What It’s Like to Get a Pedicure as a Man
I had no idea how much it would tingle when my feet were soaked in ankle-deep warm water. The pleasant feeling of skilled hands carefully rubbing each foot. The pulsating tickle, like a feather carefully tracing my toes, arches, and heels, followed by stinging pain when my virgin soles were scrubbed by a pumice stone.
I was the only male in the salon, on a West Hollywood weeknight, and this was my first pedicure. And as I sat there for 45 minutes, I lived a spectrum ranging from panic to intense pleasure punctuated by quick stabs of discomfort. It was like the first time I had sex. I had no idea what to expect.
The art of the pedicure is thousands of years old. The word itself is a blend of Latin: “pedis,” and “cura,” which loosely translates as “of the foot,” and “care.” In ancient Egypt, men and women painted their nails — royalty like Cleopatra and Nefertiti used it to boost sex appeal, while soldiers used it as a talisman before going off to war. In the Ming dynasty, Chinese aristocrats wore precious metals on their nails as a status symbol. Manis and pedis came into fashion in America by the 19th century, and once acrylic was accidentally discovered and Revlon found that they could make clear nail polish based on pigment, not paint, things really took off.
I can appreciate this — I love history — but I’ve always been standoffish when it comes to anyone touching my feet.
Our feet remain some of our most private places. Our most guarded. And for men, they often remain covered. I had always considered wearing sandals as somehow effeminate, un-masculine — and as much as I pretended my preference was an affectation from a semester spent living in Italy back in 2005, where men would never leave the house in open-toed anything — and never in shorts or sweatpants — it was all a cover for my own idiosyncrasy.
I’ve always been embarrassed by my feet. While the rest of my skin is olive-toned, my feet are anemic, and years of war wounds make them look like aged sneakers. Pickup basketball, trail running, hiking, an ego-fueled 18,000-foot trek to Everest Base Camp, they’ve all left a mark.
Scarred and calloused, with blood blisters and cracked skin, my feet have taken on an avian look, resembling a falcon’s talons more than a human’s nails. I’m blessed with another gift, this one owed more to genetics than athletics and hygiene: My feet are very hairy. Even the toes. It’s not hard to imagine why I keep them covered. Even when I go to the beach, I travel over sand in tennis shoes, not sandals. Never flip-flops.
In intimate moments, I’ve always been bashful about my feet. Even when I was casual in displaying other parts of my form, I shied away from letting women see the wrecks I walked on every day. That’s because at my core I remain a narcissist. Confident from the ankles up, my Achilles heels were just that.
My decision to finally explore change wasn’t prompted by psychiatry, a newfound self-actualization, and it wasn’t sexual. Nor was it an attempt to look under the rock that is the modern-American nail salon, à la the recent New York Times examination. For years, my mother had suggested I go for the simple health and aesthetic benefits.
“You’ll look better,” she would say. “You’ll feel better.”
My sister said the same. So did my girlfriend. Three strong-minded woman, all of whom had seen my feet. They couldn’t all be wrong, could they?
A few days after the New Year, my sister Chloe told me she was going to Lynn’s Nails on West 3rd Street — it’ll be a way for us to bond, she said. OK, let’s do it.
“Why don’t we walk,” I asked, to which Chloe shot me a look that shut me up — I counted a dozen nail salons in the spin through our froufrou West Hollywood neighborhood, bordering Beverly Hills.
“Nobody walks to get their nails done,” Chloe said, parking in the alley behind the low-rise. We entered through the back, like celebs avoiding the club’s front door.
Once inside, I saw there were no other male customers. I was relieved none of my brethren would see how uncomfortable I was — I stood around while my sister worked the room. Chloe hugged Mia, who she’s been visiting every other week for the last three years. Then Chloe pointed to me. I felt like the last kid chosen for the kickball team, I felt invisible. “This is my brother. It’s his first time, he needs some help.”
Mia, dressed in denim and flip-flops, looked me over: five o’clock shadow, skinny jeans tucked into oversize boots, one hand in my pocket, the other cradling a Cormac McCarthy paperback.
“OK, sit down there,” Mia said in Vietnamese-accented English.
“No polish, just a regular pedicure,” Chloe told me.
“You don’t want any colors?” Mia asked. Both of them laughed.
Ha, ha. I sat down, took off my boots, stripped my socks, leaned back in the plush spa chair. Mia instructed a coworker in Vietnamese, and a woman appeared from the back. She placed a bucket full of water in front of me, kneeled, then told me to put my feet in. “Soak,” she commanded. She started scrubbing, then rattled off something in her native language. She wore earbuds, must be on a call.
