Painted Ladies: The Glamorous & Grotesque

The Glamorous & Grotesque Gals: Nail Painting as a Performance

*May 2012, Undergraduate Anthropology Thesis

“One sugar, one cream, please.” Every morning, I would watch the same woman behind the counter pour black steaming coffee, cold cream and a pack of sugar into a paper cup at the Olive Tree convenient store. “One twenty-five, please,” she would say, sliding the cup across the Formica counter-top. Despite my daily visit, she never acknowledged my return or familiar face. I gave up the notion of having a daily chat with the local barista, until one day she noticed something about me.

“Nice nails!” The cashier delicately took my hands into hers, neglecting any personal space I might have wanted, and immediately began inquiring about my nails as she carefully studied the paint. She ran her fingers over the tops of my fingertips and asked, “How did you get this design? Did you do them yourself?” I was excited to be connecting with the barista and she was pleased to hear about my manicure; we had made a first connection of many. Since that morning, Lucy has had a small coffee with one sugar and one cream waiting for me at the counter.

Nail painting is a form of body modification that asserts both individuals and groups within a collective and social body. While the practice of nail painting has existed in places and times outside of the last two centuries in America, I am interested in looking at the recent practices of nail painting in the United States and the social interactions that these nail decorations create. By looking through the lens of mainstream media, as well as polling 75 women and personally interviewing 10, I seek to explore nail painting as a social symbol. More specifically, I want to elucidate how nail painting may be understood as a semiotic device of an individual’s placement within or outside a “normative” group, while also exploring how these “inside” and “outside” categories change. I would like to briefly look at a segmented history of trends in nail painting, as well as discuss at some of today’s practices to reveal how social interactions and understandings of nail decoration have transformed.

One need not look much further than a few magazine pages and news clippings to see that nail art is taking off in the United States and it is not necessarily a means of enhancing the conventional idea of “beauty.” Pop-star celebrities are at the forefront of making and breaking trends. It seems that mainstream nail decoration is moving away from traditional hues of beiges, pinks, and reds. Nail shapes, lengths, and even decorating materials are changing. For many, fingertips are no longer a place to accentuate, but they are becoming the place of performance; some women are decorating their nails to make a statement that is louder than ever before.


My methods for researching this topic have been far reaching. I have poured through anthropological studies on body modification, philosophical and theoretical books on the general topic of aesthetics, old cosmetic advertisements, interviews with various women and manicurists, and finally, I have drawn upon personal anecdotes that I have found to coalesce the topic. After spending hours in two salons, I have encountered many interesting and unique people who inform this project.

This paper concentrates around the binary of “deviant” versus “mainstream” practices of nail decoration, and this study has been segmented into four parts. In the first chapter, I introduce important concepts of body aesthetics that will be used throughout the discourse. In this section, I aim to define the binary I am most interested in, as well as define some of the basic concepts and terms that I use throughout the paper. In the second chapter, I also look at the recent history of nails (that is, from the 1800’s through 1950’s), expose and discuss the role of the mass media and discuss how this might relate to the theory found in the first chapter. While I wish not to write the paper solely in a chronological (and therefore, somehow teleological and prescribed) order, it is important to understand the space from which today’s nail practices come and thus, a brief history is necessary. Finally, the third and fourth chapters are written in narrative form about the two salons in which I focused most of my own research and time. It is within these chapters that I will further expound some of the theory and patterns I have found through describing the people I met and have come to know.

Chapter 1: Theoretical Approach to Body Modification

“Some people might protest that the body is more important as a cultural representation than as a physical object, but it is hard to dispute that the basis of such representations remains the body.”[1] The body is at the root of all art and thus, we may understand the body to be a canvas. It is a place on which cultural representation of an individual may be represented or asserted; that is, both personal and social identification may occur on the body through alteration. This alteration is a distinction on the body that asserts both the self as an individual and the self within a group.[2] While body alteration makes an individual more unique and therefore, identifiable, this modification may also serve as a cohesive social symbol. For example, a person may get a tattoo as a rite of passage and be accepted as a member of a gang. Or, body alteration might also serve as social symbols of separation—again, the person with the same tattoo might have been accepted into the gang, but might also be shunned by his family for having put a tattoo on his face. Anthropologist Tobin Siebers has written about tattoos and general body modification; Siebers says it most succinctly when he writes, “Aesthetic practice … is positively identified with the power of self-modification, and when self-modification occurs, it registers as something aesthetic, and yet if this power gets out of hand, art bears the blame.”[3]

Aesthetics of the body, of course, are difficult to define. The origins, motivations and boundaries of aesthetics are difficult to delineate within a given set of time and space, and additionally, aesthetic practices are constantly in flux. We know this to be true just by looking at trends in fashion; what was most beautiful in the early 1800’s is now outdated and generally speaking, “undesirable” in the everyday sense. But often it is not the specific aesthetics of an object that are important. Rather, it is the relationship between aesthetic objects. Writing about this very nature of aesthetic comparison, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu writes in his book, Distinction,

Taste is an acquired disposition to ‘differentiate’ and ‘appreciate’, as Kant says—in other words, to establish and mark differences by a process of distinction which is not (or not necessarily) a distinct knowledge, in Leibniz’s sense, since it ensures recognition (in the ordinary sense) of the object without implying knowledge of the distinctive features which define it.[4]

As Bourdieu understands it, the choice of a certain aesthetic is made in an attempt to make a type of distinction between aesthetic choices, so as to offset oneself as identifiably different than before.

Body modification and more specifically, nail painting, are means by which individuals make this type of distinction. We may understand people’s motivations, instincts, and desires through the artwork upon their bodies, for the artwork is a map of their minds.[5] Alterations of the body reveal individuals’ characteristics and desires both as individuals and as “political” beings. Yet, when thinking about general practices of body modification, one intuits that there are certain trends that seem more popular than others and, at the very least, there are clear patterns of practices. Bourdieu believes that despite the endless possibilities of aesthetic qualities—that is, that a person may in fact choose to have a hair color that is one of an infinite spectrum of colors—aesthetic choices boil down to select choices due to societal and market factors. This is clear in the nail industry; despite the presence of unlimited possibility, there is a larger binary at play because there while the possibilities are endless, nail products on the market are not.

