We tend to think of beauty habits as personal and self-centered, since they’re designed to make us look and feel better. But throughout history, they’ve mostly been done to us by someone else. Like apes and other mammals, our grooming remains a social activity.

Through cleaning and primping, we form bonds, build relationships, and reinforce social structures. Our markers and means of beauty thereby represent broader cultural dynamics and issues.

Take, for example, the professional manicures and pedicures that have become standard for many American women. Our nail care—and the women responsible for it—turned into front-page news last week as TheNew York Times investigated worker abuse in the city’s nail salons.

Long before you could get your nails done for $10 in any strip mall in America, manicures were reserved for the elite. Ancient Babylonian men demarcated social class with different nail colors. Queens in ancient Egypt, like Nefertiti and Cleopatra, favored red fingernail dyes, since bolder colors as indicated greater power. Similarly, in ancient China, royalty enjoyed manicures and colored their nails.

In the US, women have been painting their nails with the same sort of polish we use today for nearly a century. It wasn’t until after the Vietnam War that salon manicures became cheap and widely accessible. Prior to then, getting your nails done was something “for the Hollywood elite, with prices for a full set… in the hundreds."

Actress Tippi Hedren (Melanie Griffith's mom, best remembered for her role in Hitchcock's The Birds) brought this beauty ritual to the masses. In 1975, she helped 20 women émigrées from war-torn Vietnam ...

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