Race, Gender, and Nail Polish

The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work
By Miliann Kang
Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2010, 309 pp., $24.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Jennifer Jihye Chun

“Two women, virtual strangers, sit hand in hand across a narrow table, both intent on the same thing—the achievement of a perfect manicure,” begins Miliann Kang’s The Managed Hand, her study of Korean immigrant women workers in New York’s nail salons. Her acknowledgment of delight and self-indulgence, however, quickly turns into a sobering account of the everyday inequalities and fraught dynamics of this intimate service exchange. Nail-salon workers did not cross oceans and leave family members because they dreamed of grooming peoples’ hands and feet. Yet the success of ethnic entrepreneurship in this rapidly growing niche market has made nail salon work a familiar path of upward economic mobility for thousands of Korean immigrant women. Similarly, “while no individual woman suddenly wakes up with the idea that manicured nails are central to her identity,” says Kang, this service has become increasingly affordable and accessible to women of all social classes and races in New York’s 3,000-plus nail salons. “Rather than being an end in and of itself,” Kang writes, “nice nails and beauty more broadly are vehicles, albeit flawed and unreliable vehicles, to claim power in work, family, and relationships.”

Kang collected her data at six nail salons of different types in New York City: two upscale salons that cater primarily to upper- and middle-class whites; two nail-art salons that serve primarily African American women; and two discount salons located in shopping malls. In addition to observations of the everyday interactions between customers and nail technicians, Kang’s rich and textured account includes in-depth interviews with Korean immigrant nail salon owners; black and white customers; and various industry, community, and government representatives.

The Managed Hand begins with background information about the rapid growth of the nail-salon industry and the dominance in it of Koreans. One of the earliest ethnic groups in this sector, Korean immigrant women began opening nail salons in New York City in the early 1980s—before the industry became subject to strict licensing regulations in the 1990s. Mary Lee, who opened a nail salon in 1982, explains: “In the beginning anyone could open a nail salon. We just needed a few tables and basic equipment. We just learned as we did it.” Kang quickly dispels the myth that immigrant women such as Lee view nail-salon work as desirable employment. Korean immigrant women—many of whom were highly educated, skilled professionals before moving to the United States—faced severe labor-market barriers due to limited English skills, small social networks, and systemic discrimination. Working in a nail salon served as what Kang calls a “default” choice, preferable only to working in a garment factory or restaurant.

Although nail-salon work is potentially demeaning and requires putting in long hours, many Korean immigrant women learn to live with the trade-offs and “mixed gains,” says Kang. While many never anticipated that they would be washing feet and clipping nails for ten to twelve hours a day, they quickly manage their feelings of humiliation and aversion by reframing beauty service as a valuable form of care work for the elderly, the stressed, and the overworked. It enables them to support their children and send them to college—although the long hours mean that the time they have to spend with their children is extremely limited, a common dilemma for many Korean immigrants who work in greengrocers, liquor stores, and dry cleaners.

Kang’s analysis is anchored in the feminist sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s concept of “body labor.” Commercialized service interactions such as manicures involve not simply bodily care but also the management and exchange of emotion and power. “The manicure is not simply an economic transaction,” says Kang. “It is a symbolic exchange that involves the buying and selling of deference.”

This symbolic exchange is most evident in the upscale salons Kang observed. The white women who frequent them often treat manicures as opportunities to exercise privilege and embody entitlement. Their perfectly shaped and colored nails demonstrate that career success does not require sacrificing feminine beauty. These customers want more than sculpted, painted nails. They wish to be pleased, pampered and served by deferential Asian women, and they strive to extract “extras,” such as lengthy hand and foot massages and a friendly, generous ear for their troubles. They do not want to be reminded of the “otherness” of their manicurists, whether by the lingering smell of kimchi or the difficulty of pronouncing Korean names such as Kyung Ja or Jin Sun—whom they call Kathy or Jenny. While it is not clear from Kang’s account whether the salons’ customer-service policies are determined by ethnic shop owners or the complaints of primarily white customers, Kang characterizes upscale nail salons as active spaces of racial and ethnic assimilation.