Aesthetics of the body are littered with binaries; big versus small, light versus dark, young versus old[6]. More specifically, referencing the “normal” versus “outside of the normal” aesthetics are relative at best. It is only the feature of “distinction” that one may indentify as a commonality in aesthetics. Similarly to Siebers’s observations, Bourdieu also sees popular binaries like old/young, expensive/cheap, form/function within the realm of fashion aesthetics. But more importantly, Bourdieu elucidates that the meaningful aspects of aesthetics are found within the relative relationship between these aesthetic binaries. The designs and chosen colors may be understood as teetering between glamorous and grotesque, and it is the relationship between this binary that may outline one’s place as an individual and as a social being.

Principles of division, inextricably logical and sociological, function within and for the purposes of the struggle between social groups; in producing concepts, they produce groups… What is at stake in the struggles about the meaning of the social world is the power over the classificatory schemes and systems which are the basis of the representations of the groups and therefore of their mobilization and demobilization.[7]

While I do not wish to entrench you, my reader, in endless theory before my own presentation of my findings, I do need to mention one more theory that I believe informs this study. In his highly influential work, The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord defines what he understands to be “spectacle.” He writes, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”[8] This, in short, is what I believe to be happening in the world of nail painting. Mass media is no doubt at the heart of society’s exposure to nail art, but I believe that many internalize these images and make them their own by painting themselves. It is this group of people—those “to whom the real world becomes real images,”[9]—that I discuss in this paper. It might be said that my analysis should not be read as a universalizing text, but simply, it might be read with the understanding that it is largely subject to what one might call the “popular public sphere of the mass media” which is an illustrated, yet no-less effectual entity.

Figure 1: 1958 Knox Gelatin Advertisement

Figure 1: 1958 Knox Gelatin Advertisement


This paper focuses mainly on the binary of “deviant” versus “mainstream” practices of nail decoration. Anthropologist Clinton Sanders defines a “deviant practice” as having one of the following characteristics: “i. a phenomenon that causes social harm, ii. a rare practice or iii. a practice that is generally “deemed bad” by society.”[10] Sanders’ discussion focuses on tattoo art; while conceptually similar to nail decoration, his text was written in 1989 and is distinct enough for me to shy away from completely adopting his definitions of the “deviant” versus the “norm”.

On the first side of the binary, I choose to call the “norm” nail ornamentation. While elucidated throughout this paper, this term may be generally understood as representing a mainstream form of nail embellishment as defined by the nail market. The second side I would like to call nail art, which is what we might consider to be the “deviant” (as defined by Sanders) form of nail decoration. Nail art is a category in which individuals choose to embellish in a much more ornate fashion, so as to call attention to their nails. Nail art seems to step away from trending aesthetics and move towards an aesthetic that values attention and performance.

Chapter 2: Mass Media’s Role in Determining the “Norm”

Mass media advertisements spanning the last decade show that their influence is largely responsible for dictating what might be considered “the norm.” This is, of course, not to say that all women in the United States paint their nails according to these ads—for certainly that is not the case. Rather, it suggests that according to the consumer-based mass advertisement outlets such as magazines, fashion websites, TV and movies, many women should. According to mass media, women should want and expect nothing less than clear skin, smooth nails, matching nail and lip color, and a cosmetic product for every surface of their bodies. It is important to recognize the nature of influence of the mass media in terms of cosmetic use if we are to understand the “norm” versus “deviant” practices of the nail decoration and its origins. This chapter aims to demonstrate that there are, in fact, “norms” in the nail world. First, I will briefly discuss advertisements of the twentieth century of nail products, elucidating trends and characteristics of the advertising. Finally, I will provide an excellent example of how this notion of the “norm” took hold in a quintessentially American company, Pan American Airlines, during the 1950s and 60s.

Figure 2: 1950’s Vogue Magazine Cover

Figure 2: 1950’s Vogue Magazine Cover

Mass Media: Conflict of the Individual versus the Mass Consumer

Cosmetics of the twentieth century in the United States were intended to be an assertion of the self; ads claimed they gave beauty, class and sophistication to women who wore them. [See Figure 1] While these advertisements would promise physical differences, like clearer skin or whiter teeth, the ads sold social qualities. Companies like Armand would categorize women into previously prescribed woman-archetypes and “individuality” seemed to disappear, but social qualities like “the good wife” or “a nurturing mother” would appear. Social

characteristics were the real products being sold, rather than the physical products. Unfortunately, individual identity disappeared within these ads. While the pictured women in the Armand ads would have differing hairstyles, their countenance and facial characteristics are virtually indistinguishable from one another.[11] This seemingly irresolvable problem—that is, somehow negotiating between the participation with mass consumer culture while also asserting the self—was addressed in magazines and cosmetic advertising. The September issue of a 1950’s Vogue magazine has a cover story that claims to give tips on how to maintain individuality while remaining in style. [See Figure 2]


This same conflict is certainly seen in many of today’s cosmetic advertisements. Beauty is often constructed and encapsulated by just a few models, while there is very little individuality found within these advertisements. The 1952 advertisement for Revlon Lipstick and matching nail color had a suggestive quote which read, “Fire and Ice… For you who love to flirt with fire, who dare to skate upon thin ice.”[12] In true branding fashion, companies like Revlon hoped not to ignore the stigmas of sexually suggestive nature of cosmetics, but in fact the company relished in it. Revlon ran the same ad in 2010 as was run in 1952 for the same line of lipstick and nail polish, showing that there are still deeply rooted conceptions of mass-consumed products as well as the woman it sold. The revamped 2010 ad read, “The legend lives on.” [See Figure 3] It seems that the legend of the sexually attractive and made-up female made its way into the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Figure 3: Revlon Fire and Ice Ads—1952 (Left) and 2010 (Right)

Figure 3: Revlon Fire and Ice Ads—1952 (Left) and 2010 (Right)

Pan American Glamor

In 1968, Cheryl Dennison was informed she was selected be one of thirty college girls to serve as a summer stewardess for Pan American Airlines. She was assigned the Miami-South America or New York-South America routes as a senior in college, and she could not have been more thrilled about the opportunity. “I got to fly with the best of the best,” Cheryl, or as she is better known, Cherry, recalls. “The women I worked with were perfect professionals… Flawless really… I was so honored to be chosen as an honorary stewardess to work among these women.”