I glanced over at Chloe across the room — suddenly slightly annoyed — we weren’t bonding, she was bonding with Mia! And I was stuck with someone who wouldn’t even get off the phone while she worked on me.
To my left, another staffer watched a soap opera on her iPhone. I cracked open Cormac. I was pulled back to earth with the sharp pain that came when my beautician clipped off cuticles, snapping too close, plucking living tissue.
It hurt so much that I couldn’t focus on border shootouts and briefcases full of money. I was writhing in that chair and, what’s worse, the salon was filling up. A family, grandma to grandkids, the littlest of the bunch, a girl, maybe 6 or 7, sat right next to me. When I looked over, she smiled, and I smiled back. But I was gritting my teeth, the pumice hard at work.
I glanced at my sister, always all charm and magic, she seemed slightly sinister, now snapping away photos of me. Even some video. Thanks, Chloe.
To the uninitiated, it’s hard to describe the feeling of a piece of rough volcanic rock rubbing against your skin. It felt the way that running your nails over chalkboard sounds. My skin crawled, and I had so much trouble sitting still, I laughed so I wouldn’t scream. Has anyone ever screamed in a nail salon? Babylonian nobles, Chinese royals, Egyptian pharaohs, they all got pedicures — did any of them Yelp while doing so?
“Doesn’t it feel good?” my sister asked.
“It’s a little … rough…” The woman at my feet kept at it, still chatting on her call, beads of sweat collecting as she pummeled the leathery skin on my bird feet.
Then the girl to my left whispered over to me gently. “It’s OK, it’ll all be OK.”
She was having the same procedure done, and she seemed fine. Embarrassed, I nodded, closed my eyes. My girlfriend Gina is a big fan of reflexology. She says the body’s poisons are stored in your feet, and rubbing them out releases the toxins. I never believed her until now.
When I opened my eyes, it was over. My feet and calves were massaged, moisturized, but left red and inflamed. I didn’t want to put my boots back on, suddenly understanding the situational benefits of flip-flops.
Meanwhile, my sister showed off her fingers and toes, and wrote a check to Mia.
A few days later, I posted on Facebook asking if any men regularly got pedicures, and whether there were any benefits — mental, performance, whatever. I asked a public group with more than 2,000 members and got more than a dozen responses in 24 hours, almost all from people I didn’t know.
Answers ranged from mocking: “I think there was a typo in your question. You said MEN.” To shaming: “You live in LA and only just now got your first pedicure? Girls check out feet at pool parties and the beach.”
Suddenly this thread was a pissing match for in-touch bros: One said he had gotten pedicures for more than 10 years, another for 20, still another declared that his feet were prettier than most women’s. The best of the bunch emailed me to admit that he did it to improve his footsie game. I didn’t ask details.
I did speak to a clinical podiatrist. John Sigle, who runs the Foot and Ankle Center of Illinois, told me that getting pedicures carries a stigma for most men. But enterprising males are getting them to impress the opposite sex. Still, he says, men should be more concerned with the health benefits rather than showing off their sensitive side. And the good doctor pointed to examples of major players all guys could learn from.
“Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, multiple sex symbol type pro-athletes get pedicures,” Dr. Sigle told me. “It’s a regular portion of their regimen, a part of staying on the field. When you rely on your feet to perform, the last thing you need is pain.”
He’s right. Ingrown toenails, fungus, corns, callouses, bunions, the list of ailments is as long as it is unsightly. But despite the benefits, and the potential to impress a mate, it’s hard to get most men to change their tune.
“You don’t know it until you try it,” Dr. Sigle said.
He was right — I wouldn’t say I was born again, but I believed in what I saw when I looked down. And what I saw was a visible change in the way my feet felt and looked. And it all couldn’t be that painful going in the future, could it? Dr. Sigle said it was normal, you get used to it.
So how often do you get pedicures, doctor?
“I only got it once,” he said, 10 years ago while in Thailand, a when-in-Rome kind of thing. I found it odd that the foot doctor didn’t take his own advice, and when I said so, he sounded as macho as the set he had just complained about. “I do foot care for a living. My wife gives me a foot massage when I need it.”
It sounded like a dentist not flossing. What gives?
He paused, as if unsure what to say. “The truth is, I did feel a little strange about getting a pedicure,” he admitted.
I couldn’t believe it. No matter what we do, it seems even the best of us can’t help putting a foot in our mouths. As for me, I’ve changed my tune. I just booked my next appointment.