Sunday, October 6, 2013

Pedicures: Interesting Things

Admittedly, I wasn’t all that interested in pedicures until I moved to New York City. Why are manicure-pedicures so extremely popular here? Why is it commonplace to get them done instead of taking care of your feet yourself?

Fish Pedicure
There are easily a few practical answers to these questions. First, wearing sandals around the City makes your feet downright filthy. (I can attest to this from personal experience.) Second, they are surprisingly affordable here! While there are more expensive and luxurious options, a 15$-25$ dollar manicure-pedicure is commonplace. Lastly, this city is geographically littered with nail salons. In conclusion, they are affordable, convenient, and they almost always take walk-ins.

Still, why do people do it? Why do we put paint on our nails at all? It doesn’t seem to make our nails function any better. So, what does it mean? I think that Danesi would agree that the practice of nail painting is a matter of Selfhood and that nail polish, itself, is part of our “material culture, namely, the system of objects that, as signs, convey specific types of meaning in our cultural context.” (61)
Detailed Manicure Designs

I am not the most savvy nail salon participant by any means, but the different body images signified by different nail coloring choices can be relatively straight forward and easy to process. Say you saw someone with a French manicure design on their toes, what would you think? Maybe that could signify that they are wealthy, classy, or organized? What about someone with bright hot pink toenails? Could they be feminine, young, outgoing, and/or flamboyant? What about someone with his or her toes and fingers painted black? What if they had extremely long acrylic extensions and colorful rhinestones glued on?

Whether or not you frequent a nail salon you probably have some thoughts about what those different stylized choices would say to you as the observer. Here is where semiotics can help us discuss this strange yet familiar phenomenon. According to Danesi, “The semiotic study of nonverbal behavior is a study of how people experience and define themselves through their bodies and objects. In most cultures, self-image is carved out and conveyed primarily as body image.” (65-66).
Example of French Manicure

By utilizing some terminology provided by Danesi, I would like to say that I think polished nails signal a gendered status and usually a feminine one. The iconicity of the French tipped manicure as “classy” is undeniable. The nature of the colors, shapes and styles of mani-pedis symbolize the identities that women (usually not always, of course) want to present to the world.

The semiotics of nail care is not only useful for unpacking individuals and their personal image. The industry of nail care is also extremely symbolic of New York’s political and social structure. It is perfectly reasonable to wonder why your nail-tech is usually Korean. It seems that nail salons are primarily (at least in popular culture) associated with Korean women and in return, Korean women with nail salons.

View from Pedicure Chair from Yelp post
Miliann Kang delves deeply into the meaning and social ramifications of the hunger for nail care that she believes women (primarily of New York) demonstrate. “While domination by Koreans of the nail salon niche in New York City is unusual in some ways, in other ways it reveals similar experiences among Asian immigrant women throughout the United States.” (3) She begs us to look beyond our familiar pop culture references of nail salons and see the true dynamics at play that influence a greater image of Korean immigrants.

In conclusion, the structures of meaning, body image and social structure associated with New York’s nail salons is a rich field for study even if it doesn’t seem to be at first glance.

[By Becky Fisher]


Danesi, Marcel. Of Cigarettes, High Heels, and Other Interesting Things: An Introduction to Semiotics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

Kang, Miliann. The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work. Berkeley: University of California, 2010. Print.


Gabrielle Borenstein said...

If we run with the notion that manicures and pedicures are a way to embellish the 'self' or convey a particular 'persona' in a manner akin to jewelery or makeup (especially lipstick), we are presented with just another semiotic forum for self expression.

This is greatly exemplified by nail polish color names. Some of my personal essie favorites include "rock the boat," "where's my chauffeur," "fishnet stockings," "no boundaries," and "saturday disco fever." There appears to be a certain degree of propaganda to convey that these colors are more than just colors.

I must admit that I am guilty of buying into this. For example, when I am feeling fun and summery -- when I want to be outgoing -- I opt for a color such as "Fruit Sangria." In the same vein, when I want to be slight daring I opt for a color such as "wicked". I consciously match the color with my state of mind. Admittedly many of these names are ridiculous ridiculous, but I cannot deny that there seems to be a logical, almost natural, association between a particular color and emotion. I pick the color that not only corresponds to my mood, but also to the mood I hope to have while wearing this particular hue.

Colors are never merely colors. If we consider the link between orange, juice, and an orange cat, it is evident that it is human tendency to build or rather think in terms of these associations.

Lucy Gill said...

The process of naming does indeed seem to be exceptionally important within the nail polish industry and the makeup industry. In particular, the name "fishnet stockings" is striking. Its deep red color is already connotative of feminine sexuality and eroticism. The addition of this nomenclature serves to reinscribe the symbolic nature of the polish. It becomes a signifier of not only the abstract idea of sexuality but also of fishnets, which themselves symbolize female sexuality. This dual signification is a powerful marketing strategy and can make one particular product more appealing to a consumer simply by virtue of a different name.

On Sunday, I was complimented on my lipstick by a well known fashion designer. I told a friend, and she immediately asked me what shade it was. I had never actually checked the name since it was a gift, but when I did I saw that it was called "untamed brown." Despite the compliment, after seeing that rather unattractive name I was less inclined to reapply the lipstick, and my friend said that she was less inclined to buy it. We both knew our feeling was completely irrational, but somehow we could not escape our reaction to the semiotics of the name.

Julia said...

Nails are interesting when used as a mode of self-expression because, like the impracticality of high heels as Danesi describes, they oftentimes hinder a woman's use of her hands. There is, of course, the limited dexterity women experience when they get long artificial nail tips. But then there are the implications that come with the more common practice of nail-painting because of the vulnerable nature of wet nail polish. Whenever I paint my nails, I make sure that I will follow it up with some sort of physically sedentary activity. I can forget about doing a load of laundry or making food; and if I think ahead, I make sure everything I might possibly need within the next hour or so (cell phone, book, TV remote) is at hand, lest I should have to rummage around the house to find these items and risk smudging my wet nails.

Indulging in a manicure or pedicure at a nail salon imposes even more treachery on freshly painted nails since you have to deal with actually being in the world once you step outside of the nail salon (providing that, as I've experienced in most cases, the UV drying lamp doesn't quite finish the job). There's no avoiding using your hands when you're out and about, and any unfortunate contact with the contents of your purse, a door handle, a seatbelt, a stranger--anything and everything that could possibly touch your hands in New York City--could possibly ruin your nails. Such threats have rendered newly-manicured women without the usual dexterous facility of their hands, causing them to awkwardly splay their fingers wide and lock their joints in an attempt to keep their new manicures safe from harm.

And yet for all its hindrances, I often paint my nails and consider it a treat to get a mani-pedi. I also frequently wear high heels. And although these behaviors seem normal to me and in the culture in which I live, the desire to express myself via nail color or shoe selection clearly beats out what might otherwise be more fundamentally practical.