Last week my mother and I attended the memorial service of an old friend of hers who had passed away from pancreatic cancer. My mom and this woman had become friends because she did my mom’s nails, and she had a daughter my age. For years my mom went to her to get her nails done, once every two weeks, and the two of them hung out socially on weekends. When I turned sixteen I also started going to her to get my nails done, twice a week, for my American manicure that kept my hands looking tidy even though I worked with dirt all day in a garden center, and kept me from doing too much damage to my skin when I scratched my eczema. Over the years, however, getting my nails done started turning into a luxury I couldn’t afford, and I eventually stopped going. My mom too had to give up her bi-weekly manicures after she was laid off just before 9-11.
In time I made a good income again and a large part of me really wanted to resume my manicure habit. I loved how pretty and tidy my hands always looked when I had my acrylics on, it was one thing I could do that would always boost my self esteem. But at that point I had also started learning about the dangers of the chemicals in many of those products, and I found myself deeply torn. I would occasionally find myself crying out “Do I have to be green about everything? Isn’t it enough that I’ve given up regular makeup and lotion and toothpaste and shampoo and hair products? Isn’t it enough that I quit smoking and started eating organic and grow my own food and eat local as much as I can? Can’t I have one tiny, flipping vice that makes me feel pretty and well groomed? Just one? Please?” Then I’d run out and get a manicure, wherever I could get in the fastest, before the mood passed.
And it’s probably true. Even if I once again made bi-weekly manicures part of my regular routine, it probably wouldn’t do me much harm. I live a pretty clean and healthy life mist of the time, and my body is designed to process out some toxins, so whatever I’d be exposed to in that hour every two weeks would probably be processed quickly, given how much I restrict other toxic exposure in my life. But as I sat there at the memorial service of this woman who’s house I spent a fair amount of time at as a child, who’s daughter I played with, who’s business I patroned, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of a role I had played in her death.
It’s true that we don’t know everything that causes cancer, but we do know that a lot of thing appear to raise your risk of developing cancer, and the chemicals in nail polish and acrylic nails are all high on the list of suspected carcinogens. When I went and got my nails done at her shop, I may not have been exposing myself to much of those chemicals, but I was paying someone else to sit for another hour in those chemicals. My mom’s friend spent 8 hours or more a day, five to six days a week, sitting in room filled to the brink with these toxic chemicals, for over 20 years of her life. How many of those hours were mine? How many of my hours came after I knew about the dangers but still went anyway? How many days of her life are gone, taken from her children and grandchildren, because I wanted my nails to look pretty?
I look back at all those times that I had those outbursts about not wanting to be green for everything, and I wish I could go back and tell myself “It’s not just about your health. What about that person doing your nails? What about their exposure, which is much higher than yours?” I hate to advocate taking work from someone because you’re concerned for their long term health. After all, joblessness is a real threat to a person’s health as well. And I know my mom’s friend loved her job, and probably never once thought it had any potential health risks. But at the same time, I can’t see myself going to another funeral of another beauty service professional and not worrying that I took some part in his or her death because of my vanity.
I want to look pretty, I want to look well groomed, and I want to give my business to these hard working people who are so good at helping me feel put together, fashionable, and powerful. But I just don’t know if I can bring myself to do it unless I know the conditions in which these people work are safe. I don’t think it’s too much to ask from industry and government to make these work environments safe. Until that happens, I just don’t think I can participate anymore.
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