The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work

The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work

Miliann Kang

Language: English

Pages: 328

ISBN: 0520262603

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Two women, virtual strangers, sit hand-in-hand across a narrow table, both intent on the same thing-achieving the perfect manicure. Encounters like this occur thousands of times across the United States in nail salons increasingly owned and operated by Asian immigrants. This study looks closely for the first time at these intimate encounters, focusing on New York City, where such nail salons have become ubiquitous. Drawing from rich and compelling interviews, Miliann Kang takes us inside the nail industry, asking such questions as: Why have nail salons become so popular? Why do so many Asian women, and Korean women in particular, provide these services? Kang discovers multiple motivations for the manicure-from the pampering of white middle class women to the artistic self-expression of working class African American women to the mass consumption of body-related services. Contrary to notions of beauty service establishments as spaces for building community among women, The Managed Hand finds that while tentative and fragile solidarities can emerge across the manicure table, they generally give way to even more powerful divisions of race, class, and immigration.

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culture. While the chapter underscores the persistent divisions between women even in interactions involving intimacy and interdependence, it also explores prospects for understanding and improving women’s lives on both sides of the manicuring table through efforts to upgrade nail salon work as well as to address the various needs that manicured nails fulfill in customers’ lives. Writing a book such as this is both immensely rewarding and frustrating, as it requires excluding many worthy and

gendered bodies. Alexandra I have to look a certain way and so I have to get my nails done. I cannot walk around with a big line of bare nail up here without paint because people are going to notice. And even though I feel like I am driven, and I have a lot of things to do, even when I don’t really have time, somehow I have to make the time to get my nails done. When you have long nails, you cannot keep long nails naturally. See, it is a social thing. Our society sucks. It is coming to this—long

a young kid.” Thus she couched her comments about color and skin as not being about race but instead as a “stupid” denial of age. The women who spoke most directly about nails as racial and class markers were neither white middle-class women who embraced normative femininity nor black working-class women who embodied its anti­thesis but instead women who occupied a place in-between. Van, an Asian American college student and the daughter of working-class Vietnamese immigrants, spoke to the racial

literally rub up against their customers, who are mostly white middle-class and upper-class women.16 In their efforts to pamper other women’s bodies, the manicurists must discipline their own. Like many manicurists at upscale salons, thirty-four-year-old Judy Cha, who 148 “i just put koreans and nails together” emigrated in 1993, told me that attentive body labor was not something that came naturally to her. Instead, her ability to conform to the pampering service expectations of her elite

are lived in nail salons, and other bodyservice sites, through differences in the gendered performances of body labor.14 These performances reveal that the simplistic framework of “sisterhood is global” does not hold in women’s relations across the manicuring table and in beauty service work more generally. Instead, these relations demonstrate intractable divisions between women. f e m i n i s m , b e a u t y, a n d i n e q u a l i t i e s between women While surfing the Internet for

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