Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Politics of Pampering

It's strange to step back and think about how the practice of paying others to massage, wax, wrap and groom our naked bodies has become so commonplace. A recent New York Magazine cover story by one of my favorite writers, Emily Nussbaum, explores the explosion of spas and salons, our shifting ideas about beauty, grooming and privacy, as well as the often ignored hardships of salon workers, who perform taxing physical and emotional labor every day.

She writes that, "twenty years ago, salons were a treat for the idle rich or for women playacting that role for a day. While a subset of socialites were groomed by hired help, for most other women—working women, stay-at-home mothers, young girls—a massage was an indulgence, a facial a luxury, a manicure the type of thing you did at home." Now these procedures are viewed as necessities for women who want to look well-groomed and put-together. Women's magazines (particularly bridal magazines) prescribe spa treatments as a solution to even the most mild beauty problems, while women who don't have weekly manicure and pedicure treatments are called out by other women for looking "unprofessional."

But as much as it's become the norm, there is still something disconcerting about the power relationships implicit in these treatments. A large percentage of salon workers (particularly in nail salons in major American cities) are minorities, many recent immigrants without strong English. And you're paying them to provide a service that traditionally has been exchanged between female friends, sisters or mothers and daughters. As teenagers, many of us spent our sleepovers painting each others nails or applying home facials, bonding together through the escapism of beauty treatments. Once we reach our 20's, those practices become commercialized, and spending time with a friend often means going to a salon and having someone else paint your nails while you chat.

As Nussbaum says, "The first time I got a pedicure, I felt something similar: physical vulnerability, mingled with a lurid awareness of power—an Asian woman who didn’t speak English was kneeling in front of me, washing my feet. It felt distinctly slave and master. But that’s only true the first time you have a treatment like this. Pay once, twice, three times, and the aura of exploitation dissolves..." The same thing occurs for the women performing the services: over time the act of washing another woman's feet or waxing her pubic hair stops feeling demeaning and becomes normal.

Salon and spa workers must navigate this complex world of emotional etiquette, since they're expected to provide this big performance of warmth, care and concern, a kind of paid friend. A sociology professor quoted in the article talks about his theory that more women are getting spa treatments because they're looking for an emotional and physical connection that's lacking in their lives and want to be touched and comforted. A recent study cited in article found that the more expensive the spa or salon, the more likely it was that the clientele demanded "pampering" and other emotional services.

Like a therapist, a manicurist or facialist is someone you can spill all your secrets to, without worry that they'll be shared with others. You can expect that she'll listen, express support and refrain from criticizing. Most women would never consider sharing this kind of personal information outside of the safe confines of the salon, and since class differences make it unlikely that you'll run into your confidante outside of the spa setting, it's unlikely that you'll ever interact with this person when they're not massaging or waxing you.

I'm certainly not here to pass judgment on anyone who participates in this industry. I love getting the occasional massage, and I like to keep my toenails painted in the warmer months. But I think it's interesting to step back and look at these admittedly strange practices that have become so commonplace.

We engage in this kind of alternative universe when we step into a spa, where everyone acts as if they're old friends who share a history and exchange secrets (at least the client is sharing secrets, it would be "unprofessional" for the worker to state their true feelings about their work). We feel comfortable exposing ourselves physically and emotionally for a person who we'd never consider spending time with outside of this environment. And we try to forget the fact that the person rubbing our feet or painting our nails is doing it out of economic necessity, that their deep concern for our personal lives and physical comfort is nothing more than part of the job.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I was almost 40 before I could get over the idea of having someone else wash, and groom my feet. The whole idea of having someone physically at my feet bothered me.
I have gotten to know my salon staff well, they know about my family; I have run into them at the orthodontist office with their kids. It feels less weird to me...but initially I really had a problem with it.

Anonymous said...

I havent been a regular salon goer, mostly due to lack of money. But most of the salons I go to require some sort of training, so its quite regulated and more professional. Although, a friend of mine went and got a cheap pedicure the other day and commented 'i finally caved and went to the pedicure sweatshop the other day' - which got me thinking along the lines of the article you referred to- how much are we taking for granted the women (many migrants) who work in these industries...

