Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Years ago when I worked in the food service industry, I remember priding myself on not being the “type of girl” to get manicures — a smugness that promptly dissipated after I finally got one for the first time and understood the appeal. For less than $25 and in less than 30 minutes, you get a relaxing hand massage and an unclumpy nail polish job that announces to the outside world “I’m an adult woman with money and a put-together outfit,” whether or not any of those things are actually true.
But there are many layers to unpack here, from the weirdness of having a stranger hold your hands to the questionable ethics of supporting an often exploitative industry (if you somehow missed it, please read the New York Times’ 2015 exposé The Price of Nice Nails). Not to mention the unfairness of feminine beauty standards; to maintain an un-chipped, perfectly polished manicure, you basically can’t use your fingers.
What I’m trying to say is: I see both sides. Some of us don’t want to spend a weekly $15+ on something we can do ourselves (or not at all); while others have woefully useless left hands. So, which camp do you fall under?
Here, four Racked editors debate all of the above: senior editor Meredith Haggerty and executive editor Julia Rubin fall in the pro camp, while director of programming Annemarie Dooling and senior editor Alanna Okun oppose; our beauty editor, Cheryl Wischhover, moderates. —Cory Baldwin, shopping editor
Cheryl: All right, so manicures. How often do we get them?
Cheryl: Never? Why never?
Annemarie: So, not only do I think it's a waste of money, but it feels really strange to sit in a chair and have a person do your nails. It feels very classist, and I don't know what I'm supposed to do with myself. Do I talk to them? Do I look the other way? Do I look at my phone? I'm just not sure what I'm supposed to do and it feels very strange. Also, it's, like, 20 bucks just to get your nails done.
Meredith: Can I counterpoint that? First of all, I will say there's a lot of caveats that I want to give before saying I'm pro-manicure, which is like, "Oh, manicure salons in New York, very awkward, lot of bad things going on!"
But as someone who doesn't enjoy a lot of beauty treatments or how awkward they feel, I really do enjoy the feeling of sitting down, giving my hands to a stranger, and not being able to use them on my phone, or just to distract myself in any way. I have some of my best thoughts when I'm getting a manicure.
The thing about it being classist is super-complicated, so I'm definitely not going to say that it doesn't feel that way, because I think it does. But when I'm getting a manicure, I'm thinking about how classist it feels, and my hands are not... I'm also thinking: This would still be this person's job if I wasn't here, and what does that mean?
Do I think manicures are bad? Kinda. Do I think our society is bad? Absolutely. But I like having my hands held by a stranger.
Julia: So I hate getting my nails done, but I get them done very regularly. I used to get them done weekly. Now I get them done every other week, because I have finally found a top coat that doesn't chip for two weeks (it's Caption).
I think getting my nails done is super boring — I actually hate the act of doing it. But I hate even more not having my nails done. I feel like I don’t look put-together if I don't have them done.
I also will say I've been getting them done in some capacity since I was in middle school. I have not had bare nails in like, oh my God... 15 years. So I feel more like myself with them done, and getting them done at a salon makes it more time-effective and also makes the polish last longer.
Cheryl: Have you ever tried to do them yourself?
Julia: I have, when I was younger, and now I’ll do it every once in a while. When the New York Times story came out, I was like, ‘Holy shit! I need to really look into where I'm going.’ During that time, when I was trying to research ethical salons, I tried to do it myself.
And I just can't. I don't have the dexterity, it doesn't look the same at all on my hands. It looks messy, and it doesn't last as long.
Meredith: If I do it myself, my right hand looks like I let a rude child do it.
Alanna: I never, ever have my nails done. I always have these short little awful stubs. And honestly, I kind of want to be the type of person who likes getting manicures! I’m actually a really terrible nail-biter and cuticle-picker. There have been, like, three times in my life that I've gone to a salon to get my nails done. And every time I've been so embarrassed and self-conscious.
Cheryl: Do you think painting your nails would prevent that, though? Has it in the past? And also, I just want to support you that, as a fellow nail-biter, nail salon workers — especially in New York — will totally judge you and make faces.
Alanna: I've literally had people just look at my nails and make that face, or turn to their friend and start saying something, which, you know, doesn’t feel great. But I will paint my nails from time to time. It stops me from biting for maybe two days, and then the second it starts to chip, that's just a new thing for me to do — peel it off in strips. Which is probably even worse, because it just litters the area under my desk.
Annemarie: I love peeling my nail polish off. That is sort of a gross thing to admit. But I just put it back on again after I peel it. I find the act of doing my own nails very calming. I do my hair at night — I put my hair up and then I do my nails, and it's a calming 30 minutes before bed where I'm not on my phone, not in front of a TV, and I'm just sort of relaxed and getting ready for bed.
Cheryl: Annemarie, you're definitely not opposed to having a regular manicure, because your signature is sort of your red nails. You're just opposed to going to a salon to do it.
Annemarie: Yes. It's not even the classist stuff that I mentioned initially, but it just seems like such a horrendous waste of money to me.
Cheryl: All right, so what about things like gel manicures? Does that weigh into this decision? They last longer and I think they're better at preventing nail-biting. They can also, you know, mess up your nails.
Julia: I do not. Number one, they're more expensive. Number two, when I get my nails done, I get them to last two weeks, so it seems silly to get one that would maybe last three or four when, for cheaper, I already have it last for two. And I like to change the color often.
But my nails are really, really shitty quality. I don't even know if that's the way to say it, but they're really peel-y. I'm sure they would get even more distorted with the gel.
Meredith: I also do not get gel manicures. The first time I got one, they did that thing where they scratch the top of your nails. It was like nails on a chalkboard, but the chalkboard is your nails.
Cheryl: Alanna, what about you? Personally, I do not gnaw when I have gel on. They’re much harder and thicker. It's completely unsatisfying.
Alanna: That is very good to know. I've heard this before, and I've also tried the gross-tasting stuff that you can put on your nails. Maybe that'll be something I do next week.
Cheryl: Last question. This is for the salon-goers, or even the non-salon-goers who have been to the salon. There's a lot of controversy about whether you let your nail tech cut your cuticles with the little nippy thing. As a beauty writer, I'm obligated to say that it’s terrible, but I do it because I don't want any of that stuff hanging off my nails. So I'm curious, do you let them snip or no?
Annemarie: I'm a hangnail picker. I will frequently have blood on the side of my fingers from ripping them off. But I will never let people rip pieces of skin off of my flesh! It seems so crazy to me.
Cheryl: I love it when they cut mine off.
Julia: That is my favorite part of the manicure; I just love when they clean it all up. That's also the thing: When I try to do my nails myself, the actual maintenance in and around the nail is not as good, but when I get them done I have such clean-looking fingers. All the dead skin is gone, all the hangnails, all the extra stuff. It's my favorite.
Meredith: I have to say, I let them do it ‘cause I totally thought I was supposed to. I did not know it was bad to let them do it. So maybe I won't now?
I started getting manicures because a friend of mine asked me to get them done regularly and I was like, yes, that sounds like a nice way to see you every week or two weeks. Then I eventually became very devoted. But I had just been going with the flow with what they tell me to do — other than the end of the manicure when it’s time for the chair massage. Then I’m like, "Please, don't touch me."
Julia: I also don't like the hand massage. I always say no massage.
Cheryl: What? I like the hand massage, but not the shoulder massage. Wow, that's controversial. The hand massage is the best part.
Annemarie: It's my least favorite. I don't like strangers touching me generally.
Cheryl: Okay, well that explains your aversion to manicures in general then.