i was intrigued to see an asian woman on the cover of NY Magazine. okay, so she’s holding a bare foot. one that is not her own.
it’s probably a stinky gross one with gnome-length toenails. if it’s not stinky, gross, and with gnome-length toenails, the asian woman probably had something to do with its transformation into a buffed, waxed, and polished extremity.
and, far from kissing it worshipfully–as soon as you leave? she’s gonna make fun of your nasty-assed feet in the back room.
turns out, in spite of the cover image, it’s a pretty good article on the spa industry, and how asian women are both the high priestesses of hairlessness (literally and figuratively) and exploited as workers at those plush manhattan spas that crop up everywhere like mushrooms after a rain.
which, as any woman of color will tell you, is completely in keeping with how women in the middle and upper classes outsource the domestic sphere to poor and working class women of color (the jamaican or mainland chinese nanny, the latina housecleaner, the korean dry cleaner, the vietnamese nail salon technician). the sociologist arlie hochschild, quoted extensively in the NY Mag article, calls this so-called “service with a smile”–necessary caretaking, feminized, and underpaid–”emotional labor.”
notice how i didn’t say it was only middle and upper class white women who avail themselves of spas and salons–yes this is often the case, and has traditionally been the case when class status was more closely linked with racial status. but nowadays middle and upper class women of all races are inclined to indulge in spa services (myself included; i’ve gotten massages from white and asian women equally). in big cities, it’s almost uniformly the case that this part of the service economy is a toehold (groan!) on the economic ladder for poor and immigrant women of color without educations. and with opportunity comes also exploitation, unfortunately.
so good for the salon/spa workers in organizing and fighting back against spa owners. as usual, it’s the spas who take an inordinate cut and count on vulnerable, non-english-speaking women to keep quiet when bosses cut wages or lengthen work hours. (and i wonder how much of this exploitation is intra-asian ethnic…i.e., chinese owners, korean workers? it’s hinted at but not explored fully.)
but as social phenomenom, what i find interesting is how the spa industry is like starbucks writ large: it’s not just the coffee. or the nails. it’s an opportunity for people who ordinarily don’t get to boss anybody getting a chance to boss somebody with their very idiosyncratic specifications and very often, their Oh So Special Needs. or in the case of spas, having a peon attend to all the dead and somewhat icky parts, so you don’t have to.
outsourcing personal grooming–as possibly the last woman in america to cut her own toenails, i find this fascinating. are we that much dirtier? would it be so awful to do it (wash your feet, paint/cut your nails, pluck your eyebrows) yourself? maybe we’re informed that we have higher standards to meet. (aside: how you know you’re from LA, where everyone, man or woman, is landscaped and nipped and tucked to within an inch of their lives: when i see friends who don’t live in LA, i’m shocked shocked! to see an eyebrow in its natural, unplucked state.)
at the same time, intense female interest in primate grooming is social balm and relaxing for Mom/Wife/Daughter/Chief Household Officer/Worker-Outside-the-Home to not be pulled in a thousand directions by a thousand roles and demands for once. i’m pretty sure that prehistoric woman sat around making fancy new braids for her hair/her daughters’ hair, and putting fancy new braids into other prehistoric women’s hair. alternating between being kempt and unkempt is pretty timeless.
i don’t have the answers. i just think it’s interesting, and when i go for massages (impossible to do for yourself) or haircuts, i try not to be a pain in the ass or the new best friend of whoever i’m paying for a service.
here’s what one spa worker observes about her clients:
And yet there is also Hochschild’s question: Is something missing in our lives that we’re trying to replace with spa services? Kim and I talk again about why her clients want these treatments—why so many more, right now. “These days, people don’t have family, that’s the problem,” says Kim. “Because at least before, even though they don’t get married, they have their intimate partner, or they live with brothers or sisters, they always have company. These days, they travel a lot. Every family member is living so far away. And when they go home, they do their computer, they watch TV, then they go to sleep; that’s it. You don’t have your sister to say, I do your nails, I braid your hair—even with your family, you’re not really keeping company; people are so individualized.” She smiles and gazes out onto 72nd Street. “How many people do they have to do the braiding of their hair?”
if “emotional labor” is about compensating, in all senses of the word, for loneliness, what does that say about how we in modern america are presumed to live and how we believe we need poor/third world women to fill this void? worse yet, how do particulars of a given woman’s economic/class circumstances shape mainstream attitudes about the “innate” servility of a group of women–asian women salon workers? it’s not one of the russian salon workers interviewed for the article who’s provocatively featured on the cover of the magazine, after all.
*(don’t worry, discerning regular readers, that sensationalistic headline isn’t for you, it’s for people who search for ‘hairless asian women’ and land here hoping to find a porn site, but instead get a big fistful of ‘fuck you’ from me instead.)