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It started out innocently enough. After some early of years of bopping around from one random, inexpensive Dupont Circle nail salon to the next, I finally settled on a place that had the right mix of cleanliness, good service, and reasonable price. I’d never been much of a nail-painter, and from my inability to maintain an unchipped manicure for more than two days you’d think I spent my days chopping wood instead of sitting at a computer. But pedicures I like, and the fact that D.C. summers sometimes stretch from April to November makes getting them almost necessary. And so I became a regular at Q-West Nails on 18th Street, a place popular with a number of women I know.
Then one day in late spring I found myself sitting in the waiting area next to a well-kept older gentleman with silver hair wearing a comfortably worn Harvard sweatshirt, the kind you get at reunions. He was there with a woman, and everything seemed perfectly normal until one of the manicurists passed over his female friend and motioned him to put his feet into one of the pedicure soaking tubs. Instead of running out the door, he actually followed her. “It’s flip-flop season,” he explained to me when I was shown to the tub next to him. But he also had his own callus scraper that he’d brought from home, in its own little box, which he handed the pedicurist like an old pro.
At my next visit, a man came in to have his fingernails done. He was accompanied by a boy of about 10 who appeared to be his son. The boy hewed close to his side for the full half-hour the man sat there, being buffed and polished.
This I had never seen before. What kind of man brings his son in when he gets a manicure?
Whereas men have long gone to regular multiservice salons for haircuts or to pick up a new bottle of Bumble & Bumble, nail salons have retained their flavor as one of the last remaining all-female spaces. Getting a pedicure is still the ultimate girly way to spend a Sunday morning—so girly, in fact, that many practical women disdain them as expressions of pointless feminine frippery or an unnecessary expense. Even for women, getting your nails done can feel somewhat embarrassing. And yet here were all these men, happily invading my nail salon. They even had more gear than I did.
“There’s definitely a rise in men who get pedicures,” says Pirooz Sarshar, co-owner of the Grooming Lounge in Farragut Circle, the only full-service spa-salon designed just for men in D.C. “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy has made it acceptable and normal for men to clean themselves up and for women to push men in here to get cleaned up—whatever their grooming issue is.”
Salonistas at ILO in Georgetown and Axis in Dupont Circle agree. So does Kathy Tran, a nail technician at Q-West for the past five years. “Men come in more and more,” she says, mainly for manicures. Some weeks, as many as 30 men will swing by for their nail needs.
Ask around, though, and you’ll find the relationship between the show and the new popularity of male pedicures isn’t a straightforward one at all. Straight men aren’t getting pedicures because gay men on TV are empowering them to—they’re getting them because gay men on TV are empowering women to demand a higher standard of grooming from their mates.
“Today I brought him in,” says Jennifer Prescott, a perky blonde wearing a white T-shirt and small pearl studs on a recent Sunday at Q-West. Her husband, Tom Prescott, sits across the room, having his nails clipped while she dries her toenails under the fans. “[His feet] were looking really bad. He needed encouragement to come in.”
Done with his manicure and pedicure, Tom carries his wife’s purse over to her and adjusts his NYPD baseball cap. At first he’s embarrassed, but then he can’t stop talking. “I fought it for a while, because I didn’t think it would have the same benefits for men that it does for women,” says Tom, a business consultant.
But now he’s taken to manicures like an MBA to Wall Street, learning the lingo and even noticing in business meetings which men get their nails done professionally and which are still doing it on their own, he says. “All the men in the office have gotten manicures,” he says, looking at his newly filed nails. “I prefer a manicure. I clearly can’t do a good job of cutting my own nails.”
The other women in the salon agree that the menfolk would never come in without their encouragement, and that even then it’s a challenge. “I had a conversation with my boyfriend this morning about how crazy his fingers were,” says Kersten Stannard, idly flipping through the New York Times wedding section while waiting for a pedicure. “He wanted nothing to do with it.”
“Michael Jordan gets it done,” chimes in her friend, Carla Gallelli. “My godfather goes and gets his fingernails painted clear.”
But the dangers to manly pride of frequenting nail salons are clear. Stannard regales her friend with a tale of a mutual friend who was dragged to a salon by his girlfriend and then “his ex-girlfriend’s mother came in and saw him getting a manicure and pedicure!” They both laugh. “He was trying to do it incognito, and he was caught,” says Stannard with satisfaction.
That’s where the Grooming Lounge—whose ad campaign features the slogan “Real Men Don’t Go to Salons”—comes in. Housed in its brick-and-mortar home on L Street NW for two years, it’s trying to reinterpret the traditionally feminine arts of self-care in a gender-segregated environment that caters to men. And the first order of business is avoiding the pink-and-white décor of Q-West and other female spaces in favor of dark wood, black leather, and metal accents.
Fabian Koss, a longtime Grooming Lounge client who works at the Inter-American Development Bank, calls the Lounge a “lifesaver.” “I was actually going to a lot of different places, from barbershops to beauty salons,” he said, before he settled on the Lounge as the place to get his busted fingernails patched up every week.
Pedicures are given in a back room, hidden away even from the fellows getting haircuts and elaborate shaves. There, behind a closed door, the clients recline in what looks like a Barcalounger, watch TV, drink a complimentary beer—and get their cuticles clipped. “We don’t call it a pedicure,” says Sarshar. “We call it a foot treatment, because ‘pedicure’ sounds very feminine.”
One other critical difference: “We clean this filter after every use, which most people do one time a year,” says Sarshar of the pedicure soak tub. Each man is given a designated implement kit, to be reused at his next visit. That sounds about right. Have you ever seen an ad for an athlete’s-foot medication targeted toward women? Men simply have, as Sarshar delicately puts it, “more issues when it comes to their feet.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Rebecca Hahn.