Pretty hurts: Nail salons and intersectional vulnerability

The people who work in nail salons are overwhelmingly poor female migrants from East Asian countries. Some have legal documentation status to be in the United States; many do not. As is the case with almost all contemporary poor migrants, they are central to the financial viability of their families here and send remittances to family they left behind. As documented by Sarah Maslin Nir for the NYTimes and before that by researchers including Millian Kang, the work done by those in the beauty service industry stretches Beyonce-soundtracked imaginaries to grasp exactly just how much pretty hurts.


Asian women endure risky migration journeys to be reracialized into a new form of yellow peril (fungus fear). This location of systemic racism is manifested, in part, through online racist reviews that protect whiteness as property through consumerism, and through, often same-race, overseers whose operations echo skewed notes of sharecropping that stalled at bare compensation. It seems that the best many Asian manicurists can hope for is to actually be compensated.

Now that the story has broken to a wider audience, we have a unique opportunity to grapple with the intersectional realities of this manifestation of racist capitalism. There has been an initial response from the Governor Cuomo’s office, mandating the posting of workers’ rights signs in nail salons, plans for salon by salon examinations for working conditions, and prosecution of wage theft violations. This response is necessary and of course insufficient. For example, the posting of signs may inform workers of their rights and may even nudge an awareness in the clients who frequent the salons, but those signs will not hold sway without policy changes. The ubiquity of this story and its unfurling holds the potential to activate a more intricate and better articulated intersectional response.

Beauty salon workers experience compounded vulnerability because they are largely women, not white, speak English to differing proficiencies, and are socialized to be subservient to a racist form of capitalism that preserves whiteness as property. If this location of systemic oppression is to be countered, it must be approached intersectionally, taking its dismantling orders from the intersectional oppression experienced by these women. Put another way, there is not one avenue that can adequately meet intersectional social locations of oppression.

Intersectional redress must include mandating a fair living wage and dismantling the policies that erode fair wages. Wage inequality continues to be racially organized, and then within races, by gender. This fairly obvious material change, although included in Governor Cuomo’s edict, will actually require fortitude from policymakers to counter their prevailing bottom lines of profits across policies in labor, education, and housing, to name a few of the cornerstones of institutionalized inequity. The order to post signs addressing workers’ rights comes from Governor Cuomo’s office, the same office that has imposed market logics into previously public spaces. This office also strongly supports evaluating teachers and attaching pay to thoroughly critiqued statistical models of student achievement on already high stakes assessments. The market logics undergirding this educationally and statistically bankrupt policy also supports the larger context of black market labor underwriting white market tastes and price points.

Without addressing the complicitness in insisting that the customer is always right and that free market competition should reign lone and high, cracking down on violations will only serve to punish those who seek to game a system already designed for them to lose. We saw manifestations of this in Atlanta where the educators criminalized for trying to survive under Draconian educational reforms were Black middle class professionals. Governor Cuomo’s discipline and enforcement-heavy approach belies that larger market context which has birthed the very conditions of these nail salons.

In addition to addressing workers rights’ and its erosion under capitalism at all costs, the customers who frequent nail salons must decouple themselves from material investment in the systemic racism that subtly and not so subtly reinstantiates their property rights. Cheryl Harris’ foundational analysis of whiteness as property from 1993 continues to be excoriating in its relevance, outlining how property rights are experienced as entitlement with the slimmest denial of these rights leads to everything from ill-advised online reviews to court cases heard by the Supreme Court. Property is, as Jeremy Bentham noted, tightly hinged to expectation. The positioning of customer evaluations and expectations that mute the conditions of vulnerabilized labor speaks to the ubiquity of property rights as a core logic in capitalist societies. This property need not be owned exclusively by whites; in fact, the ubiquity of the logic means that it is supported and perpetuated by many but still materially most benefits land-owning white people.

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The realm of whiteness as property is gendered, raced, and classed. Although nail beauty industry services are not provided solely by women or even Asian women, the feminization and therefore subordination of this service industry manifests into minority status. In other words, the harm does not arise because of the workers’ biological sex or phenotype but because of the still lower humanity afforded to women, which is compounded when they are not white.

The moves to countering systemic oppression cannot be conducted through single axes. Providing higher tips, cracking down on wage theft, and posting nicer online reviews won’t cut it. We have to actually value human life more than the subsidies provided by intersectional vulnerabilities for body taste consumerism. This priority of humanity over commodity, including commodification of the self, remains the core challenge to challenge the lived experiences of transnational capitalism.

2 thoughts on “Pretty hurts: Nail salons and intersectional vulnerability

  1. I thought of you when I read the NYT article and of course you bring it to light with your complicated and on-point analysis. It’s hard for those of us that love a mani/pedi to not be complicit even as we value human life over “body taste consumerism” since by its nature the work conveys a kind of symbolic subordination (what with manicurists bending over our feet, for example). Aside from advocating for fairer practices and short of canceling our pedi appointments, what suggestions do you have for operationalizing the valuation of human life in this and similar contexts?

  2. Right, thank you SEW – what’s the route to change? I think if we first recognized a single approach won’t cut it, that would go a long way. Paying individuals more (sliding the tips furtively to evade the machinery of the shop, if necessary), changing policies to interrupt transnational capitalism, and chipping away at ideologies of whiteness as property should all be part of a comprehensive plan.

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