Manicure Magic

Kamna Narain

Writer’s comment:
The first time I experienced complete writer’s block was when we were
told to write a feature article for my article writing class. We were
given the freedom to write about anything we wanted as long as it was
interesting. I felt like I would have rather been assigned a term paper
on endangered species in Siberia.

Everybody in my class seemed to be dabbling with topics like death,
dreams, and ingrained childhood fears. I didn’t want to write about
such abstract concepts; besides, all those topics were so “nineties.”
Let’s face it, nowadays everybody is infatuated with what they can’t
understand. So my challenge was to write about something that was
trendy yet tangible. As I sat at the computer and looked down at my
nails I said, why not? Manicures would certainly be popular with the
women, and the topic would definitely spark the men’s curiosity.

Writing “Manicure Magic” was almost as fun as getting my nails done! It
did take a while to do the background research, but since the topic
interested me, I found the research fascinating and exciting. And of
course, recounting personal experiences is always exhilarating. (Who
doesn’t like to talk about themselves?) I truly do believe that the
best things to write about are those things you know about—not because
it’s easier but because it is much more fun. (And if you are going to
write a 2,000 word article, it had better be fun!)

I’d like to thank two people who have been important in my writing
experience. The first person is my mother. She always used to tell me
that I would be a writer when I grew up, but I insisted on being a
flight attendant instead. Now I’m starting to think that she may have
been right. (There’s a lot of competition in the airline business, you
see.) The second person I would like to thank is John Boe, my English
103C instructor. His enthusiasm and love for writing reminded me how
much fun writing can be. Also, the way he wove humor into his own
writing “gave me the courage” (I just love melodrama) to do the same. I
hope that both my mother and Dr. Boe are happy to see my work
published. In addition, I hope that both of them, along with the rest
of you, will make an appointment for a manicure after reading this

—Kamna Narain

Instructor’s comment: For the last assignment in
English 103C (“Magazine Article Writing”), I require the students to
write a full-length “feature” article. I suggest students try to use at
least one piece of information from each of the following four sources:
personal experience, first-hand observation, interviews with other
people, and printed sources. They can write a feature on any subject
and they can take any approach, but I urge them to start with a subject
they already know something about and/or feel strongly about.

Kamna Narain ended up writing on a subject I myself had little interest
in and knew nothing about: manicures. But like a good feature writer,
she made this subject fascinating, integrating the history of
manicures, interviews with manicurists, and her own experience. Her
entertaining paper combined a charming personal voice with intelligent
reflection. Kamna ended up telling me so much about manicures I
couldn’t help but be interested. While I still don’t plan on having my
own nails done, I now understand a little better why other people do.

—John Boe, English Department

There’s nothing like
Strawberry Champagne or Park Avenue Orchids to let the world know that
you want to have fun. Peppermint and Funshine Pink exude youthful
innocence while Chinese Red is downright sexy. Black Cherry adds a bit
of serious sophistication to an already irresistible demeanor. And for
those more mellow moods, Grand Canyon Sunset and Beach Blanket Mauve
are sure to have a soothing impact.

It’s true. Nail color can mirror the inner feelings and emotions of the
person wearing it. In fact, there is an entire psychological dimension
to nails—mental health being a primary reason why people get manicures.
Few people will admit to getting their nails done solely for hygienic

My purpose for getting my nails done is two-fold. Getting a manicure
once a month keeps my nails healthy and gives my hands a softer and
cleaner look, even when my nails are not polished. Besides that,
though, it’s a relaxing and fun gift I give to myself. I figure that if
I don’t spend $15.00 a month on myself, who will? People are constantly
telling me that getting a manicure is a waste of time and money and
that I could do my nails myself and donate to charity the money I
“waste” each month. I’ll give twice as much money to charity, but I
refuse to give up this precious monthly ritual.

I am not the only one guilty of indulging in this ritual. Along with my
fellow “manicurees,” I have made a personal investment in a
billion-dollar business that has swept the U.S. in recent years. Each
day, this growing sector of the personal service industry is
responsible for making dozens of hands and people look and feel simply

The practice of nail coloring dates back to ancient civilizations. In
the Indus Valley, fingernails were worn long and occasionally trimmed
with special nail cutters, torn, chewed off, or rubbed against rough
walls. The nails were also polished, along with the tips of the
fingers, with red lac-dye. Henna leaves were used for this same purpose
and are still used in India and Pakistan for traditional customs such
as weddings. The Chinese and Japanese also colored their nails during
the Middle Ages.

The evolution of nail products in the West occurred much later. This is
possibly because women wore gloves most of the time, and thus their
hands were always hidden. It was in the post-Victorian era that
attention was given to enhancing the beauty of the hands and fingers.
In the early 1900s, women of the Western world discovered a new
phenomenon—polishing the nails. Beauty experts of the time stated that
because nails were apt to be a “trifle pale” they could be touched with
rose to call attention to their slenderness.

