Manicuring Indifference: The Exceptionality of a Routine Practice - By Louise Rondel

A selection of the colours available at a salon
In advance of the 4th Beauty Demands Workshop, Louise Rondel (Goldsmiths, University of London)  considers the wider impact of the  nail industry and queries the notion that a manicure constitutes a form of 'routine maintenance'.

Costing from as little as ten pounds for a basic file and polish and twenty pounds for a full set of acrylics, it would seem that getting your nails done is becoming increasingly routine.  In 2013 The Sun reported that the number of nail bars increased by 20% in the year 2012-2013 and in 2015 The Evening Standard describes how ‘a swift £20 mani pedi has become the cheap luxury of the decade’ with ‘British women now spend[ing] £450 each on their nails’.  Indeed, walking along a 2 kilometre stretch of road from Camberwell to the Elephant and Castle in south-east London, I counted 37 places where you can get your nails done.
I want to problematise the notion that a manicure is ‘routine maintenance’, instead looking at the corporeal effects both on the client and, and more critically, on the nail technician to position getting your nails done as an ‘exceptional procedure’.

During my fieldwork at an upmarket nail salon in the City of London specialising in a well-known brand of long-lasting gel polish, I became interested in the nail care advice the manicurists gave to their customers.  The polish itself and its removal (which involves soaking the nails in acetone) can leave the nails brittle and the surrounding skin dry and damaged.  The technicians at the salon keep meticulous records of their appointments with all the customers including notes on the health of their nails.  They recommend using a cuticle oil which penetrates and moisturises the nail whilst the polish is on and they advise their customers to take at least a two-week break after two treatments (which will last four to six weeks).  During one of my visits, the two technicians are discussing the state of the nails of the next customer to arrive, commenting that her nails are so damaged from continuous applications of the polish that they are soft and bendy making them difficult to file, they also say that they will refuse her another treatment unless she takes a break.  When she arrives, her manicurist is adamant that this will be her last application for a while.  The customer sheepishly concurs and jokes about her ‘addiction’ and the ‘withdrawal symptoms’ she will go through.  After she leaves, the manicurists say they are unconvinced she will take a proper break.  The addictive ‘stunning crystal shine’ (brand advertisement) of her nails sharply juxtaposes with the longer-lasting bodily effects of the manicure.

The inside of a filter in a salon (not dealing with acrylic nails)
More acute however are the consequences on the bodies of those who work in the nail salons.  In 2015 The New York Times published two-part series on the working conditions in New York nail bars.  These articles report that ‘manicurists are routinely underpaid and exploited, and endure ethnic bias and other abuse’ and that ‘some ingredients used in nail products have been tied to cancer, miscarriages, lung diseases and other ailments [yet] the [beauty] industry has long fought regulations’.  In The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work based on ethnographic research carried out in Korean-run nail salons in New York, the American sociologist Miliann Kang (2010: 222) quotes her respondents who describe some of the occupational health issues related to their work:

‘I heard of someone who worked when she was pregnant, and the baby has some problems … This salon has good ventilation, and we keep it clean, but I still get rashes and sneezing’ (Mary Lee). 

‘At our store we don’t do acrylics, and it’s well ventilated so it’s better than other places, but nowadays my nose bleeds about two hours after finishing a big job like a tip set or wrap’ (Jiwon Cho). 

‘Ah, my hands. I wake up unable to move my hands, they tighten’ (Joanne Shin).

Getting acrylic nails fitted is a lengthy, complicated and skilful process.  First the manicurist begins by preparing my nails using a small electronic sander.  After gluing the tips onto my nails, she dips a make-up brush into a pot of clear solution and then into a pot of white powder to form an acrylic paste.  This is layered and shaped onto the nail, or rather it creates the nail.  At first the smell of the acrylic is not unpleasant, however the chemical odour grows more and more overpowering.  This is the unmistakable smell that leaks out of nail salons on warm days when the door is open; in one popular salon in south-east London where there are up to eight manicurists working, heads bent over their clients’ hands, concentrating on filing, shaping and painting, the smell of the acrylic is so strong it almost knocks you backwards as you walk through the door.  Once the acrylic has dried, the work of filing, resanding, shaping and buffing the nails begins.  Incredible is the amount of dust that is produced: clouds of dust which coat my hands, my sleeves, the table, the manicurist’s hands and clothes. I am desperate to dust off my hands, but the other hand needs to be worked on. It is a relief when the technician instructs me to wash my hands and I luxuriate by the sink, rubbing each hand with soap, rinsing and drying, making sure that all the dust has been removed. 

As Sarah Maslin Nir reports in The New York Times, research into the links between nail salon work and health effects is limited.  Yet the complaints from the manicurists are numerous: miscarriages, cancers, coughs that will not go away, nose bleeds, sore throats, painful skin afflictions and children born with learning or physical difficulties which may be attributed to the to the nail business and ‘its potent brew of polishes, solvents, hardeners and glues that nail workers handle daily’.

The highly-polished, beautifully-shaped finished product
Kang concludes by saying ‘until a manicure is seen as more than a personal indulgence … the intensive embodied and emotional work that it entails and the conditions under which it is performed will remain largely invisible and unequal…’ (2010: 254).  I wish to build on this conclusion by thinking about what is erased when a manicure becomes described as ‘routine maintenance’.  By attending to the corporeal cost to both the clients and (and more importantly) the manicurists, getting your nails done is instead revealed as an ‘exceptional procedure’.

After washing my hands of the acrylic dust, ‘my’ nails look matt and dry and my cuticles look red and irritated.  I choose a colour and return to the station.  Two coats of polish and a top coat later, I have the highly-polished, beautifully-shaped nails I had coveted. The sheen of the polish, however, belies both the nails underneath the polish and, more insidiously, the labour that has gone into them. 

Louise Rondel is a Postgraduate Researcher in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She blogs at 


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