The colorful shelves of Liyah Stylez in North Haven, Connecticut are filled with various shades of pinks, purples, blues, greens, and the opposing colors, black, white and gray. I have a picture of nail inspiration, lilac on three nails and dot flowers on the others, but it is all suddenly overwhelming. I decide to stick with my idea and grab the lilac polish off the shelf. We are a bit early for our appointment, so I take a seat on a bench outside the room with my mom, who just needs a few of her nails fixed. A little girl sits in front of us, next to the shelves of nail polish wearing a yellow dress. “Look at this little girl, she’s dressed as Princess Belle. That was your favorite princess when you were little,” my mom says, admiring the girl. Her little hands take a bottle of nail polish off the shelf, she stares at it, and puts it back, before returning to her show playing on an iPad. My mom attempts to talk to the girl, but she runs next door to the hair salon screaming “mommy!” and hugging the hairdresser’s leg.
The nail salon is small, but big enough for its only technician and owner Kanya Kanh. The salon is located on the second floor of a large building with many other businesses. I haven’t had the chance to get my nails done since September of last year, so I am thrilled to get in the room with Kanh.
“Come on in Erika!” Kanh yelled. I sit down at her marble desk piled with all kinds of polishes, brushes and tools. More nail polish bottles hang on shelves on the wall near a brown pedicure chair. I show Kanh a picture of the nail inspiration and she grabs supplies. Her brunette hair is tied up in a messy bun. She wears a white short sleeve shirt, and surprisingly, she does not have her nails done.
Kanh is a mother of two, and came to the United States from Cambodia when she was two-years-old. She started doing nails at sixteen, just as a hobby, until getting a job at a salon after high school. She never stopped doing them after that, and now has her own business.
Personally, I have tons of friends who go get their nails done, including me; There’s no doubt it’s a successful business. According to GlobeNewswire, the U.S. Nail Salon Industry was worth about $6.5 billion in 2020, while the nail polish industry was worth 2.8 billion that same year. Forbes has a great article where the co-founder of the nail polish brand OPI, Suzi Weiss-Fischmann, comments on how important nail care is because not only are our hands seen by everyone each day, but “We also look at our own hands all day, so there is something very rewarding in having well-maintained, beautiful nails.” She also talks about how the different colors can express our moods and the way we express ourselves.
“When you look at your hands and they’re done, neat, and painted nicely or have some kind of design, it makes the person feel better, like they’re put together,” Kanh says, while filing my nails. “It also helps people who don’t love their hands.” She holds my right hand in her left, never taking her eyes off the silver file zipping across my nail. My mom nods, talking about how much she loves when her nails are done. Kanh talks to me about the difference between her, a forty-year-old, and younger nails techs. The younger technicians today can take their time doing their client’s nails because they only have about five clients a day, while charging upward of $100 per person. A lot of the time, their clients come in every two weeks. “People love getting their nails done. It makes them feel good, so the price doesn’t matter. It makes them feel pretty, classy, and allows them to express themselves.” On the other hand, Kanh charges much less, but does about twenty clients a day. She works from 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. on most days. The income is the same, although the days are much longer. She hopes to someday achieve what the other artists do, to have more time for herself and her family.
Kanh applies a clear coat on my nails for the foundation, before going in with the lilac paint. A base-coat protects your nail from discoloring due to the polish. It also helps keep the polish firmly on the nails. It’s a bit thicker than a top coat, which is the last layer to be applied. She somehow did it so quickly and effortlessly. After she finishes my right hand, I place it under the ultraviolet (UV) lamp while she does my left hand. A UV lamp allows the nails to speed-dry and harden the gel polish. She then grabs the lilac bottle and goes over the clear base, only on three of my nails though, since the other two are for the designs.
My mom, sitting on the brown pedicure chair, bonds with Kanh over their careers in the beauty industry. My mom is a hairdresser, so when Kanh talks about this job being flexible for her family, my mom knows exactly what she means. The days may be long, but these careers allow for people to make their own schedules. They can pick and choose which days and hours to work.
Kanh adds a second layer of lilac paint to my nails, making the color much darker. She then paints the two bare nails an opaque color while telling me that interacting with her clients and getting to know them is something she loves and admires about the job, “Right now, the nail industry is getting to be really big. And before it wasn’t, so I like to make people happy. If nails make them happy, so be it.”
I watch Kanh pour a tiny bit of the lilac polish onto her desk, get a white polish and do the same. She grabs a silver tool with a ball at the end, a nail stylus, dips it into the lilac color, and makes dots on my fingernails, creating flower petals. She does the same with the white, then puts a dot in the center of each flower.
A lot of people associate the beauty industry with females. So when a man decides he wants to get his nails done or even makeup, society judges them for it. “I think people look at it like it’s a lady thing to get nails done. And masculine men look at it like okay that’s not for me. But in my opinion, men that get their nails done are put together, have better hygiene, and majority of the ladies like that. So, I don’t think there should be a stigma around men getting their hands done at all, I think it’s more so about hygiene and how they feel about themselves,” Kanh says. My mom nods and adds, “Most men are viewed as blue collar men who get their hands dirty.” Society spent a lot of time expecting women to look elegant and beautiful, so things like getting their makeup, hair, and nails done was, and still continues to be, a huge deal to women. Although, nowadays, it definitely seems like more men are feeling comfortable doing this as well.
Kanh applies a clear top coat on top of my nails, and speaks about how bad COVID hurt her business. Kanh and my mom lost income due to losing clients. “My clients started cutting their own hair or coloring their own hair,” my mom states. “Right, or started ordering nail kits to do their own nails,” Kanh replies. Social media is a huge part of this. Once TikTok showed people how to do things on their own, some of their clients never came back.
As my nails dry under the UV lamp, Kanh says she has some beauty advice for people who need help taking care of their nails: “Don’t ever bite your nails. If it breaks or chips, cut them and file them.” Then she tells me, with a huge smile on her face, how much she loves the holidays because of the fun designs she does such as Christmas trees and Halloween ghosts. Although she surprises me by adding that she really loves the Fourth of July because of the bright and exciting colors and styles.
With a wide grin, I hold my hands up to my mom. The lilac color is beautiful, and the flowers are simple, but elegant. I feel so ecstatic. I schedule my next appointment with Kanh the day before my college graduation, already having my inspiration picked out; funky squiggles in different shades of blue. Blue is associated with calmness, so I’m hoping it will keep me relaxed on an overwhelming day. I walk out of the salon not able to wipe the smile off my face, and can’t believe how radiant my nails look in the sunlight.
Erika Russo is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine.
Header image courtesy of Erika Russo.