Sisterhood Blog

Beauty Myth No. 614: Manicure as 'Basic Need'

By Elana Sztokman

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I was so excited to see a woman on the cover of Friday’s financial section of Yediot Ahronot that I nearly spilled my nail polish all over the newspaper.

The full-page headshot of Sharon Chen-Konofny — gorgeous, fully made up, and biting on a nail-polish bottle — seemed like such a welcome change from the usual face of business in Israel. Monday’s issue of Mamon (“money”) is much more typical: There are three photos of men on the cover, 11 photos of men inside and not a single photo of a woman anywhere. Of course, of the 19 families in Israel who own the equivalent of 88% of the national budget, only one is a woman: Shari Arinson. Moreover, according to a Knesset survey, men are four times more likely to be a CEO than are women, and a significant number of businesses in Israel don’t have any women on their boards or in their top leadership. So the absence of women in newspapers’ financial sections reflects a very sobering reality.

I therefore read with great earnestness the story about Chen-Konofny, entrepreneurial founder of “Laka”, a chain of inexpensive manicure stands in malls that enable women to get their nails done even in an economic downturn. “Women will always want a manicure,” she said. “We have a basic need to do this. Whether we have money or not, we like to feel that we invested in ourselves.”

Hmm … When it comes to “investing in myself,” a manicure is not at the top of my list.

Dancing, reading, having coffee with a friend, even a massage, these are, perhaps, “basic needs” — not a manicure. I don’t fancy turning my hands into delicate extremities that can’t play piano or play with clay, any more than I fancy putting on stiletto heels and staggering. (Full disclosure: I wasn’t actually polishing my nails on Friday; I just thought it was a catchy lede.)

But I’m in a disappearing minority, according to Chen-Konofny:

It’s an evolution. My grandmother never went to the hairdresser, but my mother did and put on red nail polish on special occasions. We, the 40-something generation, show up at the hairdressers once a week and have our nails done. It’s rare to see a woman our age who is not all put together. It’s a different generation. I have 12-year-old girls coming regularly.

As I read this assertion that I’m a rarity, I started to feel terribly blue. I would like to say that the sadness merely reflected an understanding about how women have become complete slaves to the beauty industry — even worse than [Naomi Wolf[( described two decades ago in “The Beauty Myth.” But if I’m going to be completely honest, I would have to say it wasn’t just that. It’s that feeling of inadequacy beginning to set in — the knowledge that everyone else is just more: more beautiful, more thin, more put together, more gorgeous, more deserving, more honorable, more lovable, more normal. I wager that every woman reading this knows exactly what I’m talking about.

The list of things we are expected to keep up with as women in order to be “like everyone” is just mind-blowing and overwhelming. And those poor 12-year-old girls — the layers of female inadequacy are setting in so early. But we keep doing it. We keep giving in, spending all of our time, energy and money trying to look better so we can gain approval. It’s a terrible cycle. And while Chen-Kanofny claims not to know women who avoid the hairdresser, I bet I don’t know a single woman who does not wish that she was more beautiful.

With all due respect to Chen-Kanofny, women have to do more in this world than polish our nails. If we are ever going to change the balance of power in the world, and be truly seen and heard for who we are, we need women to take on positions of real economic and political leadership — beyond the manicure stand. We need to provide Mamon with a different image of women to put on their cover — women in technology, science, industry, media and the arts. I want to see a photo of a woman who is willing and able to change not just women’s nail color but women’s social and economic status in society. That would be a cover to celebrate.

Leah Tue. Dec 1, 2009

You make some good points, Elana, but I would like to play devil's advocate.

I consider manicures one of my "basic needs." I cannot speculate as to how many women get acrylics or extra-long fingernails that might restrict their ability to play the piano, but that is certainly not always the case. (My nails are always short, manicured or not.)

I get my nails done because I am a huge nail biter. I bite them when I am nervous or bored, and usually end up making myself bleed. Manicures keep me from biting, and let my hands heal. I know that for some women, pedicures are an important part of their health and hygiene routines, as they remove dead skin that can build up and cause pain. So, even if you don't consider them a "basic need," there are legitimate health and hygiene reasons to partake.

I have also come to appreciate manicures as time to relax, and take a moment to pamper myself, just a little. And as the going rate for a manicure these days is 10-12 dollars, it's a luxury that many women can actually work into a budget, unlike massages or dinner out with friends. As a "young professional," I also think of manicures as a source of pride, a measure of my success, so to speak.

While I agree that the pressure of beauty can be overbearing and oppressive to many women and girls, I do not agree that the onus falls on manicures.

Elana Thu. Dec 3, 2009

Hi Leah

I'm not "against" manicures per se, and obviously I'm in favor of women finding ways to be kind to themselves, as you do with your manicure. I"m mostly against the idea that women in "our" generation are all spending so much of our time and money (hard earned as it is, at 80 cents to the man's dollar) to make ourselves conform to social expectations of beauty. And really I'm upset that of ALL the women out there working hard to do important and interesting things, the only woman that Mamon found worthy of the cover is the manicure lady. Like, that fits in with their notions of what a businesswoman ought to be. It was all quite distressing.

But I'm certainly not trying to give you a guilt trip about the manicures.... Enjoy. I have my own outlets as well... :-)

B'vracha, Elana

nehama Thu. Dec 3, 2009

my hands, more often than not, sport manicured nails. that began as a reward to myself way back in my sem year for my stopping my gross nail-biting habit. however, 98% of the time, i manicure myself as i get antsy sitting around in a salon waiting to dry, thinking of all the other things i could be doing. there's decadence, and then there's too decadent!

interesting point mentioned in your quote about women feeling the need for a manicure "whether they have money or not." about a month ago my family and i were out for a meal when a woman walked into the restaurant going from table to table asking for money to help feed her family. (i was not at our table at that moment). according to my then 11-year-old daughter, my good-hearted husband was about to give her something when my daughter told him not to. she noticed that this woman had a french manicure! she told him that if this woman could afford one of those, which are more expensive than standard manicures, she could afford to put something on her table.

this story resonated with me on two levels -- one that a woman who felt dire enough to beg would rather indulge in an expensive beauty treatment rather than use that money to buy food (and even if a friend did it for her gratis, it still raises eyebrows -- it did mine) and two, that my 11-year-old daughter is savvy enough to know what a french manicure is, and how much it costs in relation to other manicures and to the price of food!

Caroline Fri. Dec 4, 2009

Doesn't it follow that a woman who sells manicures is going to claim that manicures are a woman's "basic need"? I think it's nothing more than business. But to read of 12-year olds getting manicures is very painful. At what age do girls start believing that their worth is tied up with their appearance?

Not only should this female CEO be helping women in business, she should be helping to empower young women so they'll join her on the business leadership stage. Clearly, the men in Israel are in no rush to help women; it is shameful that an accomplished woman won't do it either.

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