At Nail Salons, Questioning a Beauty Rite

An investigation revealed health and labor problems at many nail salons in New York.

Last weekend, all weekend, Kate McKean, 36, struggled with her guilt.

Her husband’s employer, an education nonprofit, was holding its annual fund-raising gala on Monday night. She had picked out a blue sequined Badgley Mischka cocktail dress from Rent the Runway and settled upon her accessories. The only detail left to attend to was her nails.

Ordinarily, she would have popped into any nail salon; she considers a manicure, she said, “a part of the ritual of getting dressed up.” But a few days earlier, the Internet had erupted in chatter about the ethics of patronizing inexpensive manicure shops, fueled by an investigation by The New York Times that revealed unfair labor practices and unhealthy work conditions.

“I grappled with trying to determine my need,” said Ms. McKean, a literary agent. A few hours before the event, she went to a new salon near her Brooklyn apartment, chose a pale pink polish — “I didn’t want a conspicuous manicure,” she said — and tipped 30 percent.

In recent days, Ms. McKean and women all over New York have been reconsidering their reliance on regular nail grooming at bargain salons. At dinner tables and on Facebook, men and women discussed their revulsion at reports of conditions at such shops. “Mentally splashing red nail polish at the Fendi-clad woman coming out of the $10/manicure joint,” the writer Sloane Crosley tweeted.

But privately, women wrestled with giving up a treasured rite of affordable grooming. One person tweeted, in part: “Now I can’t even get my nails done without feeling white guilt. Can’t I have ONE THING?!” Another tweeted: “so now it’s nail guilt? that’s the new shame o’ the week. pretty nails don’t care?”

Pippa Lord, 32, experienced no ambivalence. She woke up Sunday morning, saw the newspaper article on the plight of nail salon workers and went straight to a shop near her Brooklyn Heights apartment for a mani-pedi.

“You don’t want to regress the industry, you want to support them,” said Ms. Lord, the founder of the website Sous Style. She started thinking about how she and her friends try to be conscious of eating locally and avoiding fast fashion.

“We always consider the social impact of clothing and food,” she said, “but to the people who are serving us every day, we have been turning a blind eye.”

So she has begun urging her friends to post photographs of their nails on social media with the hashtag #handlewithcare.

“It’s sort of a pledge to signal to the industry that they will pay more for ethical manicures,” she said.

Brooke Richman, 28, gets manicures weekly, if not more often. But having been a regular customer for years at a shop where they cost $9.50 each, she became deeply upset upon reading about the labor conditions that enable such prices.

“I haven’t had my nails done in 10 days, which is a record for me,” she said.

Manicures, Ms. Richman said, help prevent her from biting her nails. She owns Coop & Spree, a clothing and accessories store in NoLIta, and believes that well-groomed hands are important since she helps clients try on clothes and jewelry.

When her life is in chaos, pretty nails provide a measure of emotional comfort, as well. “I feel a lot more, well, polished when I have had them done,” she said.

On Sunday, Ms. Richman saw an Instagram post from a nail salon near her store that said it was “applauding” the newspaper article for revealing the “exploitation of underpaid and unprotected nail salon workers.” On Tuesday, Ms. Richman went to the salon, which charges about $30 for a manicure, and grilled the manager about its labor and health conditions.

“I said, ‘I want to make sure everyone is legally paid,’ ” she said. Assured by the answers, she said, she will be getting a manicure there this week.

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