Pan Am stewardesses were made to look identical. These women were selling points of the airlines, as they represented service and professionalism. In fact, in a 1950’s ad of the airline, half of the ad has a picture of a smiling stewardess with words next to her reading, “at your service…”

Figure 4: Pan American Airline 1958 Advertisement

Figure 4: Pan American Airline 1958 Advertisement

These young women were held to many physical standards. They had to maintain a low bodyweight, have hair no longer than their chins, wear a strict uniform of heels, girdles, hats and scarves, and finally, they had to maintain their manicures. Cherry recounted her story of standing on an elevated inspection area before each flight, turning so she may be inspected to ensure she met these standards.

We could be called into the inspector’s office one by one and he would ask us to turn on this little pedestal… For the first turn, we had to wear our gloves and bags. For the second turn he would ask us to remove our gloves and he’d look at our hands and nails… We had to have manicured hands.

Another former Pan Am stewardess, Sheila, recalls the official cosmetic requirements of Pan Am stewardesses: Revlon’s Persian Melon lipstick and nail polish. “’If you were caught wearing, say, blue eye-shadow or scarlet lipstick you were told to wipe it off because they wanted us to look natural and wholesome,” she says.

Stewardesses like Cherry and Sheila were made to look like every other stewardess in order to exude an attractive, professional air. These women were shaped and understood as the “norm” or “mainstream” of female professionalism, as seen through the lens of the mass media. “Really, the Pan Am girls were interchangeable. All identical flying beauties.”

The story of the Pan Am stewardesses like Cherry and Sheila show that there are certainly circulated notions of beauty through the mass media. However, in an effort to promote an idea of “finding oneself,” and encouraging pampering and beauty of both the inner and outer self, the cosmetic industry battles between two contradictory forms: the promotion of unique individuality, as might be done in true American fashion, and conforming to an ideal so as to sell a massive quantity of the same product in a mass-consumer, and simultaneously American society.

Chapter 3: Miami’s Marisel—Nail Decoration

George’s Salon

Walking into George’s Salon, I am familiar with the pungent smell of dyes and chemicals that waft through the room. The same Cuban Jazz album plays and the hairdressers hum and tap their toes as they comb and cut their customers’ hair. Sitting in the back corner is Marisel, the manicurist I have visited with my mother since I was a young girl. When I turned thirteen years old, my mother offered to take me to the salon for a manicure. I hit the big one-three, and my face flushed with embarrassment and excitement at my mother’s suggestion. Stepping into the salon, I became abundantly aware of my freckled and funny thirteen-year-old presence among the grown, beautiful women who surrounded me. The smells of dyes and waxes filled the air and clients sat beneath hair and nail dryers, waiting for their curls and paint to set and dry. As I sat at Marisel’s manicurist’s table, I looked not at the lacquer being brushed onto my virgin nails, but at the beautiful, self-aware and confident creatures surrounding me. My feelings of angst have since changed, but it seems the salon has not.

George’s Salon is nestled in the heart of Coral Gables, a lavish and affluent neighborhood and lively center of Miami. The salon is brightly lit, with polished marble floors, endless mirrors that align in front of the cushioned salon chairs. The walls are lined with pictures of celebrities that have visited this salon over the years. Most of the pictures are weathered and yellow, their black frames carefully collecting the dust.

Each time I walk through the door, I am greeted with kisses from familiar faces. The hairdresser Willy comes over to say hello, as does his girlfriend Isabella. “How are you, lovely girl?” They have been dating for just a few months, and still find themselves enthralled with the other. I make my way back to Marisel’s workstation, but am stopped by Isa, another hairdresser who stepped in for Willy when he was sick. “Como estas mi amor?” Isa speaks not a word of English, but I am convinced she understands it. “Wonderful, thank you,” I answer. “So glad to be back.”


Marisel spends her workdays hunched over customers’ hands and feet, giving them their weekly “manis and pedis”. A manicurist for over forty-five years, Marisel came from Cuba and started her career in New York City. She is a strong, big-breasted and boisterous woman, standing about five feet tall. Her dyed dark hair is always pulled back in the same manner, fastened with combs and exposing her friendly countenance. Always sneezing and sniffling, her nose is swollen and red from the caustic chemicals she is surrounded by; yet, she seems not to mind. For Marisel, it comes with the business.

Marisel did not always want to become a manicurist. When she arrived in New York, she wanted to be an office receptionist, but her English skills were not good enough and she realized she needed to try something else. “I didn’t need good English skills,” Marisel recalls thinking when she applied to cosmetology school. “Pero, I loved it. I was good at it, y, I could work soon. I made my own money and I worked hard… I made it in America.”

Not only does Marisel paint nails, but she also waxes and tweezes, slowly crafting individuals’ bodies into more commercialized forms. Some customers visit Marisel only for special occasions, while others treat themselves to a weekly pampering. After visiting Marisel, many of the customers seem to share in the sentiment that they feel beautiful inside and out.[13] I ask Marisel why she has so many customers; why do women want to paint their nails? “It’s important to take care of your body… You want to look beautiful, but you want to feel beautiful. You want to feel smart, healthy and sexy. If you feel beautiful, you look beautiful too. All my customers, they are beautiful,” Marisel says.

The Sound of Spanglish

“Siii, claro. Claro que si. Dice que no her husband did Robby’s project! Que ridiculo…”

In the salon, I hear chatter in Spanish and Spanglish as women gossip about a new boyfriend or business and family drama. Marisel occasionally chimes into her customer’s stories, “Siii… Es crazy…” I drift in and out of hearing the content and contexts of conversations. I have difficulty hearing such fast Spanish. I don’t know most of the people being spoken about. I half listen to the tones and ranges of the voices, and zone in and out of conscious attention as I listen to a cacophony of hairdryers, heels against the floor, telephone rings and chatter.

