The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work

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Why do so many Asian women, and Korean women in particular, own and work in these salons? These questions recognize the simultaneous ways that supply, demand, and location shape the growth of the global service economy and the development of a specific ethnic-dominated niche like nail salons within it. While these are distinct questions, they are also closely interrelated.

The question of why so many Asian women work in nail salons can be answered only in relation to the question of why so many women in the United States desire and purchase these services.

Furthermore, in order to understand the proliferation of nail salons in a specific site such as New York City, it is important to examine not only the individual consumers who purchase these services and the providers who offer them but also the economic, political, and cultural contexts in which these exchanges occur.

In this chapter I respond to these questions—why nails, why New York, and why Asian women? The politics of race, class, and immigration in the United States and the shifting dynamics of the global service economy provide the context that shapes the relations that women forge around the manicuring table.

The growth in manicuring services reflects a general expansion of capitalist markets, the specifically gendered processes relating to the commercialization of women's bodies, and the positions of women in the labor market. The influx of women into the paid labor force has increased the demand for such services, because more women can now afford them.

However, another important factor is heightened desires for beauty as a commodity. The purchase of body-related services is fueled by ramped-up social standards for women's appearance, as well as by women's own longing for the accoutrements of beauty, including the pampering services associated with it.


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At the same time women's desires for beauty services would simply be longings rather than daily enactments if it were not for the presence of a ready fleet of immigrant women workers to provide these services. The lifestyle that many urbanites take for granted in cities such as New York is possible only because of the influx of new immigrants and their willingness to work long arduous hours for minimal pay in jobs that many native-born Americans view as beneath them. While immigrant women from specific ethnic groups are not the sole creators of these jobs or the terms under which they perform them, they contribute to creation of these specialized niches by capitalizing on the limited choices available to them.

The formation of New York City's nail salon industry and its domination by Asian women simultaneously draws on and contests two competing racial discourses. On the one hand, representations of Asian success in this industry exemplify praise for the innovation and diligence of Asian Americans and their independence from government "special treatment," as referenced in the Townsend epigraph.

On the other hand, their success fuels the anti-Asian and anti-immigrant sentiments held by those who blame these groups for downgrading U. Neither of these discourses, which are discussed in-depth in later chapters, adequately accounts for the composite factors that drive nail salon growth in New York and other cities.

The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work

While Asian immigrant women are indeed hardworking and resourceful, these characteristics alone cannot account for their domination of the nail salon industry. Rather, it is the context of the "global city" that shapes the consistent demand for inexpensive and convenient beauty services and the terms of who does this work. In other words, while customers' desire for manicured nails and manicurists' need to earn a living are certainly important factors in the increase in nail salons, these factors are driven by larger processes pertaining to the postindustrial transformation of cities and city life.

Through a fortuitous convergence of global and local factors, rather than through their unique cultural traits, Korean women have successfully mobilized individual and community resources to sustain entrepreneurship and employment in this service niche. Why do more and more women now pay for manicures instead of doing their nails themselves? The answer to this question, far from a simple story of women's innate longing for physical beauty, instead pulls back the curtain on the surreptitious but revolutionary reorganization of social life in the late twentieth century.

Arlie Hochschild describes this sea change as "the commercialization of intimate life," in which more and more human activity that was formerly engaged in by family, friends, and community members has been subsumed into the global capitalist economy. In short, capitalism has expanded geographically to hinterlands previously untouched by commodity markets as well as into areas of human life once viewed as private and even sacred.

Other scholars have similarly explored how formerly unpaid activities, such as raising children, caring for the elderly, preparing food, doing laundry, and mowing the lawn, are now routinely farmed out to paid service workers. In addition, market capitalism has spawned new occupations, ranging from on-line matchmaker to personal assistant, home organizer, party escort, and life coach.

These services are designed to meet the emotional and social needs formerly met by friends, churches, bowling leagues, neighborhood associations and community groups and reflect an overall decline in civic ties.

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Most important for this study, a new range of service providers—personal trainers, massage therapists, plastic surgeons, and manicurists, to name a few—have staked out the body, its appearance, comfort, and health, as a profit-making venue. Whereas Hochschild's study focuses on the commercialization of human feelings, the interactions in nail salons illuminate the complexities of buying and selling services that cater to both human emotions and bodies.

These interactions are not unique to nail salons but reveal how the routine upkeep of the body and its appearance have spawned an array of purchasable services.


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Indeed, the growth in nail salons has been impressive—and the overall growth in beauty services has been staggering. Like the manicure, a child's first haircut is no longer a ritual performed on a stool in a family kitchen but is farmed out to hair- cutting chains around the country.

The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work | UVA Library | Virgo

Rather than giving each other backrubs at the end of a long day, two tired spouses can opt for a fifteen-minute chair massage on the way home. A child's diaper or an elderly parent's bedpan are increasingly changed by paid caregivers rather than family members. The process of assigning market value to bodies—their appearance, functions, and the forms of contact between them—generates new forms of work, which I refer to as body labor.

By examining how body labor exchanges occur, and what the participants gain and lose through them, the study of manicures can illuminate similar patterns in other embodied services. While the levels and kinds of consumption of these complex embodied and emotional services increase, the means to purchase them has been eroded for most segments of the population. However, rather than decreasing the demand for body services, these economic pressures can fuel the market for them. Just like going to the movies, indulging in body services can be the ideal escape in a recession.

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With unemployment and downsizing looming as constant threats, workday concerns take over more and more of individual and collective life. Rather than turning away from market solutions, people increasingly turn to the power of consumption, not only to obtain material goods but also to purchase services that provide care and connection, especially for tired and stressed bodies. This process of seeking commercialized solutions for intimate needs, however, is far from fluid and care free.

As Viviana Zelizer writes in The Purchase of Intimacy , while the arenas of intimacy and economics have long intermingled in various forms, the negotiation of the terms of this intermingling is often confusing and fraught, and increasingly so in new venues where social conventions are not fully worked out.

The managed hand : race, gender, and the body in beauty service work

Into this brave new world of commercialized intimacy enters the nail salon. The book as a whole, however, does not only look at customers but also examines the experiences of manicurists focusing on Asian immigrant women in New York City , interactions across the manicuring table, and developments in the nail salon industry writ large. Rather than dismissing them as isolated, inconsequential services, the book regards manicures as an illuminating slice of social life in global cities. I love the idea of this test and promptly flipped through the 99th page of a number of my favorite books to see how it applied.

As for my book, The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work , the test does not fully capture the content of the book but does highlight some key themes. Posted by Marshal Zeringue at AM. Newer Post Older Post Home.

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