Pampered Guilt: With Spa Treatments, Is There More Than What Meets the Eye?

by Racialicious special correspondent Wendi Muse

On Tuesday, I walked half a block from my office to get a manicure/pedicure. I had a gift certificate that I figured that I’d put to good use, especially considering that my nails were chewed down from a combination of stress resulting from the month-end close and my anticipation regarding delegate count announcements on CNN. That and my cuticles looked more like razed cornfields than supportive flesh thanks to my having recently moved to a new apartment. I was a hot mess, and I needed help instantly.

When I arrived at the spa, I thanked my lucky stars for the opportunity to have some time away from my corporate sweatshop, but felt that I might have stepped into another one—though this time, the roles were reversed. I was in charge. In some weird S&M-like twist of fate, the spa had transported me into another world, where dozens of women were present to meet my every need if I just asked, even if they could barely understand a word I said. My vocabulary for the hour was restricted solely to beautification terms, and little else could be said without getting lost in translation. My spa break had given me yet another reason to bite my nails.

On the one hand, I love being pampered, but on the other, I’m the type who would be likely to clean my house from top to bottom before the maid came, if you know what I mean. I say only possess what you could properly take care of on your own. It’s a personal philosophy I try to live by—one that inevitably haunts me whenever I walk into a spa. A terrible disease I have called OverThink takes over, making it hard for me to enjoy myself at time because I am constantly thinking that I should have run the blade a little closer to the skin on my left leg as to not annoy the masseuse or that I should have scrubbed my right heel a little harder in the shower this morning so that the pedicurist wouldn’t end up with huge biceps on account of all the elbow grease she had to apply to my feet.

But when I returned to work that day, with Essie-adorned fingers and toes, I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Other co-workers expressed feeling a similar anxiety when going for spa treatments, and just like me, the pedicure was sometimes the hardest part to endure. There was just something odd about having a woman nearly beneath you in a hunched position treating your toes as if they were solid gold, staring at you in feigned adoration as you massaged lotion in your calves, your conversations limited to “hard?” or “soft?” and “same color for your manicure?” At the epicenter of comfort, something placed us in a state of unease. Though being pleased, we felt a discomfort based on class, race, age, and/or language barriers, when applicable, that placed us in a position of power we hadn’t earned. Though in our discussions, my workmates and I agreed that it was the physical positioning of a pedicure that bothered us, we knew it went deeper than that, we just weren’t sure exactly how to say it.

The author of the blog That Black Girl attempted to explain how she felt in April of 2007 in an entry simpled entitled “Service“:

i know this sounds weird, but something just doesn’t sit well with me having someone black give me a pedicure. as far as portland goes, i haven’t seen any other pedicure salons with black people actually doing the pedicures . it would just make me feel weird and i’m not sure exactly why. something about it seeming like servant type work makes it seem awkward for someone black to be serving me like that. like i’m being a house negro or something . . . i wonder if anyone else feels this way or if i’m just cookoo.

In several of the comments, readers complained that the author was being overly analytical about the situation or that she was too focused on race, but in my response, I attempted to expand the author’s thoughts by incorporating history:

i can understand what you mean, though i feel odd about receiving pedicures from anyone–no matters his/her race…and i LOVE pedicures. the manicures don’t bother me, but there is something about the social implications of washing feet/shining shoes/doing some type of service that low to the ground in basically a kneeling position. i think that is what bothers me…the physical side of it…what message that normally sends to us. feet are considered dirty and cleaning them or the shoes people wear is considered to be reserved (esp. in the past) for a certain sector of society….the poor people, the immigrants, the uneducated, etc. so it’s hard to break that association b/c it’s been ingrained in us over time.

I went on to include personal experiences that further complicated my view on receiving service in spas:

manicures, on the other hand, don’t make me feel weird. but the pedicure…so hard sometimes. i like my beautician. she’s a year younger than me, has similar interests, and was born and raised in nepal. she always puts an interesting spin on topics as a result of her cultural upbringing and her experiences as an immigrant, so we talk about race and social status a lot. nevertheless, it’s odd for me to have an intelligent, confident, interesting woman i would completely consider my friend if it were outside of a business relationship to scrub my feet.

Back in November of 2007, writer Emily Nussbaum of New York Magazine decided to tackle this issue as well. In the opening of her article “A Strangers Touch,” she endeavored to pinpoint the psychological games at play when one goes to a spa, especially one in which the person in charge of your service may be perceived as being on a different social level from yourself, at least bearing in mind the complex racial and class stratification in the United States, and to be more specific, New York City:

The first time I got a pedicure, I felt something similar: physical vulnerability, mingled with a lurid awareness of power—an Asian woman who didn’t speak English was kneeling in front of me, washing my feet. It felt distinctly slave and master. But that’s only true the first time you have a treatment like this. Pay once, twice, three times, and the aura of exploitation dissolves, and with it, the contradictions implicit in getting a massage, or a waxing, or a mud wrap: You’re naked, but nothing explicitly sexual is going on; the touch is intimate, but the toucher is a stranger. The name she tells you may not be her real name. What’s happening is not medical, though the props that surround you—the glass jar of blue fluid, the hygienic oven—encourage that illusion. And yet you are in charge: You’re the customer.

Nussbaum spends most of the article explaining how many New York spas, at least those that are more affordable to the average consumer (read: middle class) are little more than sweatshops with pretty, earth-toned façades, and presented instances of women who had challenged the system, like Susan Kim, who led a lawsuit against two Upper East Side spas in October of 2007. It’s undeniable that the spa industry has its flaws, just as any other, and it’s important that we not gloss over them. Though as I read the comments in preparation for this piece, I noticed that many readers accused Nussbaum of projecting her experience too heavily, applying it to her analysis. In other words, they thought Nussbaum had already come to a conclusion on the spa industry and was now looking for a way to support her conclusion by providing biased information. I wondered whether or not the audience had become so incensed because the subjects of her article were women of color and/or women within the immigrant community. Could it be that those commenting shared Nussbaum’s discomfort, but cloaked their own denial of privilege in vitriol?

In reflecting on Nussbaum’s piece and my own personal experiences, I realized that seeing women of color on their knees scrubbing my feet or shining shoes in the basement of D.C.’s Capitol building (an image so disturbing that it became the focus of my college admission essay) were not the only things that bothered me. I felt the same way when I saw women who looked like me pushing children who weren’t theirs in strollers in Washington Square Park as I changed classes or young women carrying thousands on grocery bags from a gourmet market on the subway to a neighborhood in which they were not residents. Something about it just didn’t sit well with me. I, of course, realize that we must all have a means of surviving in this country, braving its ragged economy in order to make a living. I also fully realize that those who work hard have a right to treat themselves every now and then, to reward themselves if they so wish. But honestly, what gives? Is there a way to mitigate the feelings of discomfort or utter awkwardness when at spas or in situations in which you feel that the services you are receiving are in some way demeaning?

It’s a difficult question to answer, as are most of the ones that plague me on a daily basis, but I make a concerted effort to avoid places of business that seem to make matters worse. If I feel that the employees are being mistreated in a spa or seem generally intimidated by their boss, I avoid the place. I do the same for places that reek of fumes upon entry or where a manicure costs less than what I’d normally tip the beautician for the service in the first place. Those are at least small ways I can avoid being in the trenches of employee exploitation. If the spa is nice and conditions seem conducive to a healthy work environment, then great. But in the back of my mind, just like Nussbaum, I wonder is it all little more than an act, one to keep us from running out the door, wet nails and all?