As an observer, I find comfort in my silence among the customers, slightly disengaged in conversation with those surround me as I am tuned into the general atmosphere of the salon. For many of Marisel’s customers including myself, George’s Salon is a place of relaxation. It is a “third place,” or a place in which one can feel happy, comfortable and stress free. It is “the people’s own remedy for stress, loneliness, and alienation.”[14] It is a place in which women may escape the serious troubles of their everyday lives, while chatting about the more frivolous facts of their lives. “It’s a social thing, really,” one woman said. “I get to ask Marisel about her kids. I ask about her daughter… I’ve even been through a couple of Marisel’s marriages… She asks about me too, and there are no consequences really… She won’t tell anyone. We’ve lived whole lives together, and this is a safe place.”

The Process of Painting: Relaxation

One sunny Saturday afternoon, it felt almost a sin to venture indoors. I had scheduled a manicure, but had planned on hanging around the salon to soak up the atmosphere and people. Upon my arrival at George’s, I found what seemed to be the most happening place in Miami and the outdoors paled in comparison. When I walked into the salon, no one sat at the receptionist’s desk, and Latin music blared through the speakers. Some of the hairdressers were sitting around sipping on Cuban coffee as others were doing various tasks as they danced around the room. There were carts of food, filled with Cuban media noches, arroz y pollo, ropa vieja and maduros. There were even three individuals I did not recognize who had small stands, selling perfume, jewelry, and Cuban guayaberas to customers. As I walked in, I was slightly overwhelmed by the noise and action and asked, “Why the fiesta?”

“Feliz Cumple, Perla!” Marisel screamed. She was cutting a big rum cake into pieces, and as the other salon ladies coyly protested the delicious treat, Marisel began convincing them to take one. “Ayy uno, porfa! Solamente one piece! You’re beautiful!” It was the 100th birthday of one of the salon’s dear customers, Perla, and they were going to make it a big celebration. Willy was pulling her gray curls across a brush as he blow-dried her hair, as they talked about the party Perla’s family had planned for her that evening. “Pero eso es the pre-party,” Perla exclaimed, smiling into the mirror as she watched Willy work.

Many of Marisel’s customers like Perla find themselves at home in George’s Salon. “I usually get my nails done as a stress relief,” an attractive middle-aged woman, Paula, told me. “Usually I schedule to get [my nails] done when I could use some relaxation… I like how it makes me feel a little more put-together and pampered when I’m living a lifestyle that does not afford for much ‘me time’. And these ladies make me feel great; we love each other, no matter what we come out looking like!” Paula laughed. Another of Marisel’s customers, Karen, was surprisingly sentimental when talking about Marisel. Karen said,

I feel comfortable and relaxed. I like talking to Marisel and catching up with her… We can giggle and gossip if we want, or we can talk about serious things… My mom passed away a few years ago, and Marisel was there. Always there… It’s silly, I know, pero I felt much better after visiting George’s… Well, I’ll just say, I spent more money on manicures that year than any other!

Marisel has had the some of the same customers for over twenty years, seeing multiple generations of a family. Despite competitive prices around Miami, customers return to her salon, happy to pamper themselves with familiar conversation and ambiance. One of her customers happily attests to Marisel’s service. “I’ve been with Marisel for twenty years. I keep going to Marisel out of loyalty and trust. She knows me, and we have fun together. I like this salon and I like Marisel.” Another customer, Vicky, seems to feel similarly, speaking fondly of Marisel. Vicky says,

We’re friendly, but not friends. I wouldn’t invite her out to dinner or lunch, but I care about her. She knows as much as my psychologist knows. She’s absolutely confidential; I know it because she does the nails of my friends who I’ve recommended. She only talks about people if I don’t know them… It’s better that way. She’s kind of like a bartender; unfortunately because her English isn’t great, and neither is my Spanish, she doesn’t understand everything, but she nods and it’s makes me feel better! Makes me feel like I’ve shared something.

Marisel’s service is one that goes beyond the material lacquer that is painted and plastered onto the nails and acrylics she so carefully shapes and cleans. Not only does Marisel give women confidence by shaping their nails, but she provides a place of comfort and relaxation as well. As Marisel files and tweezes, she shapes her customers to resemble the images they have seen in magazines and on the streets of nails

The Act of Painting

Marisel grasps each of my fingers, brushing the acetone-soaked cotton-ball over each of my nails and I watch my pale nail surface, gasping for air as it escapes from underneath the chemical compounds. Marisel uses wooden tools, files, buffers and oils to make my nails more evenly shaped and buffed. Taking my hands into hers, she has a dab of hand lotion in her palms and massages it into my fingers and palms, working slowly from my fingertips to wrist. I want to melt into my seat in relaxation, allowing my eyes to close and mind to drift as the muscles of my fingers and palms give into movement not of their own doing. But it seems that each moment my eyelids begin to close, Marisel speaks up with an insignificant saying or comment; she asks about boyfriends and family, though she seems already to know the answer before saying a word.

After prepping my hands and fingertips, she dips the paintbrush into the bottle in the same fashion, almost mechanically dipping, tilting the bottle forward to soak the tip of the brush, and finally painting. I am hyper aware of Marisel’s soft fingers holding my own, but she is at work, dipping the brush, tilting the bottle, and painting the nail; her hands work from muscle memory as she continues the pattern across all ten nails. I watch my white nail beds of my fingertips go into hiding, sinking and almost sighing as they again are covered beneath a brightly hued combination of chemicals. Marisel says almost mechanically, “Clean and pretty. Lista, you’re ready to go dancing!”

I turn to the drying table, resting my hands below a rush of warm, dry air. It is my mother’s turn to have her nails done, and Marisel asks, “What color for mommy’s manicure?” Though my mother scans the rack of nail polishes, always tempted to try a new shade, she always settles back to the same shade of red. “She likes the classy nail. Your mommy likes class,” Marisel chuckles.

