So, tonight, a Beauty U student brings in the newspaper because the front page story is “Local Madam Arrested for Terrorizing Sex Slaves.”
“I can’t believe I went into that place!” she says. “I didn’t know what it was!”
She thought it was a nail salon. Because that’s what it said on the sign.
Our teacher has already seen the newspaper and is more world-weary. “You have to know the signs,” she tells us. Front windows painted up? A back room for “massage?” And — this is the part nobody quite says but we all know it anyway — Asian-owned and operated? Check, check, and check.
Let’s back up for a second. There’s a long history of racial tension in the beauty industry, mostly centering around the nail salon market, where 60 percent of workers are women of color: 10 percent Hispanic, 8 percent African-American, 2 percent Korean, and a whopping 40 percent Vietnamese, according to the 2010 industry survey by Nails Magazine (that’s a PDF link, btw). Being a nail tech requires the least amount of education (250 hours in New York state versus my 600 and a cosmetologist’s 1000), so it seems like a pretty good gig if you don’t have much cash to invest in training, don’t speak much English, and need to start earning money sooner rather than later. White-owned nail salons have seen their market share shrinking in response to this influx and it creates a lot of animosity. “It’s like a cold war between us,” one Vietnamese nail tech told me, a few years ago.
Around Beauty U, I hear a lot of cracks that suggest the war might be even a little hotter than that. Our golden rule of waxing is that you never ever double-dip your stick in the wax once you’ve touched the client’s skin. “Not like at those Asian places, where God only knows what’s in the wax,” one student says. (Side note: One teacher confessed that she too double-dips if she’s just doing “like an eyebrow or a lip/chin.”)
Same thing when we learn massage techniques. “I like how much pressure you use,” another student told me. “I was at a nail salon last week and I thought the woman was going to break my neck.” (For those of you who don’t frequent nail salons: A post-pedicure neck and shoulder rub is often included while you’re waiting for your polish to dry. Oh and also, a lot of them offer waxing services in addition to nails, to explain the quip above.)
“It’s not like they really know what they’re doing there,” someone else said. “A lot of times, they aren’t even licensed.” This devolved into a conversation about how infrequently “those people” clean the pedicure baths and how you’ll probably get a staph infection from them.
There’s also a lot of disappointment that we can’t get free mani/pedis because Beauty U has yet to recruit enough students to fill a nails night class. “It’s because it’s mostly an Oriental thing now,” the admissions director told me when I asked about it during my Interview. “They have their own schools. We don’t get the interest.”
And as I’ve mentioned before, there’s the whole “what are they saying about me?!” anxiety.
So, that’s the (not very pretty) landscape. And it’s not just Beauty U — it’s everywhere. That’s why I’m keeping names out of this post; I’ve encountered this same stuff throughout my beauty industry travels, as a customer and a journalist, too.
Now here’s the thing: Even beyond the local tabloid crap, there have been a handful of media reports (like this four-part NPR series) about Vietnamese and Korean-owned nail salons being used as fronts for money laundering and human trafficking. Workers that paint nails by day (often for as little as $50 per day plus tips even in a totally legit business) are forced into the sex trade by night — or whenever a client goes into the back room for a massage and leaves his towel in place after, which one Beauty U student’s husband accidentally discovered to be the Happy Ending code. (He got dressed and left.)
To the degree that this is happening at all (and I’m sure it is, though perhaps not as much as the media suggests, since even NPR couldn’t seem to come up with any hard numbers), it is horrendous. Both in terms of what’s happening to these exploited workers, and because it fuels two ugly stereotypes: That you can’t trust Asian people, especially in nail salons. And that “beauty worker” is synonymous with “sex worker.”
The truth is, being a nail salon worker is no cake walk, even without the whole sex trafficking issue. You work incredibly long hours inhaling incredibly toxic fumes. (Please watch and share the video above, for more details about all of that.) Many of your customers are condescending at best, rude and suspicious at worst. And your beauty industry colleagues are downright hostile.
If prostitution is happening at nail salons, I want us to help those women and girls get out. But along the way, I want to talk about ways low-paying beauty jobs exploit the women (and some men) who perform them in far more subtle and insidious ways. And I want us to stop blaming the victims and to stop talking smack about Asian nail salons in general. Enough already.
Because I think my Beauty U girls are operating under the assumption that it’s a good idea to make jokes about what goes on in those “Happy Ending-type salons” to help underscore the differences between us and them. But at the end of the day, we’re all wearing the same kind of aprons and waxing the same kind of body parts. So it really feels like we need a little Tina Fey/Mean Girls kind of scene right about now. You know, like when she tells all of the girls: “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it OK for guys to call you sluts and whores.”
Like that. Only replace high school girls with beauty industry workers. And replace “guys” with “the whole world.”
Must Read: The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work, in which women studies professor Miliann Kang studies the nail salon industry and finds that “while tentative and fragile solidarities can emerge across the manicure table, they generally give way to even more powerful divisions of race, class, and immigration.”