Look at where you be in
hair weaves like Europeans
Fake nails done by Koreans
from Lauryn Hill's Doo Wop (That thing)

I've had acrylic nails, on and off (mostly on), for the last 10 years. I have been a chronic nail biter since I was old enough to have fingers, and from a very young age I remember slipping paper clips over my fingertips and pretending they were real. I was also born late enough to remember when Lee Press-On Nails were sold in department stores that have been taken over by Wal-Mart; they were one of the first non-purchases I made as an adolescent shoplifter. To me, they were indicative of something I never could be: patient. I also seemed to have inherited my mother's hands and her thin, brittle nails as well.

In my teens, the only places you could go to to have them done were salons, places that have an abundant markup on everything they do: facials, waxing, hair care and disrepair. They were also expensive, so that few people had them done that you saw on a regular basis. They were very grown up. I wanted to be grown up, since it seemed I would never be allowed a normal childhood.

As I continued through high school and college, my excuse to keep up with fake nails (as you nails grow, you have to go in every two weeks or so to get them filled in from the cuticles forward) was that I wanted to look professional, womanly. I was doing my student teaching for high school English at 20 and often had to do alterations to my looks so as to appear older, wear my hair in a bun, wear my glasses instead of contacts, that kind of thing. Now that I live in New Orleans, my excuses are about the same. Since I look at my hands all the time (they are a good place to look if you don't want to look anywhere else), I assumed other people were looking too, and because of my over-observation of the torn, bloodied, pus-puffed and jagged look my normal nails achieved (as they bore the brunt of many stresses even drugs couldn't do away with), I figured at least one part of me should look nice.

Before I truly begin, I did want to give a brief description of what acrylic nails are, how they come to be, because even if men could care less how women come home with longer and prettier nails than when they left, I do think the process proves interesting. In my prior employment as the manager of a auto body shop, I likened almost all processes to auto body repair. Most surgeries, dentistry, building remodeling, and yes, acrylic nails, have basically the same process. The part you want removed, you sand off, sand down, to get a smooth yet etched surface, on which other substances can adhere. You gut out the bad parts and fill with some liquid that hardens. You sand down again and paint, whether it's with enamel for teeth, primer and housepaint, stitches from surgery, what have you. In this instance, the basic chemicals you use are powdered acrylic and acetone. Dipping a fine haired brush into the liquid and then into the acrylic, a soft ball is created, one that is warm from the chemical reaction but will soon solidfy to the same hardness as your natural nail. Prior to this, your natural nail is sanded down with a hand held drill with a sander tube on the end; its speed is controlled by a foot pedal, like some lathes. Then, an artifical nail (which I'm sure is composed of a plastic/acrylic material) is super glued to the very tip of the nail. A thin coat of clear nail polish primer is applied to the surface still exposing your original nail. After the ball is applied, it is quickly smoothed over to follow the contour of the artificial extention. The nail is then hand filed, then gone over again with the sander, and then finally re-filed with a finer grade file, usually comprised of a foam block with sanding paper clued to four sides. The last application is a dab of oil (what kind of oil, again, I'm not sure) is applied to each cuticle, which I assume soothes the skin that has just been filed and sanded and exposed to accidental burns that the nail has just undergone.

As with all things female, there are many variations on nail style. Some women get short square nails, as I do, so that I can type, put in my contacts, etc., without the nails getting in the way. Other women seem to like to have them as long as humanly (or inhumanly) possible, in addition to airbrushed designs, fake gems, even piercings, little gold rings inserted like an earring through a tiny hole drilled into the artificial nail. I've seen these women at the counters of fast food restaurants, nonchalantly tapping the key screen with the very tips of these nails, and I wonder how on earth they do all those things women have to do with their fingers. I leave the examples up to you.

The reason I mention Lauryn Hill's lyrics is due to what seems to be her attitude of how black women these days are carrying themselves, their appearances. However, I don't think Koreans are the people doing the nails, at least not in my city. From what I've gathered, the artificial nail industry is owned mostly by Vietnamese and not many other Asian ethnic groups (I don't want to pretend I know a lot about the variations and hope to not offend a particular group). I admit I haven't inquired much about the traditions and beliefs of employees at nail salons, so I infer what I see around me: all the women wear jade and whatever karet of gold is pinkish or orangey, there is usually a statue of religious significance with fresh fruit around it, and everyone except the customers is speaking a language so refined that they seem to barely speak at all but in small, unnoticeable clicks and whinny bouts laughter.

I've been to many different places, and these stores use all the same photographs for their salons, their names indicating in easy English what they specialize in: Happy Nails, Lovely Nails, Kelly Nails, Beautiful Nails, and so on. While I am not exactly of the opinion that all people who live in America should be required to speak English, I do tend to be more stringent when it comes to public markets. When someone is pointing a tiny sander at living tissue, I want her to understand when she begins to burn me and that, no, I do not "want color". I have never wanted color any of the other 20 times I've been in here. I paint my own nails, thank you.

How did this particular business attract a certain race of people? I know that this is sometimes a really easy question to answer. It's how we've steretyped Chinese dry cleaners, Jewish accountants, or Italian restaurants. Some people are better at some things, or they are fueling a market in ways that are better suited to them. But in this case, in my area, there is almost no diversity to set the stereotype straight. These aren't sweatshops, as far as I know. Shops are rented in malls and in any suburban nook you can find (which in New Orleans usually means old houses that now supply commercial space), certifications are hastily taped up on every wall. I can't help but wonder if there's something more underneath. One salon I attended regularly was a block away from the body shop, and that man certainly put his money in his own pocket; in fact, he bought his Expedition from my dealership.

What's the profitability of a nail salon? What are the regulations? The last question is due to the condition the salons are usually in, not that different from a hot body shop: a thin layer of dust all over everything, paint containers sutured shut from being on the shelf too long, gauze face masks that few employees use and the thin but overwhelming smell of acetone.

When I go into these places, I feel like a cow being shooed into a stall and serviced. It is not the atmosphere like the ones barber shops or even hair salons created before they were commercialized, that of a community hub, a gossip station, a place to catch up on people's lives. Now, all you can do is flip through the worn pages of a year old copy of Vogue (I mean, what else can you do with a Vogue?) and wait your turn to sit silently while some stranger inflicts pain on you for the sake of keratin vanity. Maybe I'm getting what I deserve for the cheap price: full sets cost only $18 and fills $12, which dropped dramatically over the years, with each salon competing for the cheapest services. Suburban moms clattering away on their cell phones don't seem to care. Even the ghetto salons, where everything you touch looks like it needs to be not just disinfected but burned, the black women (who normally are awash in self-expression and full blown laughter) just sat there and took it. I would pay more for a salon that was more, I don't know, human.

The beauty care industry has changed drastically. What was once only available at salons and at a hiked price is now available in department stores and can easily provide many at-home mistakes. I mean, I never deluded myself into thinking that anyone selling me a service cared either way about how I felt or was treated in the transaction as long as I came back for more, but I also feel that by being more intimate, those people may have enjoyed their jobs a little more. I look at these women, with these blank wandering looks on their faces, and wonder what they do to unwind, what kind of homes they return to after the day is done and the last waddling soccer mom paddles off in paper slippers to admire her newly shorn corns.

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