Marisel began chattering, talking about customers who have recently visited her. Marisel often tells generic stories of the uptight and unfriendly lawyer, and the lonely, trapped housewife who spends her days in the mansion she has in the lush neighborhood of Coconut Grove, though we never quite know if she is talking about someone real or of the imaginary. The stories seem inescapably typified and predictable and just as Marisel tells these stories, she also knows exactly how her customers would want their nails done. “Professionals like lawyers, secretaries, business executives—they all want French manicures. Young people, like those who want to go to the discotech, want darker colors—maroon, almost black…. If they go out, they want to have darker nails. But if they work and are older, they want lighter color,” Marisel says. Each time I have made an attempt to ask why she those trends existed, there was no clear answer. “That is what they want,” she says.

It is clear that Marisel’s salon has attracted a specific demographic; that is, the women who go to have their nails done want manicures that resemble common images they have seen in magazines, movies and on friends. Marisel’s work is work of nail décor; she provides a service of a standard and relatively common cultural production. When I asked Marisel what types of nail decoration she provided, she emphasized that she specialized in acrylic nails. But when I asked her about painting and/or airbrushing unique designs on acrylics, she quickly answered, “The Pilipino Salon does that. I don’t do designs. Only colors. Only the classy kind of nails.”

The Customers

Just as the similar stories of family and friends circulated among the women in the salon, so too did the care for each customer. Each customer was greeted with a warm hug and kiss on the cheek from Marisel, and each left the salon smiling, despite their level of satisfaction with the nail color that they chose. While I interviewed many of Marisel’s clients, I have chosen three people who I feel exemplify the range of Marisel’s customers, as well as their choices of nail decoration.


I met Moira in December when I was in Miami for Christmas break. I spent several full days in the salon, sitting next to Marisel as she painted hundreds of fingers and toes. A young-woman in her mid-twenties, a girl named Moira stuck out in my mind as an exemplary customer. She had already chosen the color she wanted painted on her nails before she walked through the salon door. A petite and positive girl, Moira is a student at the University of Miami majoring in Russian studies. I sat next to Marisel’s workstation as Marisel painted Moira’s nails I began to ask Moira about her nails. I was pleasantly surprised when she began to bubble over with excited explanation of her nails. Marisel began to file Moira’s nails, and Moira began to talk.

“I think when [nails] are too long to be practical, or they’re so long that they stand out and detract from your face or personality, they’re no longer pretty… If the first thing you notice about someone is their nails, something’s wrong. That’s gross.” Moira keeps her nails short but well filed and maintained. “When I was young, I used to bite my nails; it was really bad and gross. When I reached the fifth grade, someone saw me and told me that ladies don’t bite their nails. From that day on, I’ve worked to get rid of that habit and now I’m done. Thank goodness.” Looking at Moira’s smooth, shaped nails, I could see she takes good care of her hands.

“I don’t see nails in-and-of-themselves as beautiful,” she said. “It’s part of a whole package of presenting yourself in a certain way, or expressing yourself.” I watched as Marisel brushed a dark maroon lacquer onto Moira’s cleaned nails, recognizing the same Essie brand bottle from numerous other manicures Marisel had given that day. In fact, Marisel kept the same bottle separated from the hundreds of other hues, reaching for the maroon almost as an automatic reaction when young women she knew would walk in the door. “I love this dark color,” Moira added. “It came into style a few years ago, and it has really stuck around. It shows I’m young and in the know when it comes to trends,” Moira explained.


With a simple white line at the tip of the nail while the rest of the nail is painted a translucent neutral beige or light pink color so as to match the skin tone, the French Manicure has been described by many of Marisel’s customers like JoAnn as “a forever classic look.” The origins of the French Manicure are quite unclear. The business owner of the nail polish brand, Orly, claims that he was the one to master and brand the well-known style, but Marisel doesn’t think this is the case. “French Manicures are older than him!” she exclaims. With light, neutral and/or slightly pink subtly painted nails, the French manicure is often described by the professional women who have them done as “natural,” “feminine,” “classy” and “clean.”

JoAnn is a businesswoman who works in the financial sector in Miami. A woman in her mid-fifties, JoAnn only started painting her nails when she began her career in the working world.

“I want to maintain a repertoire with [my] clients,” she says. “I probably wouldn’t paint my nails if I didn’t work. I want polished, professional looking nails for my clients… It’s not the average person that follows an extreme trend; I think extreme nail decoration is a cultural or momentary attraction and over time it will be recognized as such… But general nail hygiene, like just getting my nails done normally, is a preference but in a more moderate sense.”

JoAnn does not stray from her normal paint hues from week-to-week. “I don’t care about seasonal or celebrity trends,” JoAnn said, in a tone that seems to imply this type of behavior is frivolous and unnecessarily self-centered. But JoAnn explained that she always chooses one of three nail decorations: (1) soft colors that complement her skin tone, (2) red nails, or (3) a French Manicure. “They’re the classy colors,” she says. “You can’t go wrong, and no one will particularly notice your fingernails unless they look. They aren’t screaming for attention, which is really important.”


Lauren was a girl in her early twenties, and her sister was getting married in just two days. Lauren, originally from Westchester, flew in from New York that morning and her sister asked her if she would get her nails painted for the wedding. Though feeling an innate protest against painting her nails, Lauren said she absolutely would paint her nails for her sisters wedding. But, in both Marisel’s and my presence, she said,

Painting my nails always feels kind of excessive; [it is] like something extra feminine, extra fancy, which is why I do it when I want to feel extra feminine… Generally, I don’t care enough to take the time to paint my nails. I don’t wear too much make up or spend lots of time on my hair either. I see all those things as parallel–these things women do to fit in with an ideal of femininity.

This of course, is a loaded statement; but at its core, it is demonstrative that nail decoration is first and foremost, an action that is executed for the social sphere. For Lauren and many others like her, nail painting is a prescribed aesthetic, and this is a “norm” to which she does not wish to ascribe. Lauren was the only one of Marisel’s customers I met who felt this way, but it is no doubt a sentiment that many women have.


