Culture At Large

Nail salons and the moral price of beauty

Jes Kast

What’s the moral price you are willing to pay for beauty? Does being a Christian have economic implications? Does God care about the practices surrounding manicures and pedicures? These are some of the questions that came to my mind after reading “The Price of Nails,” a recent series by Sarah Maslin Nir in the New York Times.

In the first part of the series we are introduced to the consistently underpaid nail stylists who work in New York City, often commuting long distances to work 10- to 12-hour shifts. Many of the women have immigrated to the United States; frequently they work only for tips at the start of their career. In one case cited by the Times, “workers said they were paid just $1.50 an hour during a 66-hour workweek.” Since 2000, a proliferation of nail salons have opened up, making it difficult to maintain a profit and increasing the exploitative working conditions.

In Maslin Nir’s second article, “Perfect Nails, Poisoned Workers,” I learned about the under-regulation of nail products. Ingredients have been tied to cancer, miscarriages, lung disease and other ailments. I was especially taken back by a story of a salon employee whose fingerprints were almost nonexistent due to the chemical exposure. The practices of these salons leave the customer feeling beautiful while it leaves the worker at risk of disease. As one salon owner said about the industry, “If a lot of people knew the truth behind it, it wouldn’t happen. They wouldn’t go.”

In my daily commute in New York City there is a nail salon on almost every block. The culture of cheap manicures is alluring. There is a market for beauty made accessible. Yet if we are to think Christianly about what this investigation exposes, the practices of cheap nail salons raise serious questions.

As I’ve continued to reflect on these articles I’ve come up with a few ways to offer a Christian response.

A Christian ethic guides our economic practices, including our beauty practices.

A Christian ethic guides our economic practices, including our beauty practices. We are people who recognize the image of God in each and every person we encounter. People’s lives are valuable, period. When our purchases hurt another person we must evaluate and potentially change how we choose to purchase what we desire. In this instance, this has caused me to do some more research about what type of nail salons I’m supporting. Seeking nail salons that use safer products and pay their workers fair wages is one way to respond.

Advocacy for the rights of nail workers is another way. I know a person of faith who works with the Legal Aid Society to provide legal representation for low-income New Yorkers. I’m grateful to discover there are resources helping secure safe working conditions for women who work in the salons. It’s also encouraging that in the wake of the Times articles, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has ordered emergency measures to combat wage theft and health hazards in the nail salon industry.

Personally, I’ve decided to ask questions of the salons I go to in order to inquire about their ethics with their employees. As a Christian, it is important that I support a nail salon that treats workers fairly and cares for their health. And until then I will be painting my own nails until I discover a salon that practices a high ethic of valuing the human life of their employees.

I must evaluate the moral price I am willing to pay for beauty. I need to take seriously the economic implications of the salons I support. Because I believe that God cares deeply about the practices surrounding manicures and pedicures. And so as a Christian, I should too.

Topics: Culture At Large, Business & Economics, Workplace, News & Politics, Justice, North America