Kelly said...

There are probably lots of women who like the idea of some ethnic minority knealing at their feet and doing the dirty work, but I am not one of them. It's never been an issue or a "turn on" for me. I don't take advantage of the people who give me pedicures, I don't sit there and expect them to listen while I whine about my life, I actually acknowledge them and then sit in silence. I don't expect the salon to cater to my needs and pamper me. I go because I want red toenails. I don't think the places I give my business to manipulate their workers - probably some places do, but not all. Again, this is an article like many others before it, about one person's experience or a handful of salon's practices. But it's pretty lame to say all women are like this, and that all pedicurists are Vietnamese and underpaid and hate "servicing" rich white women. Probably some do, but probably not all of them.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, I've run into salon workers who pry pry and pry some more, when all I want to do is sit there and be quiet. I don't want to talk about my life and problems to the woman styling my hair. I've stopped going to expensive salons and get cheap cuts at great clips now, because they understand I don't have anything to talk about.

I've never felt comfortable enough going in to get my nails done or get a massage or something. I love to do my own nails and I can apply a facial just fine on my own. So I guess I don't understand this spa mentality.

Gwen said...

Fascinating blog post!

I'll start off stating that my experience with spas/salons is limited to one exfoliation treatment done in tandem with my boyfriend at a high-end spa. I don't see the point of a pedicure when I got beat up my feet running the very next day and I'll ruin a manicure with my nail-biting habits!

While reading your article, two thoughts struck me.

(1) It is true that the women who work in a spa are inordinately friendly to you and would be willing to chat with you if you would. I'm not chatty with a hairdresser so I wouldn't start with a spa therapist when I'm just traveling. It IS weird.

(2) I feel like the fact that many salons are run by ethnic minorities is downplayed in movies and television. God forbid the white protagonist is fraternizing and spilling her secrets to someone who is not white. (Unless, of course, it is a more realistic show like Law and Order.) Producers may realize it's not very P.C. to display the scenario for fear of how it would be perceived....

Erika said...

Personally, when I go in for a pedicure it is for me, a working mother of two boys to have some alone, quiet time. That being said, I bring a book and don't spill to the pedicurist. I don't, though, by any means look down on them for the work they are performing. My esthetician, on the other hand, has truly become a friend, and we exchange e-mails and equal parts of the conversation as she waxes my nether regions. She, actually, is the only person I would ever trust to do so.

All this being said, my monthly waxing is definitely an indulgence and pedicures are rare treats.

Ale said...

Interesting reflection.
My mom has always admitted that she goes to get a haircut when she is feeling down because she likes being pampered - having someone wash and massage her hair, and she also loves chatting with the hairdresser. Of course, we have been going to the same person for over 8 years, and chasing him around salons, so she has a closer relationship to him (I live abroad and get my hair cut every time I visit home, heh). They also share an interest in dog breeding, so it is more of an equal relationship.

I am more on the shy end, and do not like spilling my life to other than my very closest friends, so I prefer to read while getting a haircut. To me it is just a hair cut, but I do understand that for some people it is more of an emotional support than anyting.

MizzJ said...

I think that this article is being a tad over-sensitive and trying to find some kind of deeper meaning where there is none. Yes, some salons and spas do exploit their workers, but many don't and as another commenter has said, the industry is regulated somewhat. If you feel so guilty about "exploitation" of spa/salon workers, did you ever stop to think about the foods you eat?

Many of the fruits and vegetables we enjoy were picked by seasonal migrant workers who do back-breaking work all day and for little pay. These salon workers on the other hand are likely paid much more and the worst they endure is to hear some pampered suburban housewife complaining about her husband. Hmm.. in which case, maybe the fruit-pickers don't have it so bad!

lisa ( said...

