My whole life I was told by society, my peers and family that spas and salons were for females, and barbershops were for males. So you could understand my apprehension when I was assigned a breaching experiment in my sociology class on breaking gender norms. My assignment was to go to a salon and receive a pedicure and a manicure. I was full of dread at the idea of this and had so many misgivings about my upcoming procedure.
Is it going to hurt? Am I going to look funny? And worst of all, am I going to have to get my nails painted?
Well, I am glad to report that all my misconceptions and fears were absolutely unfounded. I incredibly enjoyed my spa day.
When I arrived at Zen Nail Retreat at The Greene, a shopping center in Beavercreek, I was greeted at the door with a friendly “good afternoon” from multiple Asian nail technicians, both men and women. The scents of jasmine, honey and peaches filled my nostrils.
The fake bamboo trimming and foliage throughout the nail salon combined with the docile sounds of American contemporary easy-listening music pouring out of the speakers installed in the ceiling above put me in an instant state of ease.
A teenaged, round-faced brunette, Vietnamese woman named Sara came up to me and asked how she could help me. I hastily explained that this was my first time, and it was for a class. Sara smiled and said, “Okay, right this way. We’ll take good care of you.” She led me to the back of the salon, passing a row of women and their technicians.
I expected to be received by them with glares, whispers, and looks of confusion, but instead I was greeted with waves, smiles, and even a wink.
Suddenly, Sara stopped walking and motioned for me to sit in a very impressive looking massage chair that had a basin of blue liquid attached to the foot of it. I slipped off my sandals and slid into the massive leather chair while simultaneously putting both of my feet into the mysterious blue liquid.
The instant my feet were submerged in that perfectly heated blue liquid and the massage rollers activated in my chair, I closed my eyes, and I was no longer in Dayton, Ohio. I had been transported to my own corner of the universe where no tension, stress, or worries existed. The only state of mind that existed was relaxation, the feeling of tranquility, and Shania Twain’s “I Feel Like a Woman” playing. It was fantastic.
After what felt like only mere seconds (but was revealed to me by the digital clock on the wall to be fifteen minutes) my technician arrived. She was an elderly Korean woman with chapped hands and a stern face called Sue-li.
Once again my apprehensions arose. I had seen male technicians when I had entered the salon and, being a male myself, I just assumed that I would have a male work on my feet. I was glad to be wrong once again. Sue-li was all business. When she was ready for me to lift my foot out of the liquid so she could do her job, all she did was tap the pad placed in front of me twice and, like a trained animal, I instinctively raised my foot and placed it in front of her. I obeyed each and every non-verbal command of Sue-li as if this wasn’t my first pedicure.
Sue-li was quick and thorough. She massaged, lotioned, clipped and scrubbed both of my feet to perfection. She even went as far as removing an unwanted ingrown toenail from my right big toe that I never seemed to have the time to remove myself. There was no small talk from Sue-li, and the chairs next to me were empty. I found myself missing the conversational aspect of the grooming ritual that I had come to know when I visited the barbershop.
After Sue-li was done working her tough, weathered, but gentle hands on my now rejuvenated feet and legs, she had me carefully put on my scandals and led me over to the nail station.
She sat me next to a middle aged, blonde haired soccer mom who was getting a coat and polish done. She smiled and introduced herself as Christine and asked if I had ever been here before. I smiled back and quickly explained my situation, welcoming the conversation aspect of this grooming experience.
Christine laughed when I finished telling her the fears I had earlier about the salon. She told me that she wished her husband was man enough to come in and get a manicure and pedicure with her. I continued to talk to Christine for the rest of my nail treatment with Sue-li, which included a cuticle pull, filing, and a polish.
Towards the end of my nail treatment two other males came into the salon. They were an African American teenager who looked very put-together and who was accompanied by his equally attractive girlfriend. The other was a burly, middle-aged man wearing a flannel shirt with a billowy beard who I thought was probably lost until I saw he was holding the hand of a little ten-year old girl who turned out to be his granddaughter.
As it turned out, the middle-aged man had promised to take her to get her nails done and was also getting his done so she wouldn’t feel alone. I made eye contact with both men; instinctively, they both nodded to me without saying a word and then went on with our individual business.
Finally, I was done with my manicure and pedicure. I went to the front of the salon and was once again greeted by Sara. I paid and was offered a discount on my next visit!
This experience was incredibly pleasurable and eye-opening to me. It really showed me that gender norms are just a social construct, and though they may still exist, they are ever-changing.
What was not acceptable for a man to do in the fifties and sixties, for example going to the salon, is not only welcomed in these times but congratulated. I expected to be chased out or met with disdain or glares by the patrons and staff at the salon. Instead, I was met with kindness and acceptance.
In the end, society defines what is taboo and what isn’t. I for one can’t wait to see what that looks like in the future. For now, I can’t wait to enjoy my next visit to Zen Nail Retreat for a little bit of me time.
Justin A. Baker