Lunch Hour Mani-Pedi

How beauty-spa regulars react to pampering sessions says a lot about them.

By Tim Murphy

ILLUSTRATION BY LISA HANAWALT

Is it any surprise that the U.S. manicure-pedicure business is now a $7 billion industry employing a quarter million people? For the harried office worker besieged by deadlines, demands, and needy higher-ups, there are few better ways to unwind than to dip into the local nail salon for 20 minutes of soothing, well-deserved “me-time.” Says Arlie Hochs-child, a University of California at Berkeley sociology professor emeritus and author of the new book The Outsourced Self: “It’s about being pampered, a reward to ourselves, like an ice-cream sundae. You get to be in a passive state while it’s the other person that’s working.” A visit also gently breaks social barriers, says body-language expert Patti Wood, author of the forthcoming Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions: “If you’re feeling touch-deprived, it’s a way to have people touch you. I’m holding your hand and bathing your feet, very intimate acts you usually reserve for family members.”

Recently, Bloomberg Businessweek called on a half-dozen of Manhattan’s popular mani-pedi temples. Here’s what we observed, as interpreted by Hochschild; Wood; UMass Amherst professor and nail-salon researcher Miliann Kang; Minsk-born Janna Radevich, long-time owner of the city’s Blush Beauty Spa and Laser Center; and Vegas rock singer Chris “The Dutchess” Walton, who won last year’s Guinness World Record for longest fingernails (three feet), but says she can still play the piano.

9% (of customers observed)

Smartphone Warriors

Tapping away or calling furiously. Hochschild: “They’re bringing the office into leisure space the way they’d bring it anywhere. The BlackBerry is the little teddy bear you carry around with you.” Wood: “You’re blocking out the sensory awareness and the pleasure of the experience.” Dutchess: “If you still need to get work done, I suggest you get it done!”

5%

Canoodlers

Couples getting their nails buffed and feet massaged side-by-side. Hochschild: “You are being co-nurtured. It’s like a vacation, but three blocks from your house.” Kang: “It can be a bonding experience.” Radevich: “Sometimes they’re almost doing sex in the store, touching each other, kissing with the tongue. Why we have to see this?”

5%

Tweens

They come in with mom for bubble-gum manicures. Kang: “That’s an outgrowth of the princess culture we now live in.” Wood: “I find it personally appalling that a mother doesn’t do her daughter’s nails. Not to mention that it sexualizes them too young.” Dutchess: “They go straight from the diaper into half-cut shirts and rhinestone shoes these days.”

6%

Bridal Partiers

The invasion of the bride and her coterie. Kang: “There’s this ethos of the beauty industry that this is where women bond.” Radevich: “I don’t like when they bring alcohol, because they talk nonstop and never leave.” Dutchess: “I don’t know how the manicurists manage it. The girls get drunk and tell the bride, ‘Are you sure you wanna do this?’”

8%

Magazine Readers

One hand turns the page while the other gets worked on. Kang: “It’s uncomfortable for the worker to be sitting face to face with someone and be signaled not to say anything.” Hochschild: “You’re buying the touch without buying the emotional labor of the person doing the work.” Radevich: “Why not? They want to catch up with the latest gossip.”

15%

Conversationalists

They gab about new nail polish colors or the trials of one’s day. Wood: “It’s a natural response to intimate touch.” Kang: “No big intellectual conversations or heart-to-hearts.” Hochschild: “It’s light touching with words — not a deep massage.” Radevich: “One girl tell me her boyfriend break up with her because she didn’t want to go swinging club with him.”

89% (of employees observed)

Stoic Workers

Manicurists who remain mostly silent, apart from occasionally murmuring to each other. Hochschild: “They have to abide by emotional discipline. They cannot bring sadness, anger, anguish, or hostility to their job.” Radevich: “My girls work under a lot of pressure. Sometimes people’s soles are disgustingly dirty. Sometimes smelly feet!”

20%

The Aloof

Those with the thousand-yard stare. Hochschild: “You get to turn your face off for a while.” Wood: “That’s a relaxation response, a decrease in cortisol and an increase in serotonin and dopamine.” Dutchess: “It’s probably the only time you’re not hearing your husband, boyfriend, or mother go on and on, and you can zone out.”

29%

Excessive Thankers

With gentle smiles, they speak in soft voices. Kang: “Customers aren’t going to make a lot of demands in a $15-manicure salon. In high-end salons, people are more directive and forceful.” Wood: “You’re letting yourself get intimate touch, so typically you’re grateful.” Radevich: “In our area of New York, West Village, beautiful people! Very happy job!”

3%

Single Guys

Sexually indeterminate men seeming a bit self-conscious. Kang: “I met several male Realtors in my research. Also construction workers who needed grease removed from their cuticles.” Dutchess: “If a guy is going more than his girlfriend, that’s too much. Same for depilation. We’re supposed to have hair on our bodies. It fights bacteria.”

Other Notable Yet Less Common Behaviors SWIGGING A HUGE STARBUCKS DURING PEDICURE / Kang: “It’s part of a self-pampering package, latte plus nail salon.” • OFFLOADING A BABY ON THE WORKERS DURING TREATMENT / Kang: “For a $40 mani-pedi, you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck.” CRYING QUIETLY DURING MANICURE / Dutchess: “When you have downtime, you can’t run from yourself.” • SUBTLE EXHIBITIONISM / Radevich: “Once I have lady come for Brazilian, she say ‘Keep the door open.’”

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