The perspective provided by the author of the article seems a bit culturally skewed to me. I for one am Chinese-Canadian and I go to a salon in Chinatown run by to get my hair cut (because my hairdresser knows how to handle thick coarse Asian hair), and we make pleasant small talk in Cantonese and Mandarin, so I don't experience the same sort of exploitatitive guilt that the Caucasian author experiences when she goes to the salon. I'm fairly reserved and I like to just sit and be quiet during my haircut, but when I do talk it's very superficial conversation, not deep therapeutic venting. Again, this might be cultural dynamics at play: many traditional Chinese people are very reserved and won't complain about their lives with people who aren't close friends or relatives.

Amanda said...

Great article, and I really want to comment that I love how this blog is not just about consumerism and products, but brings up real issues with regard to the beauty industry. These are certainly conscientious concerns that other beauty blogs and readers should at least consider and talk about!

I personally think the spa industry says more about the state of the consumer than the people who provide services. Though I don't know the economics of the situation, I assume it's one of the better paying jobs out there for people who aren't comfortable with English. Obviously this doesn't make it right if the workers are being mistreated, but it is better than what some of my immigrant friends have had to do for work, especially the ones who don't have legal status and need to make all of their incomes from tips.

But from the consumer's point of view, you make a really good point, that painting our nails and having facials used to be something we did with friends during a sleepover and now we go and pay someone for this kind of pampering, which does suggest a certain loneliness and absence of this type of closeness in our personal lives. For me, it is simply a matter of not really having any female friends, so I have to pursue these girly activities by myself. But I think you are right about this point, and I do miss the days when I had some girls over and did these sorts of things as a type of bonding and relaxation.

Anonymous said...

I recently went for my "beauty treatment" (other than a haircut) and the it felt a bit weird. I went to get my nails done for the first time and what struck me the most was how strong the chemical smell was. Also, the nail dust from buffering bothered me so much that I couldn't stop coughing and sneezing the whole time. I am normally not very sensitive to that kind of stuff, and the salon was as well ventilated as could be expected.

If I felt that terrible after sitting in the salon for an hour, I can imagine how horrible it must be to have to do that 8 hours or more a day, at least five days a week. And what about if a manicurist or hairstylist gets pregnant? I would bet she either has to quit or risk birth defects or miscarriage because of all those chemicals. Anyways, the whole experience left me kind of saddened and I don't think I will ever go to get my nails done again.

Besides, I have always thought it to be sort of a waste of money. It isn't that hard to learn how to manicure your own nails, wax yourself, and give yourself facials.

Also, I would be very suprised to hear someone call a woman "unkept" because she does not get regular manicures, facials, and bikini waxes, no matter what profession that woman is in. I suppose maybe it's different because I don't live in a very big city.

Deodand said...

I can't get comfortable with any spa treatment other than a haircut. I've had the free hand-massages, but I find it very odd to have a stranger holding my hands. Same thing with manicures. I can't imagine letting some random person wax me! I do all these things for myself instead.

I guess I'm uncomfortable with the forced intimacy of the spa environment. Lest you think I'm crazy, I will say that I'm OK with spontaneous intimacy.

gilda said...

i will be the first to admit that i love pampering myself and others. i got into the spa addiction very early in life and it has always been one of my indulgences. i loved nails so much, i worked in a salon for 3 months and did so well, my boss gave me the keys and free reign after a week! i made great friends with all my customers and i think it was both my service and my attitude that made them keep coming back. i heard a lot about the spa industry here in new york, but since i moved here, i must say i am not impressed. the better salons are unbelievably expensive, and the average salons everywhere just provide sloppy, really 3rd-world lousy service. as a person who can give myself a proper mani and pedi, it's really disappointing that they don't even cut my cuticles right. never mind that all the instruments look gross and i always bring my own. my last trip to the salon to do my nails was last week and i decided then that i won't be going for a long time, unless i can't be bothered to do it myself cos i do it so much better.

i guess now i'll just have to find a good place in manhattan for affordable, good massages. :) anyone has any recommendations?

Princess Poochie said...

I love going for spa services (mainly pedicures and massage) but I don't go for them to fulfill me emotionally. I go for a bit of pampering and peacefulness. And it's just a service. I don't feel bad if I hire someone to wash my car or clean my house. It's just a service I can't do as well myself and they can do a better job.


Meg from The Bargain Queen & All About Appearances said...

What an interesting article!

