Two months ago New York Magazine ran an article called “A Stranger’s Touch,” about the growth in the “spa industry” in New York. Here’s an excerpt:
I don’t want to be moralistic about beauty, to scorn women for wanting massages:right now, I could use one myself. A pedicure may not be a necessity, but it’s benign; if workers were better paid and treated as worthy of respect, if the hours were fair, their labor might be regarded as a kind of artistry. Prostitution might be one analog to spa work, but there is another: child care, another female-centered profession that requires tremendous emotional skill and physical intimacy. Like spa work, it is often underpaid and exploitative:not because it is intrinsically humiliating, but because it is coded as feminine and therefore invisible, undervalued.
The article makes the point that the “spa industry” in New York is staffed mostly by women of color who are born outside of the United States and who have limited economic means. They work long hours and receive low wages.
In the corner of Wall Street where I used to work, mailroom workers and junior lawyers alike used their lunch breaks/”down time” to get a $6 manicure at a nearby nail salon. The all-female clientele was white, black, brown and English-speaking. The all-female staff was Korean. Very few of the salon workers spoke English.
One woman interviewed for the New York Magazine article hypothesized that the “spa industry” has grown quickly in response to a break-down in family relationships. Where women used to have sisters or mothers who would style our hair or even give a pluck to that singularly persistent hair, the explanation goes, increasing numbers of women outsource that activity. I’m not sure that this is a complete or even satisfactory explanation, but the facts are undeniable: the “spa industry” is a structure that allows some women to benefit from the economic exploitation of other women.