Putting the Politic in Pedicures: One Mom’s Thoughts

Posted on June 7, 2011 by


My teenagers are fresh cakes. They are moist and frosted and looking at them for too long could make your mouth water. Next to them, I have fallen like an outdated soufflé pulled from a 1970’s oven. Mid-life parenting of teenagers is an overt insult to your vanity.

A year ago I began upping my efforts to appear respectable when seen in public with my thriving teenagers. I stopped wearing soft but slightly tattered t-shirts and jeans with frayed hems, I save them both for home. I eradicated graying hair and I started rushing to preserve my waning muscle mass. I returned to yoga after a hiatus, to remember how to find perspective. My feet and their devil-may-care ways were also outdated. Once elegant arches (my one physical attribute I unequivocally liked) had bowed. Soles once as smooth as warm summer stones had cracked. In the past, I got a pedicure prior to fancy open-toed shoe events only. Not anymore. It’s become maintenance.

Yesterday, I got my bi-monthly pedicure. I apologetically handed nail polish to the Vietnamese woman who would scrub and shave my callused and fissured heels. I felt apologetic but not enough to boycott the activity. Because, and I admit this with shame, the quest to conceal the deflated soufflé I’ve become, trumps my moral compass.

To quiet my ethical dilemma about and moral doubts about pedicures, I ask questions. I start with, where the immigrant with the misfortune of handling my feet is from. While they access two weeks worth of barefoot gardening and sockless-sneaker-wearing dog walks, I begin. I always ask what the woman’s name was before their nametag with Ann or Joan, Tonya or Vicky.

Despite my guilty-white privileged line of questioning I’ve not conquered my feelings of awkwardness. It’s just strange to hand another person a bottle of nail polish and climb into a throne of a chair. The pedicure throne has the same power-dynamic as any shoeshine throne, in any airport or train station: wealthier person in chair above poorer person on stool at their feet.

The physical distance and height variable of chair on high and stool on low make for awkward head-cocking-word-repeating conversation. And more often than not, the person with my foot in their hand is new to English.

I have heard excruciating stories about escaping abject poverty. They have told me about mothers and fathers they have left behind. They have shown me an occasional picture. I have heard about children they are proud of and husbands who have died. The women themselves rarely have manicures or painted toes.   They wear flip-flops and short nails.

They sit on a stool, which rolls, and move in an efficient path between my feet and a little tray of tools. They reach below the tub where my feet have soaked and turn off jets, turn on jets, pull my calf and ankle toward them and jam dividers between my cramped toes.

They give my calves a cursory massage. I always feel more guilt about the uninspired massage than the tangible exchange of pedicure and money. Massages seem demeaning, think massage parlor, of anyone without the title lover or physical or massage therapist.

But yesterday I didn’t talk. I planned to be quiet and see if my awkwardness fraught with guilt and assuaged by apology masked in overdone interest in the manicurist would fade if I shut up.

I handed the woman pink polish. I had never in my life had pink toenails. I go with dark red or the newer purple-black hue. It reflects my ironic and serious nature. But yesterday, I went bubble gum pink. I planned to sit back and close my eyes. I was not going to look at the woman’s nametag. I was not going to remind myself that I could pay more money and go to a salon where I would not so blatantly participate in an immigrant tale of hardship. I could pay more to pretend a woman who’d mastered English, enjoyed touching my feet. I could. I don’t. I squeezed my eyes shut.

When the young woman squirted cuticle remover on each toenail, her story began even though her mouth was closed in a line of resignation or a reverie about a new love. But I suspected the latter.

With her mouth closed and the television mumbling in the background, I heard she had come to Massachusetts to work for her cousin. She had landed in Boston and been greeted by a gaggle of family. After they collected her piece of luggage, her family had piled into a small blue Honda and headed north to Lowell, Massachusetts. In Lowell she had gotten out of the car, greeted by cold, raw air. She tilted her head back at the apartment building she would live in with her cousin and the other family members. The three-story house of mismatched clapboards had thin-railed porches protruding from each floor. A chain of black iron fire escapes connected them.

By the time my feet were in her hands, she had spent the winter, the spring and nearly the start of summer, seven days a week, in her cousin’s nail salon.

Seven days a week the blue car had filled with her family and snaked from Lowell along a powerful navy blue river. A river that once powered mills, mills that had employed immigrants from Ireland.

The car dashed past the old mills toward a little town north of Boston. To a town founded by Puritans and spotted with historical homes so old and intricate they attract tourists. In that town her cousin who sponsored her visa, owns a nail salon.

The salon was nestled between a liquor store and a Korean dry cleaner. Stenciled onto the salon’s window was a purple lotus flower that grew from a porcelain-cupped palm. A spice shelf of nail polish hung just inside the salon. One overhead fan beat circles in the air.

By the time I climbed into the chair, she had learned some English. She spoke Vietnamese with her cousins who answered her in English. She understood only bits, which equaled nothing well. Winter had ended by the time she was at my feet. When I opened my eyes to see my bubble gum pink toes, I saw her nametag was upside down.

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Posted in: Guilt, Moral Dilemma