West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 25 | November 21 - 27 2007


Sisterhood is powerful, not piggy; The manicure cure

By Reverend Donna Schaper

A Chinese manicurist left her post recently, declaring that she had worked straight for 12 hours and she needed a break. The boss fired her. The rest of the staff sided with her and filed out of the salon.

And I think I have problems!

By the way, I do have problems. I need rest and relaxation. I enjoy being pampered. I have no guilt about my need for these luxuries, even when compared morally and practically to my Chinese sister. She is the one who kneels at my feet and paints what I used to joyfully call my piggies.

For those 10 minutes of her time, she gets paid a little money. I get paid more for my stress — enough more that I can afford her service. Or is it servitude?

Obviously, it is not my fault that her employer prohibits her from breaks or pays her a pittance. It is not my fault that the world puts some women in professional jobs and others at their feet. Nor is the global migration of labor my fault. People come here to get work — work that often improves their situations. Plus, painting nails is an honorable form of work. People who need and want the service are willing to pay people who need and want the work.

Women have always decorated ourselves, from head to toe, and are not about to stop now. Women have always touched each other as part of the beauty business; one gives, the other receives. Sometimes both parties enjoy and benefit from the interaction. What’s the problem?

Something happens in the middle between those who want the pleasant, beauty-enhancing, stress-reducing experience of the nail salon and those who do the work there. It is not just the chemicals, although there is mounting evidence that nail salon chemicals cause health problems in those who are around them all the time. The problem is in the relationship, in that “middle” where some people have power and don’t always use it well.

Those who profit from the business can either give people adequate breaks and adequate pay or not. Apparently some are not, turning a legitimate service into servitude.

If sisterhood is powerful — and if you have experienced even the slightest tinge of guilt at having someone kneel at your feet — there are things that we who patronize (matronize) nail salons can do with those who work there.

We can ask questions. We can find out how many breaks people are given. We can ask the manager, not the manicurist. She is not at liberty, always, to speak.

We can tip extravagantly for the service.

We can pray that women who kneel at the feet of other women also have someone to pamper them, somewhere, in their lives.

If we discover that the entire nail business is a formaldehyde-filled, cancer-causing, low-wage, no-break kind of business, we can paint our own nails. Or paint each other’s nails. Girlcotts are as good as boycotts.

I remember my hair stylist asking what she could do for others at Christmas. I suggested she go to jail and give free haircuts. She did. And she added in pedicures for fun. I went along for the ride — and the joy.

Sisterhood is powerful — especially when we ask what we can do to make a difference. Having painted piggies does not mean being piggy.

Schaper is senior minister of Judson Memorial Church and author of “Grass Roots Gardening: Rituals to Sustain Activism.”


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