Growing up, I would dread a visit to the beauty salon, but my mother simply enjoyed it. She would blow up a fortune on each visit, because somehow her skin was never soft enough, her hands too rough, her hair lacked lustre and shine, and her eyebrows unshaped. I didn’t understand it, the 9-year-old me thought that she was so pretty. But the parlor aunty differed. Every time my mom went, the salon aestheticians would pass a battalion of deprecating judgements along with ‘valuable’ beauty advices to make her ‘beautiful’. As a result– dozens of herbal and cosmetic products would end up at my mother’s old wooden dressing. I figured my mom had rather grown used to this unsolicited criticism. It was difficult for a young girl to understand why her mother kept on visiting a place where people said her skin was dull, and her feet too cracked.
However, in an interesting but sad turn of events, I grew up to be this very woman that my mother was; I started visiting beauty salons to become beautiful. Slowly, the casual remarks laced with criticisms by the aunties started appearing normal to me. As a teenager, I would often partake in the jokes that would go around about the parlor aunties as me and my friends told each other of our most recent ordeals at the salon. Before we knew it, looking down upon someone with unkempt hair, bushy eyebrows, body hair, and open pores slowly transgressed from the walls of the parlours to our minds. We normalized this behaviour and in return became a passive contributor to the toxic cycle.
After a tiresome day at work one fine day, I went to the neighborhood parlor, and all I asked for was a nice, relaxing head massage. The salon should have taken my money, and my stress. However, did the service come free of personal attacks? No prizes for guessing this.
Before I knew it, I was swamped with a volley of questions that ranged from, “How regularly do you oil your hair?” and “Do you go for regular spa treatments?” because apparently it didn’t look like so! The comments soon escalated to calling my hair dull and lifeless, and to uninvited suggestions of expensive Keratin treatments. My dead and piercing stare to this enchanting one-sided conversation was enough to discourage the woman in my narration from continuing further.
A beauty salon is a place where I was supposed to go and feel good about myself instead I was coming back home feeling worse and ugly.
Comments like ‘you look so tanned’
‘ohh, kitne pimples ho rahe hain face pe’
are some of the most common insults passed my way throughout the years.
After a long time of giving in to these utopian beauty standards, and trying really hard to match up to the feminine expectations set up by the society, as I reached my late twenties, the wave of self-love hit me. It hit me hard against all the absurd notions of beauty thrown my way, and with that the unsolicited opinions of the parlor aunties became irksome. No longer did I find the rude interrogation by the parlor aunties comical.
After suppressing my very strong urge to give it back to the ladies with ‘If this 20,000 Rupees facial is so nice, how come you are not getting it’ or simply, ‘Yeah, the pedicure is really amazing, I am sure your feet are soft as rose petals,’ I chose silence as my weapon. I resist in the name of politeness and pity.
Because is it really all their fault? Aren’t we all prey to the vicious beauty industry that thrives on insecurities of women?
So, do we just blame the parlour aunties for corrupting our idea of self-worth? I guess, not. However, they have religiously and very diligently contributed to beauty shaming and reinstating the very sexist ideal of an ideal beauty type for a woman. They shame you into believing that you need self-care products to achieve that extra mile or criticize your skin and hair until you give in to their unwanted treatments.
The beauty industry for years has benefitted from the idea that women must conform to the stereotypical beauty standards, most of which are set up by the Western society since the age of colonialism. For them the only way to gain quick profits and sell their services was to attack women’s self-sufficiency and confidence.
Caricatures of dominant Indian parlour aunties and their coy methods of beauty shaming became a fodder for memes, but we failed to see the underlying subtext in it.
The irony – the service industry fills its pockets by feeding on our insecurities and stereotyping feminine beauty in a nutshell. Women should appear in a certain pre-determined manner to achieve a respectable position in the social ladder. As concerned sisters, we are all guilty of often urging our clique to take a quick walk to the parlour each time we see them deviating from the socially constructed standards for women.
The entire social construct of feminine beauty ideal is the rudimentary notion that physical appearance is an asset, the most important part of a woman’s identity, and all women should achieve it in a timely fashion. An endless number of advertisements endorsing skin care range to give you a fairer skin like a bloodless zombie, expensive products to make your hair look like silk tresses flowing like a river, a serum made from unicorn eggs to make your dark circles disappear! Wow, I don’t blame myself for falling for the trap really.
The genesis of a fair skin as an ideal type dates back to children’s fairy tales books, where beauty was synonymous with being white and virtuous. Sporting natural body is what we have been taught to frown upon. Anyone who refuses to conform to these standards, is called unfeminine, dirty, manly.
As a woman I have often questioned the façade of carefully constructed beauty ideals. Why should others decide for me what it takes to be beautiful? The fetish of our society with light skin and skin deep beauty is obnoxious, and holds the potential to make my gender insecure. The peer pressure to conform to this very socially constructed ‘beauty” continues to bring about psychological impacts and shatter the self-esteem of our sisters from a very young age. If we see the politics behind the language, we would notice how reinforcing these very biases of an ideal type of beauty is actually ugly, and in doing so this industry is hailing patriarchy.
The idea of beauty lies beyond the four walls of the salons and the solution to tackle this is to overthrow the beauty conglomerates and their manipulative marketing strategies. Korea is one of the top 10 beauty markets where women face extreme competition and peer pressure to fit into what is known as K-beauty. A large number of young women in Korea joined the cause to challenge the obsession with these unrealistic beauty standards, and gave up on make-up and cut their hair short to show their solidarity.
Please do not get me wrong, I do love pampering myself with hair spas and facials occasionally. Nevertheless, over time, I have stopped taking the salon runners seriously nor do I gauge my worth on the basis of beauty shaming statements throw my way. The parlor aunties assume that these off-handed remarks are a part of their job and consider these as a favour done. In extreme cases, I do not shy away from giving it back to them with a simple statement like, “I am sure its great, but I do not need it”. That is the only way I see fit to tackle a situation where a parlor aunty tries to harm my self-esteem for her own benefit. I believe, as women it is important that we voice our discomfort and refute their judgements, for none of us needs to spend our hard-earned money to go to a place that only makes us feel too ugly or too poor.
Simone de Beauvoir in her book, “The Second Sex” states, “A woman isn’t born a woman, rather she becomes one”. Simply put, there is no way women have to be, no given femininity, no ideal to which all women should conform. The French writer believes that the resistance to male stereotypes of beauty can mean greater equality.
To reject socially defined constructs of what a woman looks like is what the liberal feminists propagate.