After spending several days talking with Marisel’s customers, I realized that there are normative designs—colors that indicate a certain professional aura, or perhaps a party-person air—and these color are demonstrative of specific characteristics. Polish on fingertips signal an individual’s fingertips that tell the world some kind of self-classification, whether it is considered “professional,” “classy,” “sexy,” or “young.” For many women who choose to partake in these standardized and prescribed norms (as prescribed by the mass media), nail painting is understood as an identity within a boundary of cultural production.

Cosmetic actions for hair, nails and skin are all indicative of adapting oneself to a social norm; one hopes to attain and display shiny hair, clear skin, healthy nails, all to show they are healthy and that they care enough to take care of themselves. Yet while cosmetic action is a simultaneous assertion of the self within a society and a performance of a certain role, it this is an idea of too much attention is one that many seem to dislike. Pierre Bourdieu writes that it is “distinction” that people strive for through their aesthetic taste, but for many there is danger in too much distinction. There is an awareness of outsiders “noticing too much” that many women want to avoid, especially in spaces like the work place. For those who wish to avoid being defined as a “deviant” character, or as one outside the “norm”, it seems that there is special attention to the colors and styles that are within a popular realm.

Chapter 4: New York’s Naomi

The Hello Beautiful Salon

The Hello Beautiful Salon was difficult for me to find. Never having visited the salon before, I clumsily navigated my way around the trendy streets of Williamsburg, trying to locate the salon. I had to make an appointment three weeks in advance because the demand for a manicure with Naomi Yasuda was so high, and I was ten minutes late for my appointment. I finally found the numbered address, 218 Bedford, but when I walked in I found myself in a bookstore. “Excuse me,” I said to the cashier. “This will sound silly… But, is this the address for the Hello Beautiful Salon is?” “Just walk straight back through that door and it’s down the hall,” she said, pointing to the back of the bookstore.

Once I finally found myself inside, I was overwhelmed by the hundred hues of pink that adorned everything. Lampshades were lined in fuzzy pink feathers, the couches and salon chairs were bejeweled and bedazzled with pink rhinestones, and the walls had hot-pink, leopard-print wallpaper. I waited patiently for the pink-and-black-haired hairdresser who was doubling as a receptionist to take my name down.

“Have a seat, sweetie,” the receptionist, Cleo, said. “Naomi will be with you shortly,” she said. Naomi was sitting just 20 feet away, taking her time as she finished the last touches on her client’s nails. I sat on the plush sofa, flipping through the Cosmo and Vogue magazines left on the coffee table in front of me, recovering from my frenzied and stressed state. I listened to Naomi speaking Japanese with someone who appeared to be a close friend of hers. Naomi seemed completely engaged with both her work and her conversation with her client, unaware of my presence or even the presence of the others who worked there.

The other two women working in the salon, tall, intimidating and adorned in all black attire, were engaged in conversation with their clients and each other. But rather than speaking about their families, jobs, or boyfriends and girlfriends, they discussed the color of the hair dye they were using, and the studded jean jacket one girl was wearing. “I think the blue is going to look sick. Neons. I’m telling you. They’re coming in… I’m telling you, stick with the blue streak underneath and you will love it,” one woman said. Little conversation was had about personal lives, and gossip was not at all at the center of their interest as it was in George’s. In Hello Beautiful, the women talked mostly about their clothes and their looks.

Naomi Yasuda

Walking into the salon, I immediately recognized Naomi Yasuda from the pictures I’d seen of her. With long black hair and a cool disposition, Naomi exudes a tranquil aura as she sits within the four walls of overwhelming and splashing pinks of Hello Beautiful. Naomi’s attire surprised me; she wore an oversized red beanie and grey sweater. Imagining her working with high-profile celebrities, I had imagined her in markedly designer attire, but to my surprise, she looked casual and comfortable with her quiet demeanor.

Naomi Yasuda is of the same occupation as Marisel, but she paints and creates in an entirely different style. Native to Tokyo, Naomi Yasuda moved to New York City in 2007 in hopes of making her dream as a nail art designer come to fruition. After studying and specializing in Japanese Nail Art, Naomi came to the United States and began working at Hello Beautiful. Naomi’s work with celebrities like Rihanna and Lady Gaga has given Naomi such credibility in the market that she is in very high demand, and her nail designs litter magazines, music videos and the Internet. She has just has had some of her newest nail creations featured in the New York Barney’s special, the Lady Gaga Workshop, where they were on sale for a whopping $225. Naomi is the epitome and in many ways, creator of cutting edge nail fashion, and she is one of the designers of what I would like to call in this project, nail art.

Despite her extreme fame for her work, Naomi maintains a humble disposition. As I sat with Naomi, I asked how her family has reacted to her career choice and success. “When I told them at first, they really did not like it. My sister is a doctor, and the other one a nurse… So…” Naomi’s voiced trailed off as she smiled. But when I asked Naomi if her parents knew she was famous, she said that at first they did not realize the impact she was making on the American nail market. But then, she coyly smiled and said, “A documentary was made of me and my life. It was shown on national television in Japan. So now I think they have a better idea.”

Naomi has been painting nails since she was a young girl. “I realized I was really good at it when I started painting my sisters’ nails,” Naomi told me as she began to remove polish off of my fingertips. I looked at her when she spoke, but her eyes continued to gaze down at my nails, or towards the door when new customers walked into the salon. Trying to engage Naomi, I asked her about her own manicure that she was wearing. “I love having my nails done crazy. If I don’t have my nails done, I feel naked,” she says. “Having your nails done that is unlike all other people makes you a little bit better than everyone else.”

Later in our conversation, Naomi continued, “It’s challenging to do a simple manicure because I usually prefer to do elaborate work. I like to get creative,” Naomi says. I look towards her desk that is covered in cases of tiny jewels, beads and glitter; Naomi was prepared to do anything. “So, what kind of design do you want?” she asked. Never having done anything but color on my nails, I clumsily answered, “Whatever you think is best. Something festive!”

