Field Hands


This morning, against the better judgment of my conscience and my wallet, I abandoned a pile of thesis research and decided to get a manicure. After much deliberation and a google search for the most affordable and least creepy nail salon, I landed on a place called Euphoria in Portland's Hollywood district. Euphoria's website promised "a unique sense of creativity and calmness," and more importantly, their prices wouldn't render me meal-less for the next week. On my way out of the house I scraped my left index finger on the doorframe and spent the twenty-five minute walk to Euphoria trying to clot the blood. I suppressed my instinct to read this as a bad omen. I am a thirty-year-old, white, middle-class American woman, and this is only my third manicure ever. My first experience happened when I was twenty-five. It was of the french variety and a requirement for my stint as a close friend's maid of honor. The bride was paying so I hadn't much say in the matter. The second happened two years later after I quit a much-hated job working for a florist. The motivation was to cleanse my fingers of six months worth of dirt that had embedded itself into my skin.

While manicures are undeniably pleasurable, it is difficult for me to justify spending fifteen or twenty dollars getting my hands rubbed and my nails painted. Even if I did have the money, I'm not sure I would indulge in regular nail maintenance—perhaps just on principle. The average manicure runs a dollar a minute, about the same as a full body massage. While the activity does feel good, my guess is that most women engage in manicures because there is a social expectation for us to have lovely, polished and graceful hands. I like to place myself somewhere above this expectation, reasoning that my natural state of being involves caring little about the appearance of my fingertips. Nevertheless, the nail industry is a $6 billion annual venture, and it's likely those who don't participate regularly decline because they can't afford it, not because they're slaves to principle.

When I arrive at Euphoria, six round faces simultaneously greet me and a young man asks me to pick a color from about 300,000 options on a spinning rack. I just want clear. No jazz. Nothing to draw any attention to my temporary lapse in judgment. I sit down at an open nail station and dump my hands into a small bowl filled with warm water and those glass beads people put in the bottom of flower vases.

My "licensed nail technician" wears purple scrubs and a name tag that says Lily. Judging by her age and the authority of her native tone, she is clearly the matriarch of the group. I don't know whether to be intimidated or honored. She smiles and says something barely in English that I think includes the word "water," so I nod and she disappears behind me.

The salon's interior smells of lavender and its walls are decorated with foam-board posters advertising stock photos of women's manicured hands. There are a couple fake trees and a small waiting area boasting a large bowl of hershey kisses. A handful of women—and one man—dot the rows of cushy black chairs, getting their fingers or toes attended to. I am surprised to see how bored and miserable everyone looks, as though they are all waiting in line at the DMV. This is supposed to be a treat.

Lily returns with a styrofoam cup of water and wraps a scolding hot neck warmer over my shoulders. She smiles and says something else I can't understand at all. Lily speaks with confidence, but what comes out of her mouth doesn't sound like English or anything else. It is like the words are coming out backwards. I nod and smile and hope that's the correct response as she gets down to business with my nails.

The inspiration for this manicure arrived the other night while I was having a beer with a group of female peers. Six of us sat around a table, twelve hands holding pint glasses, toying with paper menus and casually flipping open cell phones to check for updates. I began to fixate on how all of the other women's fingers appeared so smooth, so well-maintained, so...feminine. These are not high-maintenance women, either. We are all writers and grad students—in other words: broke. Yet my hands did not fare as well as theirs. My skin was dry, my cuticles peeling and broken, my knuckles spotted with nicks and scabs. This shouldn't be an issue, but it is. I hate to say it, but my scuffed hands make me feel like less of a woman.

This association dates back to a day in the sixth grade. During the Civil War segment of our social studies class, my teacher made us watch Gone with the Wind, a judgment call that still blows my mind. We were eleven and twelve years old—too young to understand, interpret or care about what the heck was happening in that film. The epic viewing stretched over three class periods, flashing hours of Technicolor images at our bored and disinterested faces. The only scene that stuck out in my young mind occurred post-war, when Scarlett dresses up to visit Rhett in jail to solicit money. She tries to fool him into thinking she is oh-so-terribly unaffected by the Reconstruction, but he sees through her act solely by judging the state of her hands, which are uncharacteristically weathered from working the field (there are several blue-screen parodies of this scene on youtube). "These don't belong to a lady!" he says, casting her off and comparing her to a common field hand.

I remember sitting on the edge of my school desk, looking down at my calloused and cuticle-bitten kid-hands, and feeling totally hopeless.

Lily's reading glasses sit at the edge of her nose and she studies my fingers with the concentration of an archaeologist, buffing and clipping and filing. She notices me sitting on the edge of my seat and pulls the chair closer to the table, gently pressing her hands on my shoulders so I will lean back and relax.

"Better?" she asks.

I smile and laugh and tell her I don't do this often, as though that's an excuse for not knowing how to lean back in a chair.

She laughs and sighs and I translate that to be Mandarin for, "Tell me something I don't know."

The current plight of my hands is probably due to a number of circumstances, the first being that I work in a bakery and my fingers are constantly immersed in water, chocolate, or anti-bacterial soap. I also ride a bike, exposing my raw fingers to twelve- or fifteen-mile-an-hour winds. While I put lotion on...sometimes, I admittedly don't do much else to improve the quality of my skin. I should also mention I am a twenty-some-odd-year veteran to moderate cuticle biting, although I proudly never went for the nails out of an irrational fear that I might break a tooth. All of these factors add up to my present predicament, with which Lily is astutely plugging away.

A woman enters the salon, winded and fraught with a sense of urgency that doesn't seem like it should apply to nail-painting. She has just come from a competitor who "cannot paint for shit." The woman plops down at the station next to mine and practically throws the words, "express manicure," at her technician before the young girl has a chance to try and up-sell her to the $22 "Euphoria," which includes a heated essential oil soak. Lily tried this on me, too, holding out a laminated service menu and speaking backwards while pointing at my options. I went for the "classic," because I'm most comfortable when my porridge is warm.

Lily has to talk me through every step of the procedure, sometimes relying on her cohorts to translate. She is patient and understanding with my circumstances from soak to top coat, and for that I leave her an absurdly large tip. After she places a miniature electric fan in front of my shiny tips, she puts a file and a buffer in a little resealable sandwich bag and slips it into my purse. I don't know if this is par for the course or if she feels sorry for me.

She looks at me and says something involving the words, "next time," and moves on to a pair of feet in the next room.

As I reemerge into the daylight I stop to admire my hands. There really is a noticeable before and after, making me regret I didn't take photos. My nails are shiny, my hands are soft and there aren't weird pieces of renegade skin shooting out from the edges of my cuticles. I walk looking down for a few blocks admiring my newfound loveliness.

I realize the issue of my hands is only a microcosm for a much bigger problem—that many women, including myself, have a warped understanding of femininity. The more I stare at my manicured hands the more I feel like a child trotting around the house wearing my mother's four-inch pumps. I can blame Gone with the Wind all I want, but the only Rhett Butler accusing me of worker's hands is myself. Lucky for me there's no way I will be able upkeep Lily's fantastic finger makeover, and I may not get another manicure until I'm in somebody else's wedding, so I'll have plenty of time to grow comfortable with my natural, bakery-tainted, wind-blown fingers.

For now, though, I'm going to relish in the reflective surface of my lacquered finger nails, and pretend I'm a real lady.