A Trip to the Nail Salon With Missing Fingers
Last summer, I attended Coney Island’s sideshow school. After encountering a culture in which having eight fingers was seen as a bonafide asset, I left the experience with a deeper appreciation of my status as a human oddity, and a feeling of familial camaraderie the long line of disabled performers whose ranks I was lucky enough to join.
To put it simply, I have eight fingers. The clinical term for my condition is ectrodactyly, which is a congenital deformity that occurs in approximately 1 out of every 90,000 births and manifests differently depending on the person. My case is fairly mild in that only one of my limbs, my left hand, is affected; my right hand and all 10 toes are standard-issue. All that is to say: it’s really not that big a deal.
Most people don’t clock this about me, though. My disability is relatively minor, and I’ve developed effective behaviors at hiding it. As I’ve gotten older and more comfortable in my own skin, my hands have ceased to bother me. They are now more akin to mild inconveniences, like when they prevent me from opening jars (my lifelong obsession with pickles is just one cruel irony). Painting my own nails is another.
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, I got my nails professionally done every four to five months. As a freelance writer, gel and designs were above my pay grade, so I always went for basic manicures, gravitating toward muted shades in icy or pastel tones to counterbalance my all-black wardrobe. My last manicure was lavender. None of this is particularly unique — surely, many of you get your nails done, whether sporadically or with religious regularity. (How else would the nail salon industry have become an $8 billion industry in the U.S. alone?) The only thing that makes me stand out within this context is the number of nails I bring to the salon — and the significance of being treated so well by the workers who handle them.
Nail salon technicians are the only group of people with whom I have public, personal interactions who get an up-close look at my gnarled hands. Getting your talons done should be a soothing, pleasant experience — and it often is, but for me, it also comes with a bolt of initial dread. How will the technician react to my hands? How will they handle my left hand, with its three stunted fingers and scars? I’m always a little afraid, but nearly every time, that fear has been proven unwarranted.
While some (often privileged) strangers react to my limbs with naked curiosity or cruelty, these technicians seem almost uniformly unperturbed, at least to my face (and I can’t blame someone for commenting on an unusual thing they saw at work that day once they’re off the clock). While they are often underpaid and mistreated by their employers, I have found them to be uniformly kind when unexpectedly confronted with my digits. This wordless acceptance is such a rarity in a country that so often castigates, isolates, or otherwise oppresses those with physical differences. None have ever called me a freak, or sneered in disgust when presented with my fingers — which isn’t something I can say for everyone I’ve encountered in my 32 years.
In some cases, manicurists are extra gentle, handling my fingers like butterfly wings, which is a show of kindness, but nevertheless makes me feel weird in the pit of my stomach. I always worry that I’m making an already demanding, underpaid, and hazardous job more difficult by needing them to adapt to the unexpected shapes of my atypical fingers, or that I’ve made them feel they need to mask their surprise. Dwelling on this additional emotional labor takes away from the small luxury that is getting one’s nails done, and even though I go out of my way to be grateful and polite (and directly tip the technician at least 30 percent in cash), it can be hard not to feel like a burden.
It’s not the same as other salon experiences: I get the occasional facial treatment when I can, but everyone has skin, so these vulnerabilities and anxieties aren’t present. Lobster claws feel like another matter entirely.
Now that nail salons are beginning to open back up — regardless of whether or not it’s actually safe for some states to do so — many of the workers who lost their livelihoods as a result of the initial closures are heading back to work. The future of the industry remains a question mark, but it does seem inevitable that customers will start going back.
I might, eventually, though I can’t imagine returning before the danger passes for everyone — not just those who have the option of choosing to stay home. My disability doesn’t place me at an increased risk from the coronavirus, but that’s certainly not the case for many other people in the disability community nor the workers themselves. And there is always a power dynamic from the moment you step into a nail salon as a customer, so it’s your responsibility to ensure you’re doing so as ethically as possible — especially now, when wearing a face mask and following safety protocols can be a matter of life or death.
And when that point does come, for me, going to the nail salon will remain the only time I can go into a public place and feel truly, utterly unremarkable — almost boringly human. The last time I got my nails done in New York City, I summoned up the courage to apologize for making things harder, and asked the technician who was absorbed in applying my topcoat whether she’d ever seen anyone like me before. She looked up with a warm, reassuring smile, shook her head, and said, “Honey, I’ve seen a lot.” The comment was a kindness she didn’t need to offer me, but I am still so grateful for it. The absence of surprise (or horror) at my hands felt like a gift.
Like many other groups who are marginalized by American society — including immigrant workers of color — people with visible disabilities are rarely afforded the luxury of banality. Moving through the world while being noticeably “different” can be exhausting, and in the age of Zoom calls and FaceTime, those of us who would normally be out and about haven’t gotten much of a break from that feeling. As much as I struggle with even identifying as disabled, those visits to the salon really help to reinforce the comforting idea that no individual body is really all that interesting, but everybody deserves to feel cared for — and to have cute nails if they want to.
Kim Kelly is a Philadelphia-based writer. You can follow her on Twitter.
Co-published with Allure.