As I was getting a massage last week, something I do maybe two or three times a year, my masseuse mentioned that the client before me was 10. TEN! The kid’s muscles were tight, my masseuse said, because the girl had been training in martial arts several hours a day for the past two months in preparation for an audition and today was the big day. She didn’t get the part so her mother promised her a massage. A massage! At ten.
I got my first massage when I was twenty-nine. On my honeymoon.
But I’m not hating on that mother. I get it. Times have changed. My daughter got her first mani-pedi at six. SIX. It was so cute! But that little mother and daughter date, opened up a can of worms that I couldn’t close. Any time I went to get my nails done after that, she wanted to go. It is a costly habit. I found myself sneaking out when she was in school and hiding my feet in socks when we curled up in her bed to read The Secret Garden at night, lest she get teary eyed and whimper, “You went without me?”
I had my first manicure at twenty-three. I’d been living in Hollywood where old mattresses and couches collected leaves and occasional homeless people along the curbs, and drug deals went down in adjacent alleyways. For over a year I had passed by narrow salons on Sunset Boulevard touting mani-pedis for $12.00. I could barely pay my rent in that dirty gray apartment with coordinating dirty gray carpet, so the idea of getting my nails done never crossed my radar.
I’d just moved from North Carolina, and back then there were no such places for pampering in the growing clusters of strip malls popping up where farms and forests used to be. Sure, women were probably getting their hands and feet cared for back home, but they were the Country Club ladies, the ones who went to fancy hair salons, not the girls like me whose hair was cut by a neighbor in the kitchen while draped in frayed beach towels atop a spread of the Sunday newspaper.
“Why would you pay someone to clip your nails?” my mother questioned when I told her about my first manicure. Mom used the same metal emery board from the beige suede folding nail care kit she received when she got married at 21 until the day she died at 55. I still have that little silver file. It touched her every nail countless times and I imagine there must still be some of her DNA embedded in a tiny groove. It is dull and slightly rusty now hanging out in my drawer with old eye-liners and tubes of too bright gift-with-purchase lipsticks.
My polish tends to stay on my toes until it has flaked off and I am embarrassed in yoga class for at least 2 weeks before I head to the local salon adjacent to the grocery store to choose a bright new color. It is rare that I get out a cotton ball and nail polish remover on my own.
But my reliance on others for such care began when I was an adult. When I could pay for it myself. It was a treat I had to earn, far from the Lee Press-on Nails of my teens. Still those were only for special occasions. Like prom and senior portraits. And god how I hate that senior portrait now. I think I agreed to co-chair the 20th and 30th reunion committees just to ensure that photo didn’t show up on my nametag. It was worth all the time tracking down the Class of `84 on Classmates.com and then, ten years later on Facebook.
The week before my senior photo was taken, I’d made some sort of spontaneous decision to change my image for senior year. Away with the long, feathered hair that I found so boring. I wanted to look like Olivia Newton John in “Physical”. Cute and spunky, right? Maybe for a minute, but as it grew out, I went through a mullet phase, and coupled with my liberal use of Sun-in and Aqua Net, my hair looked more like Rod Stewart on a good day and Carol Brady when it rained.
So, while I figured I’d bring on the cute and spunky look for senior portraits, my mother determined that sweet and innocent was more appropriate and she bought me a navy blue striped dress with puffed sleeves and a crew neckline encircled in lace. I wore that Gunne Sax concoction with a string of pearls, loads of Bonnie Belle lip-gloss and hot pink Glamour Length Lee Press-on Nails.
We lined up in the woods in front of school where cigarette butts were nestled in between pine needles and sycamore balls and leaned on a rustic grapevine chair. My cheesy smile says, “Take the damned picture, this dress itches and I wanted to wear neon!” My outfit says, “And the diversity in our school includes the Amish.” And my nails say, “I will gently claw your back during sex but only gently because I don’t want a nail to pop off.” Actually, I wasn’t having sex then, so I don’t know what the nails say other than that I wasted $4.99 to enhance a look that wasn’t really me.
Come prom, the Lee Press-ons made a return appearance and mom did my hair in a tight bun using lots of mousse to hold back the fly-aways. It took about 15 minutes for me to get ready, spritzing Love’s Baby Soft over the islet of my $39.99 off-the-rack sale dress, that my younger sisters had to wear to their proms ten and fourteen years later. My boyfriend picked me up in his parent’s station wagon.
Today, prom is a much bigger spectacle, with professional hair, nail and make-up appointments, many hundreds of dollars spent on dresses and shoes, limousines and – in some circles - after party prom houses. Prom night costs can rival a small but tasteful wedding. My daughter’s prom dress actually did cost more than my wedding gown.
Point is, we’ve taken what used to be rare treats and turned them into regular, even expected occurrences. If a child is getting manicures at six and massages at ten, what’s so special about getting your nails done for prom? So we up the ante with waxing and professional make-up. And by the way, drugstore Cover Girl and Maybelline were made for teens. But will my daughter get her makeup at Rite-Aid? No! She goes to Sephora, where mascara and eye shadow pallets cost three times as much. When she left for college, I cautioned: “If you can’t find inexpensive brands that work for you, then you may have to choose between food or foundation.”
She does, however come home with feet that have been battered by too much time spent walking across her San Diego campus in flip flops, too many hours with cuticles tucked in library cubicles or buried in the likely rarely washed blankets of the too-close-to the ceiling bunk bed in her triple room. She’s not wasting her acai bowl money on nail parlors. She looks at me with those book-weary puppy dog eyes and I say, “How about I take you for a mani-pedi and we can give each other shoulder massages when we get home?” After all, there’s not much a little polish and pampering can’t cure.