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?
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.