Japanese Nail Art

Japanese nail art has been a practice around for many years in Japan, but only made its strong debut in the United States in the last five years. Painting often fake and long fingernails, Japanese Art is the pinnacle of nail art. One of the signature features of Japanese nail art is the attachment of small physical objects onto the nail. This technique is made possible by using a gel material, instead of traditional nail lacquer, and the manicure can last up to 21 days. Because of this intensely long lasting manicure, in comparison to the 7-10 day norm for lacquer manicures, the use of gels has taken off in the industry. In fact, according to Nails Magazine, in 2010, gel services increased by 10.1% in just one year.

In America techniques seem old fashioned to me compared to Japan,” Naomi said. “I really like to use UV gel instead of damaging products such as acrylic and wraps. There is no reason why people can not have healthy and creative nails.” For Naomi, the mainstream media forms of nail decoration are not nearly as appealing as unique designs.

Naomi’s Customers

Naomi Yasuda is mostly celebrated for her work with celebrities. But despite this popular realm, Naomi does have regular customers who are not constantly in the limelight. I had the opportunity to speak to one of these regular customers, as well as get my on nails done with Naomi.

Figure 5: Christmas by Naomi Yasuda

Figure 5: Christmas by Naomi Yasuda


Chelsea, a senior at the Parsons School of Design in New York, visited Naomi for new designs for about one year. Talkative, hilarious, and overzealous, Chelsea is certainly the life of a party. Enthusiastic to talk to me about her love for manicures and nail art, she told me about her relationship with Naomi. “She’s super sweet, we get along really well,” Chelsea said. “We’re not too close but we do a catch up and we talk in and out during the process… [Our conversation is] not [about] too much… We just talk about her crazy partying and stuff.”

When I met Chelsea, she was a writing intern at Teen Vogue and she loved looking into the new trends and polishes put out by big name companies like Chanel, Dior and others. “I would buy a new trending color if I got bored with my collection,” Chelsea said. “But if I really wanted to have fun, I’d go see Naomi.” Chelsea seemed to revel in the attention she received for her nails. “I love having people notice! Everybody talks to me!”

Figure 6: Outer Space by Naomi Yasuda

Figure 6: Outer Space by Naomi Yasuda

Chelsea tried several themes when she went to visit Naomi. She once had an Outer Space theme done, and in December of 2010, she had a Christmas themed manicure. [See Figures 5

and 6] “We’d have fun thinking of the creations together,” Chelsea recounts. But more importantly, Chelsea loves getting feedback from people on her nails. “I would post pictures of my nails on Facebook and get so many comments on them… I’m known among my friends as the ‘nail girl’ and even in work, they really like my nails. It’s cool.”

Because of the gel technique that Naomi uses, one can pop off each nail art piece individually after a few weeks. Chelsea likes her nails so much that a few weeks after each manicure, she popped off her nails and now keeps them in a box. “Why keep them?” I asked. “Well, I love them. They’re creations that I helped make… Really, they’re like little pieces of art.”


I met Zach on the Long Island Railroad as I was headed to JFK Airport. Our friends with whom we were each respectively traveling with were friends. Zach was about six foot six, lanky and incredibly confident. His voice boomed, as did his curiosity and observation for things around him. Zach was certainly an overwhelming character, but immediately drew me into his vortex of conversation. As soon as Zach and I began speaking, he noticed my fingernails.

“Oh my god, I loooveeee them. Love, love, love those girl!” I visited Naomi Yasuda’s salon just one week before on December 17th, and had festive Christmas colors and beads plastered to my fingertips. I was embarrassed at Zach’s enthusiasm as he grabbed my hand; commuters on the train were looking back at him and I, their eyes immediately turning to my hands. “This has got to be Naomi’s work,” Zach said. “It’s just too good,” he marveled, analyzing each finger. I was shocked that he could have possibly known I had gone to Naomi Yasuda, and I lost all care of the attention Zach was drawing towards us.

Figure 7: My Manicure by Naomi Yasuda

Figure 7: My Manicure by Naomi Yasuda

“You know Naomi?” I asked. “Know her? I love that girl! I go to her all the time to have my pinky done! Shit, it’s expensive but I look so good!” Though I knew Naomi had worked with male clients before, I had not yet met one. I learned that Zach normally gets just one finger done every few months. As our train continued towards our terminal, Zach explained to me that he used to get a claw shape nail put on his pinky, and have it painted black with a bejeweled cross. This was a design I had not seen before, but it affirmed one thing: Naomi did anything but the ordinary.

As we walked to separate gates, Zach called out to me that he would be sure to send me pictures and he would be sure to tell me when his next visit to Naomi would be. Not to my surprise, Zach never got in touch with me about his nails. But, it was yet another fleeting moment that I found nail art drawing people into conversation.

My Manicure

Thinking back on all of these celebrity fashions, I watched Naomi as she sifted through her drawers for different tools. I sat across from her in Hello Beautiful, nervously wondering what she would put onto my fingertips. Opening boxes of colorful beads, and hundreds of metal tweezers, scissors and other tools, Naomi stared at my hands for a few moments. Looking at my pale skin under the white light, I wanted to pull my hands out from her gaze. “Okay,” she said. “You know what you’ll paint?” I asked, looking for some conversation. “Mmmhmm,” she answered. I sat back and watched.

Pulling out a metal plate, Naomi pushed paint pigments out of tubes onto the metallic surface and began mixing. I watched as she dabbed a little red, a little yellow and white… Once she was done, she had a fine beige tone and grabbed my hand. I watched the thick gel paint smear onto my nails and I settled a little more comfortably into my seat. Over the course of the next hour, she painted coats of this gel, and I periodically would stick my hand into a UV machine to have the gel dry.

Figure 9: Claw Nails, Lady Gaga

Figure 9: Claw Nails, Lady Gaga

After the colors had been painted, Naomi took my hands and said, “What kind of print would you like?” I had no idea how to answer; I had never had prints before. Naomi seemed slightly exasperated and slightly entertained, saying, “I’ll do something I think you’ll like.” I watched her take a fine brush, painting a fine design on a few of my fingers. Finally, Naomi placed a coat of clear gel and plopped gold jewels onto the surface. I was surprised at how easily they glided along the surface of my nail, and Naomi just maneuvered the small beads like game pieces, sitting back as she strategically looked at their placement. “There, you’re all done. Like them?” I looked down at the set of nails, excited at the idea of the reactions I would get. “I love them,” I answered. “Thank you!”