Along with facial creams, rouges, lipsticks, and other popular
cosmetics of the time, women also invested money in polishing pastes,
powders, or sticks. In 1903, Polpasta Polishing Paste was available for
25 cents and claimed to serve as a brilliant polish and a cure for hard
nails and callous cuticles. At its heels came French Polishing Powder,
which was available in cake form. When rubbed onto the nails, this
powder gave them a long-lasting look of transparency. Many women
preferred to have a transparent polish, which simply gave the nails
brilliance and gloss. Rose tints were also making waves as the dash of
color served to “betoken good health.”

Vogue, the widely read beauty and fashion magazine, announced
the arrival of a new nail product in 1907. According to the magazine’s
beauty editor, liquid nail polish was a sure winner because it was
simple to apply, took only a few seconds to dry, and produced a glossy
brilliance that lasted for days. It was for this unique and
contemporary nail cosmetic that American women would make appointments
with Madame Mille, a famous manicurist in Paris whose liquid polish was
available in New York as well.

Polish wasn’t the only nail product available at that time, though.
Nail files, cuticle removers, buffers, and polishers were essential to
completing a woman’s dresser set. These products were available in
gold, silver, and ivory, which was the most popular because it was
light. Decorated files with matching mirrors and manicure boxes covered
with silk and golden lace made popular and proper Christmas gifts for
the ladies of the day.

The 1930s brought about new trends in the nail world. Blood-red nails
were a fashion statement in America, while Paris was infatuated with
emerald green for a short time. The concept of matching nail color with
one’s lipstick shade was also introduced in this year. Harper’s Bazaar,
a popular women’s magazine, quoted Peggy Sage, the brain behind the
idea, in their May issue: “Now you can match your type or your coloring
by nails and lipstick that harmonize. An intriguing idea, don’t you

This intriguing idea soon became a fashion commandment as women began
religiously coordinating their lipstick and nail color with their
clothing. Polish was now available in hues other than red since
lipsticks in shades of pink, coral, and mauve were not uncommon. Fads
in nail color continued to occur after that, with gold and natural
tones prevalent during the sixties and bright nails making a comeback
during the seventies.

Color is still an important element of the entire manicure experience.
Certain colors are labeled appropriate for various seasons and
occasions. For years, it was taboo for working women to wear bright
polish. Clear and opaque shades (a crystal pink began to cross the
“fine line”) were recommended for interviews and the workplace. During
the mid-eighties, though, everyone from receptionists to top executives
fearlessly began wearing bright colors, which didn’t really seem to
bother anyone anyway. Professionals do not feel the need to look ugly
to appear capable anymore. “Color is a statement about being integrated
as a woman,” psychologist Linda Burd Howard said. “The implicit message
is that she is smart and feminine too.”

Revlon used the psychological aspects of color to formulate what Business Week
referred to as “one of the most successful advertising campaigns in
history.” They marketed a shade of red lipstick and nail polish called
“Fire and Ice.” The name was supposed to allude to the two elements,
fire and ice, which every woman possessed. This new daring and exciting
shade of red was well received and proved to be a gold mine for Revlon.

Recent years have seen more emphasis being placed on “mood and action”
provoking colors. Choice of nail polish for a particular individual is
based on mood and how one “feels.” Cosmetic companies display a myriad
of shades in retail stores, and nail salons are expected to offer a
wide variety of shades and hues for their customers to choose from.
Manicurists are not supposed to tell their clients what color to get,
even if the client asks. Instead, they pose questions like, “What do
you feel like?” or “Which color captures your attention?”

“I can’t tell you what to get because if you don’t like it, you’re
stuck with it” is what my manicurist, Wendy, always says when I beg for
her help in making a decision. “I can’t tell you how you are feeling.”

Sometimes even I don’t know how I’m “feeling.” I remember once picking
out shades of light pink because an outfit I was going to wear to my
friend Sherry’s graduation party was light pink. Wendy waited patiently
as I sampled all the shades that I had initially chosen, not being
satisfied with any of them.

“Why don’t you go check the shelf again?” Wendy said pointing to the
wooden shelf over the sink that was lined with glass bottles of nail

Convinced that there was no shade of polish that would make me feel
better, I dragged my feet across the room and within half a minute
walked back, shaking a bottle of pink polish which was about five
shades deeper than what I originally thought I wanted. I confessed to
Wendy that the light pink hues were not exciting enough for me. Fifteen
minutes later, while walking home, I watched my bright pink nails
brilliantly glisten in the sun. I was truly satisfied with my nails and
felt great.

