I Tried Getting a Manicure and It Was Terrifying

©. puhhha/Shutterstock

My friends were getting mani-pedis and invited me along. Neither my mom nor my grandmothers had ever gotten a manicure, so I was a bit confused. Paying money to let a stranger paint my nails seemed silly. But when I stepped into the peaceful salon, put my feet in the warm footbath, and turned on my massage chair, I started warming up to the idea.

That’s when the manicurist took out sandpaper and started rubbing off the bottom of my foot like it was a piece of old wood. I cringed.

“Look at Ilana’s face!” a friend exclaimed, as though lobotomizing your heel is a completely normal thing to do. She must not have been aware that tough feet are useful for some old-fashioned activities like walking. I wondered if there was a nail salon somewhere that thickened the skin on your feet.

Unpolished nails! The horror!

© Unpolished nails! The horror! (Wonderplay/Shutterstock)

I was relieved when the pedicure ended and the manicurist moved onto my fingernails. That’s when she took out a knife. As it turns out, some manicurists cut your cuticles — those thin pieces of skin connecting your nails to your fingers. Many women would rather chop their skin off than suffer the embarrassment of having properly attached fingernails.

She’s not really going to ... I wondered just before my manicurist stabbed me with her knife, making quick digs into my nails like a sadistic villain in a horror movie. I tried to stay cool, but my face gave me away.

“You look like my cat when we corner her to cut her claws,” said the friend sitting next to me.

“Don’t you need cuticles for something?” I asked.

“No. Or at least, it doesn’t hurt to cut them,” she said. This was demonstrably untrue, as my cuticles were hurting plenty.

“You look like my cat when we corner her to cut her claws,” said the friend sitting next to me.

They kept hurting for a few days after. Then they started bleeding and peeling. I frantically googled “Do you need cuticles?” and learned what probably should have been obvious from the start: People indeed need cuticles.

“Don't have your cuticles removed — they act to seal the skin to the nail plate, so removal can lead to nail infection,” writes the Mayo Clinic.

“Shouldn’t they warn you at salons?” I asked a friend later. European cigarette boxes have pictured of diseased lungs. Why don’t nail salons have posters of infected nails?

Many women get manicures weekly at $25 a pop, which baffles me. But then again, we’re told to. Makeup.com suggests getting your nails done anywhere from once a week to once a month (and that’s just if you do your nails at home in between salon visit). Bustle tells some people to get their nails done every week or two for “self-care.” Perhaps that's why salons are everywhere; the industry has nearly doubled from 2010-2015.

Manicures weren’t always this ubiquitous. In the early 20th century, painted nails were for "fast women," explained Suzanne E. Shapiro, a researcher at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and author of “Nails: The Story of the Modern Manicure.”

They became a fad in France in the late 20s and made their way to the U.S. through Hollywood as a “cheap way for the regular woman to appropriate a bit of Hollywood glamor,” Shapiro told me. Revlon and other makeup companies appeared on the scene around World War II.

“The marketing of this period is actually pretty patriotic, encouraging women to maintain their beauty despite the hardships of war.” Shapiro continued. During the 50s, magazines told women that manicures “were not only fun to do, but they were correct to do,” she said. Manicures went from risqué to standard procedure as women tried to fit into “this desirable conformity of the period,” Shapiro added. That meant looking like the perfect housewife.

“Her hair was done. Her shoes matched her purse which matched her gloves. The manicure was just one more aspect of a woman looking perfectly put together,” Shapiro explained.

50s housewife manicure

© Igor Normann/Shutterstock

Even if being a “perfect housewife” is not quite so popular anymore, the nail salon industry has grown astronomically. Americans spend over $4 billion dollars a year at nail salons, about the same as the EPA spends on keeping water and air clean. Incidentally, the EPA has to spend billions on clean water and air in part because products like nail polish create water and air pollution. And of course, empty nail polish bottles, pieces of sandpaper, and all the rest generally go into landfills.

Some people genuinely love getting manicures. But many just get them because they feel like they’re supposed to; that’s what movies, commercials, and magazines have been telling women for nearly 70 years. People have even told me that plain nails look unprofessional at job interviews. I’ll say it: women shouldn’t have to slice off their skin, spend a ton of money, expose themselves to chemicals, and pollute the planet to avoid looking, you know, unpolished.

I might get another manicure somewhere down the line, but I will never let anyone cut my cuticles again. Because that’s real self care.