All that I’ve learned about feminism and its intersectionality, pitfalls, and successes can be distilled into a visit to my neighborhood beauty parlour.
You know the kinds. You’ve been to one too; the types with no fancy frills or single-use wax sticks. The one where there’s no concept of disposable ‘gowns’ for you to wear. You’re offered a smock of an indistinct colour with very suspicious blotches on one side, maybe, and told to go behind a near-translucent curtain to change into it. There’s a certain sense of egalitarianism to that, really, as you strip off class markers and place yourself at the mercy of women who are waiting with strips to rip your body hair off with.
A beauty parlour often reminds of Sultana’s Land by Begum Rokeya Hussain- a world built for women, of women, from which men are kept secluded. The agency a woman who owns a beauty parlour has is undeniable. She is an entrepreneur in her own right, hiring women and creating financial ability for an entire staff. She also becomes a gatekeeper to a small, but warm community of women who often inculcate their future generations into it. My first visit to a small parlour was to one ten steps from my grandmother’s house, a place my mother used to go to as a teenager too. It’s a quiet understanding, an unspoken tradition handed down from her to me- we were supporting another woman’s quest for autonomy.
But, that was a bequeathing of oppression too. I never quite knew how wrong my body was, how awfully astray my hair was, till I was held down by the piercing gaze of a parlour aunty. It’s an interesting gaze, that, with a small frown marring a perfectly threaded brow and an admonishment barely held between lips, manifests itself in a very heavy, laden sound of dissatisfaction. Once that has been expressed, the aunty goes on to describe (in embarrassing, painful detail) how everything, from your skin to your nails, could do with some improvement. It’s a study in how cruel standards of beauty can be, and how exploitative its custodians.
This is where the inherent feminist contradiction of the quintessential neighbourhood beauty parlour lies. When, on one hand, it provides employment, opportunity, and financial freedom to the women who run it, its very premise is based on insidious exploitation of women struggling to live up to ideals of beauty they never created for themselves. A parlour is a strange place where female camaraderie exists despite (or maybe because) of the context. It’s here that you’re offered your first Brazilian wax, and as you wonder why anyone would subject themselves to it, and you’re offered a coy ‘when you get married, you’ll ask for one every month.’ It’s here that you realize that women have a wondrous secret world of their very own, with hopes, desires, and urges beyond those of the men around them.
The small beauty parlour is a species under attack. Large, swanky, standardized franchises are making inroads into second tier cities too, and availability of home services on demand has impacted the clientele they get. The cost of services that these places provide is so low, that even a marginal decrease in the number of clients coming in can negatively impact their ability to sustain themselves. Add to the mix a number of detracting factors, from space grabbers to police raids that target these parlours for ‘suspicious activities’ (not an unfound fear, with ‘massage parlours’ often being fronts of human trafficking rackets,), and you have a paradigm struggling to survive.
But I doubt it will die. Despite its contradictions, the dinginess of the parlours themselves, the suspect products and sometimes nasty aunties. The idea of the next door beauty parlour is, after all, a tangible form of aching familiarity. And that, more often than not, survives the most tumultuous of changes.
Harnidh Kaur is a well-known spoken word maverick and a feminist poet whose words go viral the moment they hit the page or the stage. She is a TedX featured speaker whose work has appeared in various lit journals, poetry festivals and workshops across the country. She is the author of “The Ease of Forgetting” & “The Inability of Words”. She can be found @pedestrianpoet on twitter and she is an analyst at Dasra. Support Harnidh’s work via PayPal or contact her directly for writing opportunities at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo : Kris Atomic