In contrast, observes Kang, black women getting hand-painted nails and acrylic tips don’t require pampering from Korean manicurists; instead, their priority is to be treated with respect. In nail-art salons frequented by African American clientele, customers do not demand extras such as hand massages and compliments; rather they seek out salons that provide colorful and creative nail designs, and high quality, durable acrylic tips. Kang attributes the difference, in part, to the fact that many working-class black women get their nails done as a form of self-expression rather than as a vehicle for career or status advancement. Because black customers recognize the professionalism of the Korean manicurists, their relationships are often more congenial and reciprocal than the manicurists’ relationships with whites. However, Kang emphasizes, such cross-racial gender solidarity is fragile and unstable. Prejudice, among both Koreans and blacks, is often simmering beneath the surface, manifesting itself when conflict arises.

The underlying racial conflicts and hostilities plaguing nail-salon interactions is the main focus of Kang’s chapter on “chop shops”—the numerous discount nail salons popping up in suburban shopping malls across the country. In urban neighborhoods, Korean immigrants are stereotyped as racist; in contrast, in suburbia, they are perceived as “dirty.” Providing fast and inexpensive manicures and pedicures to a mass customer base, discount nail salons have come under fire for unsanitary practices, a charge that arises from older perceptions of Asian immigrants as the “yellow peril.” While this chapter lacks the ethnographic depth of previous chapters, it highlights an important new site for future analysis of the intersection of labor migration flows and the rapidly growing service economy.

While The Managed Hand is not a study of wages and working conditions, Kang is clearly concerned about the exploitative and hazardous nature of nail-salon work. Like many other low-wage workers, nail salon workers have little recourse against labor law violations such as unpaid wages and wrongful termination. Poor ventilation and constant exposure to the fumes and toxins of nail polish, nail polish remover, and the acrylic and glue used in tips and extensions—sometimes for as long as twelve to fourteen hours a day—make nail salons twenty-first century, service “sweatshops.” Workers suffer from an array of occupational health problems, including rashes, eye infections, asthma, and allergies. Community advocates suspect a close link between breast cancer and nail-salon work. Despite the dangers, many owners discourage the use of protective gloves and masks—which expose, rather than conceal, toxicity. Such blatant disregard for workers’ health is not isolated to the nail salon owners, Kang points out. Manufacturers make little effort to produce nontoxic products, and ethnic business associations show more concern for the profits of individual owners than for the health and safety of workers. Ironically, customers are more likely to see Asian manicurists as potential contaminators than as victims of health hazards.

The disposability of Asian women’s bodies in the pursuit of a western beauty ideal raises difficult questions about the social costs of buying and selling beauty. “What is a manicure worth?” asks Kang, in her concluding chapter. Is it worth poisoning the bodies and demeaning the human value of the women who give manicures? Is it worth reproducing the relations of privilege and entitlement that have oppressed women of color and immigrant women since the days of slavery and European colonialism? As a feminist sociologist, Kang is mindful not to present Asian women manicurists as mere victims of capitalism and patriarchy.  She recognizes the pitfalls of denying women’s agency and autonomy, and presents stories of manicurists who cultivate a sense of self-worth and dignity from the care and support they give to their clients.

She also highlights the sense of community and collegiality among nail salon owners and workers. However, in doing so, she tends to blur the distinction between workers and owners. There is limited insight into the inner workings of ethnic entrepreneurship and the myriad ways that owners may discipline and take advantage of their more economically disadvantaged counterparts, whether they are Asian or other immigrants, such as Mexicans. Thus, at times I wished for a more vivid account of the conflicts and tensions among workers and shop owners. As Korean and other immigrant shop owners become increasingly successful, understanding the complex power relations between ethnic employers and ethnic workers will be just as crucial to understanding twenty-first-century race relations as understanding the relationships between white or black customers, and Asian workers.

Jennifer Jihye Chun is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and a faculty fellow at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia. Her book, Organizing at the Margins: The Symbolic Politics of Labor in South Korea and the United States (2009), was a finalist for the 2009 C. Wright Mills Award and received an Honorable Mention for the Best Book Award from the ASA Labor and Labor Movements Section. Currently, she is working on a second book project that examines the affective and organizational dynamics of organizing immigrant women workers in Vancouver and San Francisco.

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