s I head to the nail salon to get my bridal manicure removed, lemme string these together for you:
On May 5th, I learned how Hitchcock favorite Tippi Hedren played a pivotal role in connecting Vietnamese refugees with a seeming forever vocation. Refugee women in Hope Village liked Hedren’s nails, and a vested campaign was born:
Thuan Le was there for the lightbulb moment. “A group of us were standing close to her and saw that her nails were so beautiful,” she recalled to TakePart. “We talked to each other and said they looked so pretty. I looked in [Hedren’s] eyes and knew she was thinking something. She said, ‘Ah, maybe you can learn nails.’ And we looked at each other and she said, ‘Yes, manicures!’ ” –Celeste Hoang for TakePart, May 5, 2015
It’s easy to picture Madge taking after Angelina adopting kids and maybe talking about clean water, but Hedren’s story opened my eyes. I found it fascinating. Here was a classic Hollywood starlet who helped people on the ground: uprooted people thrown together possibly starting at Ground -1 because they have to learn everything at an older state and forget anything they had established before. Refugee support doesn’t end with plopping a group in a new place. They have to be provided for with shelter, food, counseling, translation, networking, and the unimaginable more of what it takes to help them establish a future. And can the new country do this without assimilating the group? By integrating the individuals’ two worlds?
Tippi Hedren’s reported efforts (unveiled initially to the BBC May 3rd) really made me feel good about people, even famous people, even blonde-haired blue-eyed famous starlet people of yesteryear.
Two days later on May 7th, The New York Times came out with an exposé on the New York City manicure industry. It was damning. It revealed low wages, no wages, physical abuse, and ethnic bigotry. Based on 150 interviews conducted in multiple languages, investigative journalist Sarah Maslin Nir talked, polled, and researched her way to basically debunk the myth that any NY nail salon should be viewed as a place of pampering. It’s a sweatshop racket.
And, importantly, she didn’t stop there. The next day, part two of Maslin Nir’s findings came out and revealed themselves in the health and well-being of immigrant women throughout New York. They are working with chemicals that make drying quick for the client, but pose dangers of cancer and miscarriages for the manicurist with every buff and polish:
Similar stories of illness and tragedy abound at nail salons across the country, of children born slow or “special,” of miscarriages and cancers, of coughs that will not go away and painful skin afflictions. The stories have become so common that older manicurists warn women of child-bearing age away from the business, with its potent brew of polishes, solvents, hardeners and glues that nail workers handle daily.
A growing body of medical research shows a link between the chemicals that make nail and beauty products useful — the ingredients that make them chip-resistant and pliable, quick to dry and brightly colored, for example — and serious health problems. –Sarah Maslin Nir for The New York Times, May 8, 2015
The facts, lined up like bullet after bullet (and two days of them!), seemed to leave the entire manicure industry stripped of any dignity or respect. Understandably, backlash has sprung from the keyboards of women with routine manicures, nail shop owner, anonymous workers, and more. The Times even drew its Editorial Board together to stand by its publishing, and non-defend itself from any outright changes in consumer behavior that the report may incite:
The answer is not boycotts or scattershot raids or customers guiltily slipping a little more cash to their manicurists. Cultivating justice in the world of low-wage immigrant labor is going to take concerted attention and serious effort at all levels of government, along with increased support for, and greater involvement by, the workers themselves.
Once The Times editors issued its statement, it’s basically left to Maslin Nir, me-too web journalists, and secondarily related groups to keep the conversation in rotation. Among the more primarily related groups touched upon in all these discussions are Korean American nail salon workers, who’ve voiced their distaste with the unearthing endorsed by the NYT. Just yesterday, KoreAm reported the Korean American Nail Salon Association even demands a written apology from The New York Times. In the initial report from what is now succinctly referred to as the “Unvarnished” series, Korean American nail salons served as an example of the ethnicity-on-ethnicity competition and hierarchy (that’s frankly rampant throughout any industry powered by immigrants – and probably in any country, at that):
Some workers suffer more acutely. Nail salons are governed by their own rituals and mores, a hidden world behind the glass exteriors and cute corner shops. In it, a rigid racial and ethnic caste system reigns in modern-day New York City, dictating not only pay but also how workers are treated.
Korean workers routinely earn twice as much as their peers, valued above others by the Korean owners who dominate the industry and who are often shockingly plain-spoken in their disparagement of workers of other backgrounds. Chinese workers occupy the next rung in the hierarchy; Hispanics and other non-Asians are at the bottom.
The reveal that all ethnic groups are not equal, even when they are all minorities (AKA: non-White), is no shocker. And yet, groups mentioned in Maslin Nir’s investigation are trying to cover their own asses as if saving face in an industry of faceless workers is going to absolve them of the realities of the workplace. There’s not much to “unfold” from here, but I am intrigued by all the interest in nail workers’ rights: the immigrant situation for most of these women is treated like a mosquito-sized inconvenience. When The New York Times champions for nail workers’ justice, they’re really championing for justice for immigrants and refugees – which is a convoluted and complex hydra most content-with-their-days Americans do not want to deal with.
So. Personally, will I be boycotting nail salons? Yeah, but not like that’s difficult for me. I was basically boycotting them anyway just by…not going. Manicures aren’t a regular thing. Definitely just a specific kind of picker-upper that I dallied in a couple of times. I don’t like being touched. Sanitation suspicions have always made me cautious. Lately I’ve been overthinking the practice of tipping, and what it means for the industry in which it’s expected (nail salons, restaurants, hotel housekeeping). Ever since watching the first few seasons of Weeds, I assume any retail space that makes me think, “How do they afford rent here?” is a front. I have a lunchbox full of polishes at home that I can apply (albeit sloppily) on my own. Pinterest provides more than enough vicarious living. Frankly I’m not that good at investigative journalism and I have mixed feelings about labor unions. I know that these women deserve better, at the most basic, human, involved citizen level, but I know I’m not equipped to seek that for them.
Where is the new Tippi Hedren? And what should the focus of her job be?