I had a manicure a few weeks ago. But this was no ordinary
manicure. It was my first ever. And it was French.
By the standards of the Korean-owned nail salon in Brooklyn where I
had it done, a "French manicure" means lavishly structuring, reshaping and
painting one's nails so they look "natural." The intended effect is to
make the nails look as though nothing has been done to them: the pink part
of the nail is polished pink and the white tip of the nail is painted white.
To achieve this effect, my manicurist filed my nails, smoothed them
with an emery board, trimmed the cuticles, massaged my hands, rubbed lotion
into them and had me soak my nails in a soapy solution.
Then she built me a new right thumb nail (mine was short and
jagged) with a silk wrap, which involved gluing a small square of silk to
my nail and hardening it with an array of polishes, powders and sprays.
Once constructed, the new "nail" was cut, filed and smoothed like the rest
of my nails.
At this point, the manicurist asked me to pay $14. They like you to
pay before painting your nails, the reason for which became obvious later
when I left the salon and my nails still hadn't completely dried. I
couldn't pick up or touch anything.
Having prepared my 10 mini-canvases, my manicurist was ready to
paint. She applied one thin coat of pink to my reconstructed right thumb,
then a coat to the index, the middle finger, the ring finger, the pinky.
Then she applied the same treatment to the lefthand nails as the right ones
dried. Returning to the right hand, she applied another coat of pink to
each nail's surface - thumb, index, middle finger, ring finger, pinky.
Again on the left.
Now it was time for the mistress manicurist to finish her
apprentice's work. So my by now adored manicurist left me to her more
severe master, a forbiddingly efficient professional and a far cry from the
first, sunnily cheerful manicurist.
The mistress selected a bottle of French Tip White and went to
work, swiftly painting a neat, thin band of white to the end of each nail.
And when she was finished, she went back and applied a second coat to each
nail. The last thing she did was to finish each nail with a clear coat of
And now I was ready for my nails to dry. The mistress led me
gingerly - like an invalid in a sick ward, hands fluttering helplessly - to
a seat in front of a special nail dryer, a contraption I had never seen
before, which blows cool air onto the hands and accelerates the drying
Twenty minutes later, and voila!, I was ready. A gorgeous new woman
with the most perfectly real nails you've ever seen in your life. For the
rest of the day, I couldn't get over myself. Every few minutes I would
admire my fresh new nails in their pinkly unadorned beauty and not regret
one minute of the hour and double manpower required to make my
French-manicured nails look so natural.
Now, why do we here in America call such a baroquely perverse
process "French"? Why, for that matter, do we have French drycleaners,
French silk, French fries, French maids, French vanilla coffee,
French dressing and French kissing? Why, oh why, is there a Brooklyn deli
in my neighborhood called "La Bagel Delight"?
Obviously, we Americans have certain ideas about French culture. We
see it as a sophisticated, elaborate if not hyper-articulated, difficult,
elegant, romantic and deeply incomprehensible creature. It represents an
aesthetic ideal that simultaneously draws us in and repulses us.
True, these adjectives may not realistically portray French
culture. In fact, our formula for what constitutes things French has
probably never existed in France. No matter. Our fantasy about French
culture is more important to us than the reality. We've created it to
satisfy our own need to be perversely overwrought.
Want proof? Just look at my hands.
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©1997-2000 by pisalou