The Nail Salon As A Social System


In my two years of fairly regular attendance at nail salons, I have learned plenty.

The people who run the salon are generally oriental in origin; everyone who has spoken with me about their lives has been of Vietnamese origin.  They tell me of families being in the business, and speak to me of America as a land of opportunity in a way I have not heard since my own Grandmother-Of-Blessed-Memory spoke of such things.

The “boss” of the salons is usually a male.  He answers the phone and masterminds schedules.  The general mood in the salon seems to be a function of his personality.  I have seen a few, especially in the larger salons, look angry and raise their voices at employees who seem to cower in fear.  The employees in such situations generally tell me that they respect such owners and deny any kind of abuse, even verbal.  They generally have structured rules about having clippers sterile and such and they tell me that he monitors such things.

Sometimes, however, they are of a very different personality type.  The boss at the place where I had my nails done this morning has the personality and timing of a standup comic.  He sometimes tells anecdotes about customers that may actually be true, but like a physician, never betrays confidentiality.  For instance, he had people doubled over in laughter telling about two guys who came in together and one of them bet the other he would not be “man” enough to try nail polish.  The boss/comic was doing the voices of both.

My (female) nail technician told me my husband’s nails grew faster than mine because he ate more, something to which he quickly agreed.  I told her that if more people ate well she would have more business, and she riffed off that pretty well.  She thanked me for being “easy” (not wanting a massage or nail color) and this was cute and funny even though I do not think she would ever have guessed why I would have hesitated a bit about being called “easy” in public.

At this stage of the game I am not about to delve into Oriental languages enough to know about what they discuss with each other.  With me, the female operators usually tell me about the children they are sending to college and grooming for a “professional” life — yes, hoping for medical or dental school.  Again, like the way my grandmother hoped for dental school for my father.

The patrons are generally well-behaved, and very working-class.  Sometimes I still hear the kind of things I heard in hair salons in my childhood — women talking about recipes and families.  But I also hear women talking about “jobs” — never about professions, but just “jobs” — for they seem to work out of necessity more than out of love for what they do, and tell themselves that their manicure or pedicure is something they “deserve.”

One thing that seems to have increased in the two years that I’ve patronized these places is the number of male customers.  They rarely come in alone — most often with their wives. My husband is about as secure as a male could be — if not how could he hang around with someone like moi?  But these men, who wear tee shirts and feed caps, often look around the salon with furtive glances before setting in, for settling in is something they do nicely.  The magazines are generally female oriented, though my husband ended up with ‘People,” and most of the guys I have seen have not been readers.

Actually, it seems to me that the first time I saw someone getting a manicure was in a barber shop, where a young and proverbially “hot” manicurist sat on a stool by a man in a large traditional barber type chair.  I remember I was quite young, and my father and brother went to an archetypal Italian barber, who was a passable opera singer and liked to prove just how passable to my father of blessed memory, who would never have criticized a man who had a scissors in his hand in any way, shape, or form.

I remember seeing a movie, also in childhood, where some famous and nefarious person of Italian origin, perhaps Al Capone, was similarly served by a female manicurist.

But those were manicures.  I never saw a male get a pedicure until I went to nail salons.

It is something men such as I see seem to do with their families — perhaps even on special occasions.

Today it was a couple who had driven up from inland California to enjoy the coast.  They had chosen this salon, as we did, from a Yelp review.  It was part of a nice little vacation, a self-indulgence.

In many salons, men are provided with male nail technicians.  The male of that couple was.  My husband got the man they nickname “the doctor,” with a crew cut and a very medical looking white coat.  He seemed a little quieter, less aggressively humorous than the rest.

Men for the men.  I am actually happy of this fact.  Not that I think that my husband’s head would be turned by any of these young ladies — but rather, that the whole sexual aspects of a powerful male being catered to by a trained if subservient female are delightfully absent.

Special occasions.  I have often run into these family-parties on weekends.  I would have been angered if my mom had come up with this for a birthday party (I would have wanted a “science fun” demonstration or something) but a bunch of nine year olds of northern California near the Oregon border were thrilled to death to have painted nails on all four limbs and showed them off to an older female stranger who happened to be present — namely me.

I guess it remains part of the female role model, and probably presents no problems, but I have thought more than once about a manic patient  once had who overspent on getting her nails painted.  Her family criticized her excessive self-indulgence. They were worried about money for food and rent.

I could not help but wonder if this woman’s family had gotten her “hooked” on manicures when she was, say, about nine years old and having a birthday party.

This is one of the problems about being a psychiatrist and dealing with patients — it can give a skewed view of the world.

Social classes do exist in America, despite energetic attempts to disregard them.  I have vague memories of a movie called “The Women,” based on a play by Claire Booth Luce, who was an acclaimed (woman) writer in the middle of the 20th century and who wrote about the society of an ultra-upscale salon in New York. Women came across as biting and competitive and relatively nasty creatures.  I have seen none of that in nail salons.  Of course, if there is a “regular” clientele I do not attend enough to know them.  Here is very much a culture of “we are all in this together;” a culture of friendly talking to strangers about magazine covers or particular nail technicians, but always delightfully positive.

I remember how in my psychoanalytic lectures in residency an older bearded and highly-credentialed analyst said things about the natural competition among women for mates that made friendship among females difficult at best.  Such assertions make my blood boil.

I have had a few close women-friends in my life, and I do seem to have fewer long-term friends than most because I am on the move so often and so much.

Such folks – like male psychoanalysts – definitely need to go to a modern nail salon.

I suspect they would get their wings clipped as well as their toes.

These are fun places where — although males are welcome – there is a brand of female camaraderie that is as joyful as it is humanistic.

Yes, I love having my nails done.

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