I have learned a lot about beauty habits unique to black women in the past two weeks, specifically in regards to nails and hair. In this class, we have studied hair and in my Feminist Methodologies class we read ethnography about Korean women who work in nail salons. The book talked about how the choices women make in styling their nails are raced and classed. For example, the writer found that black women are more likely to use their nails as a form of self-expression through elaborate designs while white women are more likely to paint their nails in simple pastel shades. In class, we talked about negative stereotypes of women who get acrylic nail designs: that they are “gaudy,” cheap, and present as messy and unprofessional. We have talked about similar perspectives of black women’s hair, both natural and unnatural: that it is either “kinky” or it “isn’t real” and unnatural. From what I’ve read it seems like in general black women’s hair and nail habits are deemed unprofessional while white women’s habits are more professional.
This trend in my reading raises the question: are certain nails and certain hair inherently professional while others are inherently unprofessional? I don’t think so. I think that the standards we have for professionalism are racialized in a way that implicitly views whiteness as “good” beauty and blackness as “bad” beauty. While people can’t say they don’t hire black women, they can knowingly or unknowingly impose professional standards of beauty that disproportionately negatively impact black women (as in the case of Rogers vs. American Airlines). I am arguing that if nail designs were co-opted by and became a trend among white, professional women, they would no longer be criticized as “gaudy” and instead would be called “creative” and more likely to be tolerated in the workplace.
While a critical feminist of these racialized beauty standards in the workplace is intriguing, I didn’t think that I encountered many people who talk openly about these standards in daily life. Yesterday, however, I was talking with a white man in his thirties about why he doesn’t like going to Wal-Mart. He told me about how he hates seeing parents there who don’t care about their children. I asked how he knew that these people didn’t care for their children and he said that he sees mothers who have their long nails “obnoxiously” done while their children have holes in their clothes. I was amazed to hear acrylic nails (which are inherently racialized) as evidence of a mother’s negligence but I was too shocked to say anything. I also didn’t want to undermine my superior.
This story shows that predominantly black women’s grooming habits are still used today to delegitimize black women and black mothers specifically. Judgments based on a woman’s beauty habits are baseless because beauty standards are socialized and racialized. Despite employers’ opinions, you cannot tell anything about a person’s character or work ethic from how they do their hair or nails.