Feeling great and being satisfied are two elements of the prime
philosophy behind manicures. According to Stella, co-owner of a
Northern California nail salon called Smooth as Silk, the most
successful manicurists are the ones who satisfy their customers. If a
manicurist is professional yet friendly, two qualities customers are
looking for, their customers will not only keep coming back to them but
they will also recommend their manicurist to everyone who will listen,
which is the best kind of marketing money can’t buy.

Developing a long-term relationship with a particular manicurist is
also important to many customers. Manicurists get a sense of how each
client likes her nails done, and the client feels confident that she
will get what she wants. A certain bond made up of comfort and trust is
developed, similar to that of a doctor and a patient.

A majority of nail salons have manicurists working for themselves so
that customer satisfaction is maximized. Manicurists work as many hours
as they choose and are responsible for their own customers. In other
words, they are their own bosses.

“Manicurists who work on commission are much more motivated to satisfy
the customers so that their clients keep coming back,” Stella says as
she stocks supplies in her nail salon. “They are also less likely to
quit than if they were on salary, which keeps the customers happy
because they don’t like to see their manicurists go.”

Regular clients contribute significantly to a manicurists’ business.
Although many people come in for a one-time manicure (especially during
peak seasons like the holidays and graduation), “regulars” are
important for their long- term business.

“Actually, many of the regulars originally come in to pamper
themselves,” Wendy informs me. “But then they like the way their nails
look and how that makes them feel, so they keep coming back.”

There’s that psychological factor again. The idea of feeling good
because you look good—an ideology which many cosmetics companies have
capitalized on. Some believe that it’s not only the way your nails look
that makes you feel good but also the entire experience which helps one
“escape.” It is not uncommon for nail salons in metropolitan cities to
be busy during the noon hour and after five, when working women come in
to unwind and give themselves a treat after a long day at work.

Sitting in a decorated salon, soaking your hands in warm water, and
having someone later massage them and make them look good is very
relaxing and is a large part of the reason people are willing to pay
fifteen or twenty dollars for the hour-long service.

“You could just as easily buy the equipment yourself and do it, but I
guess people just feel like pampering themselves once in a while,” my
roommate admitted to me after she thought about why people get their
nails done.

Stella believes that many women come to her salon for social purposes.
“Before, women used to get together and have coffee. Now they don’t
have time to do that because many of them are working, so they leave
their husbands, kids, schoolwork, and anything else at home and come

In my experience, visiting the nail salon has never been an uneventful
experience. People are always talking about what’s going on in the
news, frustrations at work, how the kids are sick, the latest plot on Days of Our Lives,
and my personal favorite, why men are so hard to figure out. Many times
the manicurists will hold “mini therapy sessions” with their clients
since, for many clients, this is time they are investing in their own
personal health. (Wendy knows all about my guy problems!)

I realized the value of this introspective, psycho-social experience
when I had my nails done in Bangkok, Thailand. My flight was late, so I
decided to get a manicure at the airport beauty salon. I walked into
the salon, immediately noticing how quiet it was. A man was getting his
hair cut and another woman was having her hair done as well, but
neither of them were talking. I looked around for a manicure table.
When I didn’t see one I assumed that another room was used for
manicures. Moments later I was shocked when the manicurist led me to
the side of the room and asked me to sit in the black vinyl chair in
the corner. She filled a light green plastic tub with water and added
powdered soap to it. She then sat at my feet on what looked like the
stepstool in our bathroom back home. Placing a pillow on her lap, she
motioned for me to extend my arm to her. Still recovering from the
initial shock of not sitting at a table with neatly displayed nail
files (in every size and color imaginable) and with fancy gold lights,
I obediently gave her my hand. She looked at the hand intently and
began doing what I was paying her to do, giving me a manicure. She only
talked when instructing me to move my hands.

Fifteen minutes later she had finished the ritual which took an hour
back home. She didn’t use a nail buffer. She didn’t oil my nails twice.
She didn’t massage my arms. She didn’t wrap them in a hot towel. She
didn’t use base coat. And finally, she didn’t have me use some
high-tech nail dryer. I was supposed to AIR DRY them! What bothered me
the most, though, was that she didn’t talk to me. My nails looked fine;
in fact, they looked great. But that wasn’t the point. The point was I
didn’t feel relaxed, pampered, special, and great—like I usually did
after a manicure.

Manicures are all about looking great and feeling great. Base coat is
not essential, and having your arms massaged is truly a luxury one can
do without. Manicurists are paid to give their client a manicure, but
in addition to the manicure the client receives an experience which
provides an opportunity to relax, gossip, tell someone her problems, or
do whatever she feels like doing. Red tips at the Indus Valley,
polishing powder in Paris, liquid nail polish in New York, Fire and Ice
across America, and nail salons in suburban towns all have one thing in
common. They are all about doing something extra for yourself. Great
looking nails aren’t a necessity; they're a luxury.