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 article!
—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 purposes.
         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 divine.

         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 think?”
         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 enamel.
         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 here.”
         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.