As I walked out of door of the salon, still adjusting to the small golden beads attached to my nails, I felt a hand pull me back at the elbow. “Excuse me, can you show my daughter before you go? It’s her first time…” I turn to see a small girl, about ten years old nervously smiling at her mother’s side. I reach my hand down, showing the young girl my new set of nails. She glanced quickly, then turned, looking into the salon. I too could feel her nerves swell, just as mine had when I walked in the door. I felt almost like offering words of advice or encouragement, but this world was new to me, too. I just smiled back, and walked out of Hello Beautiful.

Figure 8: Marry the Night Music Video, by Lady Gaga

Figure 8: Marry the Night Music Video, by Lady Gaga


Celebrities such as pop-stars Lady Gaga and Rihanna, as well as the band All-American Reject’s Tyson Ritter all have sported flashy nails done by Naomi Yasuda. Studded with

diamonds and gems, decorated with neon shapes, filed to create a claw shape, attaching objects to make it seem virtually impossible for hands to be used, these celebrities are breaking the traditional understandings of what the popular nail aesthetic is. In Lady Gaga’s 2011 hit music video, Marry the Night, she had two different sets of claw-like nails. [See Figures 8 & 9] Rihanna also has been seen many times with claw-like nails, and both of these celebrities are known as bringing these trends into the limelight.

Figure 10: Cat Print, Katy Perry

Figure 10: Cat Print, Katy Perry

Katy Perry is yet another notable celebrity in the nail world, as she too breaks boundaries in nail decoration. She is known for printing pictures of her cats

and other loved ones on her nails, and even using jewels and other bedazzled objects on her nails. In April 2011 during the Royal Wedding, Katy Perry had prints of the Royal Family printed upon her nails in celebration. [See Figures 10 & 11]


A means of spectacle, Naomi’s nail designs break boundaries with any form of cultural “norm” of production. Using small plastic ornamentation, customized prints and paints, and brand new designs, Naomi feels as though nail decoration makes the individual. It seems that for Naomi, painted nails are not about fitting completely within a norm, but rather, it is challenging those norms and expanding upon them.

Figure 11: Royal Family Print, Katy Perry

Figure 11: Royal Family Print, Katy Perry

Commodifying the Unique: Money Manies

Not only are out-of-the-ordinary nails being seen in the mainstream media, but they are also starting to show up on the streets fashion-forward cities like New York and Miami. Nail

companies are coming out with product lines that evade the nail norm, yet seem to be taking off among fashionistas. Sally Hansen has a line of “Salon Effects”, which allow women to wear intricate designs like zebra prints and hounds-tooth prints. Nail Inc. has come out with a line of magnetic polish, which coolly uses physics to form designs, and Del Sol has a line of nail polish that change color in the sun. Claws, multi-colored and pattern hands, and edible-looking and cute plastic pieces glued upon nails are not necessarily beautiful—at least not in any conventional sense of the term “beautiful”—but they are unique, attention grabbing and trending. They are conversation starters on subways and cashiers, and whether positive or negative attention is received, unique nails are eye-catching pieces that make their clients noticed.

Figure 12: Rihanna’s $5,000 Manicure, 2012 Grammy Awards

Figure 12: Rihanna’s $5,000 Manicure, 2012 Grammy Awards

While some of these over-the-counter nail products are relatively affordable, the manicures of the rich-and-famous are not. For the 2012 Grammy Awards, Rihanna wore long, pointed golden nails that used a polish that containing 24K gold; her manicure was reported to cost $5,000. [See Figure 12] During Fashion Week of 2011 in New York, a specialist nail designer charged upwards of $300 for people to have their nails painted with golden inlays. Lady Gaga’s “Workshop” in Barney’s contained nails that cost $225 a set. [See Figure 13] In October 2011, there was an exhibit at the New Museum that was strictly a nail-salon stand, at which museum-goers may have their nails painted. The advertised idea behind this display is that patrons may adopt a “unique” design that is theirs only. Clearly painting nails is a way to demonstrate the self, as might be understood outside of the conventional forms, but they came at a high price. Whether one buys into a completely new style that is all ones own or decides to paint the latest trendy color, the color and design for many females’ nails today is changing to an independent performance not necessarily through the physical appearance of the nail. Rather, it is through the price tag associated with the manicures; taste is what you can buy.


Figure 13: Barney's Lady Gaga Workshop Nail Set, Designed by Naomi Yasuda

Figure 13: Barney’s Lady Gaga Workshop Nail Set, Designed by Naomi Yasuda

The faces of nail painting practices have changed drastically over the last few centuries in the United States. Shifting hues, shapes and materials of nail modification coincide with the

changing understandings of nail aesthetics. Despite these changes, one binary seems to remain mapped onto the world of nail painting: nail decoration versus nail art. Manicurists like Marisel and customers like Moira and JoAnn seek nail decoration. In George’s Salon there is an atmosphere of cohesiveness and friendliness among the customers. Women visit Marisel just as much for relaxation as they do for their manicures, and they feel a collectivity through their cosmetic practices. While there might be a sense of collective identity in the Hello Beautiful salon as well, there is a stark contrast in what the customers seek. Nail art is at the heart of Naomi Yasuda’s work, and she and her customers hope to create unique and eye-catching designs that are meant to work against the traditional practices. While working within the same industry, Marisel and Naomi live in two very different worlds.

[1] Siebers, 4, [2] Bourdieu, Distinction, [3] Siebers, 5, [4] Bourdieu, 466, [5] Siebers, 8, [6] Siebers, 2, [7] Bourdieu, 479, [8] Debord, 12, [9] Debord, 17, [10] Sanders, vii, [11] Peiss, 147, [12] Peiss, 249, [13] Peiss, 144, [14] Oldenburg, Page 20



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Copyright, Cori Capik, 2012. Anthropology Honors Thesis Seminar, Columbia University, Adviser Dr. Combs-Schilling.

*Part of this thesis and topic was published in my article on Women Around Town

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