I've only had three manicures and one pedicure -- all for special occasions (prom, wedding, college graduation). I have had more than a few professional massages -- and I love them.

As far as I can remember, all services were performed by white, English-speaking workers (sorry that I couldn't come up with a more politically correct term) -- except for one young Asian guy going through college who did my nails. Even he spoke perfect English and was probably raised here even if he wasn't born here.

As a result, I've usually been very chatty with the workers and I've never felt anything like the slave-owner feeling that some might have. Instead, it has had more of a friend-type feel and I do tend to share stuff (then again, I'm an open book online and off). And yes, they're technically working, but I have no issue paying for a service. On the contrary, I see how it works both ways.

Now, I wouldn't want to pluck pubes, but there are a lot jobs out there that are demeaning by some standard. I have a lot of friends who are teachers and I interned with one for a semester. If I learned anything it was that teaching in a public school here in the U.S. can be very demeaning, especially considering how awful the pay is for someone who has a college degree!

I wonder now, though, why it seems that receiving services from a fellow white person feels more socially upstanding to some than to receive them from a non-white (and especially immigrant) worker. Is it just middle-class white guilt gone wrong? After all, don't both groups deserve the opportunity to work in the field?


Anonymous said...

I've been going to the same aesthetician for about 7 years, visiting her every 3 weeks for a regular round of plucking and polishing. Maybe because of that length of time or maybe because our personalities simply mesh well, but I consider her a friend, not just a person who provides me with a regular service. For that brief time that we meet, we talk about my life and hers. Maybe because of the intimate nature of the service being provided, we share fairly personal details of our lives. It HAS taken on that tone of sleep-over-girlfriends as the years have progressed.

I never really noticed how unusual this was until I once visited a Korean-owned nail salon in my new neighborhood. I was suddenly accutely aware of a false sense of intimacy, of that vague feeling of entitlement and superiority. I noticed that my aesthetician was still in high school, and that the other patrons spoke disparagingly of the owners when they were out of earshot. It was an strange experience all around, though I can't fault the professionalism of the service, nor the price - the latter is, I'm sure, a big part of the draw for a lot of women.

Politically, the experience made me a little uncomfortable - the idea that the service they provided was somehow demeaning to them, and that I was taking advantage of the cheaper prices much the same way Wal-Mart exploits it's Chinese suppliers for profit.

But that's MY Western guilt talking. I'm still thinking within my own bubble. Who am I to say whether the women who run these salons find their experience demeaning? It's incredibly presumptuous of me to position my definition of that interaction as the correct one.

ambika said...

The second time I went for a manicure it was to one of the five or six salons within walking distance of my apartment. The place had been recommended by a friend for it's cheapness, quickness and great leg massages. I went and was appalled by the sweatshop like feeling the whole experience had--it was cheap but obviously because the women are encouraged to get customers in & out as quickly as possible. None of them spoke very much English and yes, the clientele did just ignore them while getting their feet done. The irony to me is that the friend who recommended the place is American born Asian.

I've gone to another salon where the atmosphere is more relaxed and there isn't the sense that the women who work there are getting paid less than minimum wage under the table. It's more money but at least I don't feel like I'm personally exploiting someone.

dorkas said...

hiya -- just found your blog, loved this post so much i responded to it over on mine! (with a link to your lovely self, of course!)

Anonymous said...

was just telling my husband how its a "must" for women to get manicures, pedicures and facials these days when 10 years ago, that wasnt the case.
I only visit the salons for special occassions, like when i was the bridesmaid for a friend's wedding or for my own wedding.I've received gift certs at the cheaper salons (did not enjoy them at all, found them unhygienic, not so friendly service) and i'll only go to one reputable salon where its more professional. I have to pay more but I know the ppl are trained & paid more unlike in those "sweat shop" salons. I've seen a heavily pregnant manicurist working! Im still doing my own nails and facials, it just seems like such an indulgence, so uneccessary to go the salons/spas.

Anonymous said...

You know, acetone and other nail chemicals are highly toxic and carcinogenic. Your nail technicians are exposed to extreme amounts of them on a daily basis, for the sake of your nails.