Janel Bailey

My nails, self-care and worker justice

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My mother taught me about self-care from a young age. She explained that I would likely spend a lot of my time as a woman caring for others, and that it really was no one else’s job to take of me. She always looked sharp, especially for work- where it was of the utmost importance to be well put together. I’ve spent a lot of my time traveling and talking to people for a living, and they’ve spent a lot of time looking at my hands, and by extension, my nails!

I love to get my nails done, not only for the self-care aspect, but because I love art, and I love supporting skilled, women workers. I’ve found a shop near my home in Chicago with women who are technicians and really talented artists. They know their craft well: the chemicals they work with, how to sculpt, and how to paint. When I leave town, I’m proud to represent Chicago and I’m honored to wear these nails as canvasses for their art.

I’m admittedly partial to some nail technicians over the others. It’s hard not to develop a significant relationship with a woman who holds your hand and talks to you for an hour or so regularly. I talk to my nail tech about everything: city politics, her daughter, our love lives, my job, and of course, her job. I asked her once about adding some yellow paint to a design she was doing, and spoken like a true artist, she told me she couldn’t use yellow, because she “couldn’t see the beauty in it.”

One day she talked about her breathing, and told me about how she’d gone to the doctor, and he told her that she had little cuts in her nose from inhaling all of the dust from filing nails all the time. She elaborated on the effects of the fumes of her body as well. I asked her one day why neither she, nor any of her co-workers wore masks at work. She shrugged and admitted that it seemed like a good idea, but didn’t seem realistic for them.

While I worry about the health of my nail tech, I know from observing her conditions and having been in other nail shops around the country, that her conditions are relatively good. The recent New York Times articles have really highlighted the need for safer working conditions and humane pay for the workers, who are mostly women, at nail shops.

So likely consumed with capitalist guilt after reading that article, what are we to do? I wish I knew fix-it-all answer, but I don’t, and no one else has come forth with that answer either. A few things are clear though:

  • If you do already, continue to go get your nails done! Every time you spend a dollar, you're helping to create jobs. We want to improve industries that employ low wage workers/overwhelmingly women of color, not put them out of business. We need these jobs to stay, and we need them to be good jobs with decent wages and safe conditions.
  • When you do treat yourself to a manicure, start a conversation with your nail tech. I see so many people in the nail shop letting another person wash their feet while they don’t speak to them at all. If they are open to it, learn about why they do or don't take safety precautions at work, and see if/how you can support.
  • Tip like you’ve got some sense. If it’s evident that the skilled worker sitting across from you isn’t fairly compensated for a job well done, you have some hand in that. If 20% of your manicure is only $2, maybe you need to tip a bit more.