The Moral Dilemma Posed by the Mani-Pedi

by Alizah Salario

“Pick a color.”

If you’ve heard these three words, then you’ve probably watched a manicurist scarf down a meal in the corner of a nail salon, or stared across the whirlpool bath at a young face belonging to someone who should probably be doing her homework, not scrubbing dead skin off your gross feet, or wondered just how many cuticles the woman cutting your cuticles has cut that day, and how many more she has to go. But … you get to pick a color! And there are so many colors to choose from! So maybe you see the problematic situation right under your toes, but you’re broke and getting a real bargain, and this burgundy varnish goes really well with your skin tone.

I really like getting my nails done on the cheap. So do lot of women, according to this staggering investigation into the systemic exploitation, rampant abuse, and ethnic biases against manicurists at nail salons throughout New York City. The New York Times reports:

Salon workers describe a culture of subservience that extends far beyond the pampering of customers. Tips or wages are often skimmed or never delivered, or deducted as punishment for things like spilled bottles of polish. At her Harlem salon, Ms. Cacho said she and her colleagues had to buy new clothes in whatever color the manager decided was fashionable that week. Cameras are regularly hidden in salons, piping live feeds directly to owners’ smartphones and tablets.

Qing Lin, 47, a manicurist who has worked on the Upper East Side for the last 10 years, still gets emotional when recounting the time a splash of nail polish remover marred a customer’s patent Prada sandals. When the woman demanded compensation, the $270 her boss pressed into the woman’s hand came out of the manicurist’s pay. Ms. Lin was asked not to return.

“I am worth less than a shoe,” she said.

Fittingly, the article is headlined “The Price of Nice Nails,” and in New York, nice nails come cheap. The average price for a manicure in Manhattan is about $10.50. It doesn’t take a sweeping investigation to prove that this cheap price comes at a cost to workers. Walk into the average nail salon. It’s clear that working conditions are not good. Yet I — and maybe you too — keep the mani-pedi train rolling. It’s okay, I tell myself, because I leave a generous tip. Because I get my nails done infrequently. Because even if I can do my nails myself, someone else always does them better. Because unkempt nails symbolize a lack of self-care and inattention to detail. Because it’s a small, cheap, accessible luxury in a city where most luxuries are inaccessible to me.

Manicures are one of the few things you can get cheaper in New York than most other places in the country. But if my savings comes at a cost to other women, and that cost isn’t just in dollars, but in the personal currency of dignity and safety, then my savings has no value. Yes, I like feeling like a savvy urban power-saver. I’m a freelancer and I hustle for work. I take a certain pride in my ability to live frugally. My small indulgences feel earned, even necessary. But my pride in getting a good deal — and ignoring the obvious inequalities — quickly became a source of shame. After reading the New York Times article in full, it won’t be so easy to sink obliviously into a comfy pedicure chair. My personal savings isn’t worth the cost.

Now I can sanctimoniously pat myself on the back, right?

It’s unbelievable what we can justify or ignore, until we’re called out. I get my eyebrows and upper lip threaded (yes, it hurts) for less than the cost of a fancy cocktail. Instead of paying hundreds of dollars for movers, I hired day laborers standing outside the Park Slope U-Haul for a low hourly rate to schlep my stuff down two flights of stairs and then up another four flights in the blazing summer heat. I’ve ordered take-out in bad weather, and felt kind of bad for the delivery guy, but not bad enough to forgo my pad thai.

I’ve dropped my laundry off, well knowing the woman folding my underwear can’t be making much more than the cost of my wash and fold. Am I doing what I need to do to save a few much-need dollars, or am perpetuating the exploitation of cheap labor? Am I writing this out of real concern, or out of recently pink pedicured, but-its-finally-sandals-weather toenail guilt?

I’m not sure. What I do know is that I try to spend my money in alignment with my principles and values — i.e., I try not to contribute to the exploitation of disenfranchised workers. I also know that one of my values is frugality. Doing what’s ethical and what’s financially prudent don’t always align, and the nail salon atrocity begs a much larger question about economic complicity. What about all the other ways besides mani-pedis that I benefit from the abuses of others?

As someone who makes an average living and is often paid far less than I’m worth, I opt for services from people who make much less than I do and get paid even less than they’re worth. I’m not above the system that makes me feel like it’s impossible to get ahead. I’m part of it, and I hold tight to my small but sufficient piece of the pie. In doing so, I perpetuate the same inequalities I rail against. You do too. Don’t delude yourself into thinking otherwise.

I’ve often wondered if the allure of the pedicure is not just nice nails, but a sense of feeling elevated and in control, especially in a city where power feels elusive.

In New York, a city rapidly devolving into a corporate playground, the few remaining bargains feel like throwbacks to another era. I so often cringe at the entitlement I see all around me, but I’m certainly privileged enough have a stranger literally crouching below me, picking at my feet. I’ve often wondered if the allure of the pedicure is not just nice nails, but a sense of feeling elevated and in control, especially in a city where power feels elusive.

Beyond cheap manicures, where to draw the line between what’s morally sound and what’s financially prudent? The ethical versus expensive dilemma pervades every aspect of life. Sometimes purchasing coffee — a product so essential to my work it should be a tax writeoff — becomes a moral issue. Is it fair trade? Who picked the beans? My budget doesn’t always account for pricy ethical blends. I fume at sanctimonious friends who won’t shop at certain stores they’ve deemed unethical, and then I go and buy my cage-free eggs and Kind bars from the Park Slope Food Coop. Gwyneth Paltrow’s self-satisfied clean living drives me crazy, but I’d be lying if I said that choosing organic pricy green juice over cheap coffee doesn’t make me feel just a wee bit smug. I occasionally pay more for the illusion that I’m living a pure, uncompromised life.

I wish there was a formula for spending ethically on a budget. Where I fall on the spectrum varies, and it often depends on my budget, my mood, and whatever else is triggering my guilt mechanism. But I don’t live in a moral vacuum. To feel compromised is part of living in the real world. Sometimes, falling short of our ideals is the cost of making a life. I want to spend my money in alignment with my values, but I also want to pay my rent.

The truth is, to even think about spending money ethically is a privilege. To live in perfect alignment with one’s principles is a luxury. But so is getting a manicure-pedicure. From now on I’ll probably be doing my own nails. Unless have a special occasion. Unless I leave a really generous tip. Unless I accept my inevitable complicity. Unless unless unless.

Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. Her reportage, essays, and criticism have appeared in Money magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Daily Beast, The New York Observer, New York Magazine’s Vulture blog, Narratively, at The Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere.

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