve soaking the nails in acetone) can leave the nails brittle and the encompassing skin dry and broken. The technicians at the salon to keep careful records of their sessions with all the customers including notes on the health of their fingernails. They recommend using a cuticle essential oil which penetrates and moisturizes the nail whilst the Polish is on plus they suggest their customers to take at least a two-week break after two treatments (which will last 4-6 weeks).
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More acute however will be the consequences on the body of those who work in the toe nail salons. In 2015 The New York Times released a two-part series on the working conditions in NY nail bars. ‘I heard about someone who worked when she was pregnant, and the baby has some nagging problems … This salon has good ventilation, and we keep it clean, but I still get rashes and sneezing’ (Mary Lee).
‘At our store we don’t do acrylics, and it’s well ventilated so it’s better than other places, but nowadays my nose bleeds about two hours after finishing a large job such as a tip collection or wrap’ (Jiwon Cho). ‘Ah, my hands. I wake struggling to move my hands up, they tighten’ (Joanne Shin).
Getting acrylic nails fitted is a lengthy, skilful, and complicated process. First the manicurist begins by preparing my nails using a little electronic sander. After gluing the tips onto my fingernails, she dips a make-up brush into a pot of clear solution and then into a container of white, natural powder to form an acrylic paste.
This is layered and shaped onto the toe nail, or rather it generates the nail. At first the smell of the acrylic is not unpleasant, nevertheless the chemical odor grows increasingly more overpowering. As Sarah Maslin Nir reports in THE BRAND NEW York Times, research into the links between toe nail salon health and work effects is bound.
After washing my hands of the acrylic dust, ‘my’ nails look Matt and dry and my cuticles look red and annoyed. I choose a color and return to the station. Two coats of Polish and a top coat later, I’ve the highly-polished, beautifully-shaped nails I had formed coveted. The sheen of the Polish, however, belies both the nails within the Polish and, more insidiously, the labor that has gone into them.