This article first appeared on Malta Today
In one of his latest blog posts, Charles Miceli, a passionate social activist for those on a low income, who leads the organization Alleanza kontra l-Faqar, argued that just because a woman is on the poverty line she should not be criticized simply for getting her nails done. He even phoned a nail technician to verify how much these blessed nails cost – the minimum, he was told, was 12 Euro. (Of course, it must be noted that more elaborate nails will set you back even more, as will the constant upkeep).
Regular manicures, and especially fancy nail art, are one of those examples which always get thrown into the mix whenever poverty is discussed. “They don’t have money for their kids’ lunches, but they have money for their nails” is the usual spiel. The “they” in question is almost always the socio-economic group which is lumped together under the category ‘single mothers’. It is almost like a Pavlovian trigger; getting your nails done has become a potent symbol, encapsulating what is perceived to be wrong with the whole welfare system which seems to be ripe for abuse. It is seen as a self-indulgent, extravagant waste of money by people who are claiming social benefits and are constantly struggling. Of course, the main gripe which is at the crux of the matter, and which is so irritating to those on the other side of the social spectrum, is that those social benefits which are financing the pretty nails, are coming out of our taxes.
This is one of those issues which has me seeing both sides of the coin.
First to rise to the surface is my more sensible side where my immediate argument goes something like this: Yes, we are all free to spend money on what we choose, but when things get tough in life you have to prioritize. I know that in the past when I have had financial setbacks the first thing I did away with were the unnecessary luxuries. In my case it wasn’t getting my nails done (as I never do them), but there were other things I used to splurge on which I cut back on. It may not seem like much, but these “extras” all add up. A regular expenditure of 12 – 20 Euro on fancy nails when one is struggling is bad money management in my opinion. Sure they will look pretty and make you feel slightly better for a while..but then how will you put food on the table?
This line of thought, however, is often pounced upon as being judgmental; of interfering in the personal choices of others and of not understanding what it feels like to be in a poor person’s shoes. So, I did my best to shift my perspective and, fair enough, I could understand the opposing argument as well.
Poverty, or even near-poverty is a humiliating state to be in. Every day you wake up to work for a minimum wage, or to just scrape by on social benefits and what you see around you is a world of materialism where everyone is shopping, everyone is looking their best and money (apparently) is no problem. In this image-obsessed world, is it so bad for a woman who may have everything else wrong in her life, to at least feel some pride and dignity in the fact that she has pulled herself together with some extra grooming? The gritty reality of being poor can make one spiral even further down into depression and despondency, so perhaps the simple act of having nice nails can help to keep your head up high and face the world with a bit more confidence. And, as Charles Miceli pointed out, will these 12 Euro really be the tipping point to define someone who is already poor?
The debate, in fact, is not about the nails per se, but whether we are entitled to judge others simply on their appearance, jumping to conclusions without knowing the real ins and outs of their lives. The resentment which the hardworking middle class often feels towards those who are subsided through our taxes stems from the fact that the former have their nose to the grindstone to eke out a decent living, while the lower income group seems to be swanning through life, collecting unemployment and ‘single mother’ benefits, living in social housing, subsidized utility bills and a number of other governmental schemes.
Of course, the irony is that while there is this simmering resentment and anger at seeing someone on welfare sporting fancy nails, we should be even more up in arms at the more outrageous ways that our tax money is being squandered on obscene pay packets for political appointments with fancy titles.