‘Parlour didis are the fucking worst’, a woman grumbled in a WhatsApp group of young, feminist women I have been a part of for a year. Surprisingly, no one in the group filled with warm, supportive, feminist women protested and a few chuckled, agreeing that they’ve often been driven to the edge by women who work at beauty parlours.
Do a basic Google/YouTube search for ‘parlour didi’, and you’ll find that this is not an isolated sentiment. From ‘things every parlour didi says’ to ‘comebacks you can deliver to annoying parlour didis’, there are hundreds of articles and videos on the women who thread eyebrows and do facials at beauty parlours, mostly the small outlets you find in every neighbourhood.
When did the ‘parlour didi’ school of jokes first surface on the internet? It’s hard to say for sure. Maybe they were part of the ‘10-things-the-urban-middle-class-obsesses-about’ format of listicles which included everything from ’90s childhood nostalgia to auto-rickshaw drivers turning you down and annoying things ‘aunties’ say at weddings.
Along the way, many of these online conversations evolved to become more inclusive of the experiences of different women. But the narrative around ‘parlour didis’ is still stuck at portraying them as caricatures or stick figures, standing between ‘women like us’ and our ability to love ourselves, flaws and all.
So why does much of the feminist internet, so insistent that women shouldn’t put each other down, not include overworked, underpaid ‘parlour didis’ in their bubble of empathy?
Facial karalo Inc.
‘Kya ho gaya hai skin ko… aap humara yeh new product try karo for 40,000/- only… set mein loge toh even cheaper, 95,000/- only didi… dekhna kitna fresh shine karoge. No dullness. Aap kitne tired lag rahe ho, sab vanish!’
A popular Instagram influencer’s post in May this year, criticising parlour workers who hard-sell products and services, struck a chord with at least 37,000 people who ‘liked’ it. Save a handful of people who pointed out that the post was problematic, most commenters seemed to agree with the rant.
While the privileged tone and the insensitivity of the post rankled with me, it seemed to represent exactly why many women are happy to diss parlour workers. More often than not, women working here attempt to push products and services on their customers. In the beauty business, the most effective way to do this is to point out supposed flaws in your body, which these products and services would magically fix.
Some of these remarks can cut deep. While I was reporting on the skin lightening industry, a friend once confessed that it took him years to ignore salon workers asking him to get a bleach done to ‘lighten’ his skin. Another woman commented that she fretted more than usual about her acne whenever she visited a parlour because the workers seemed to be aghast at her skin’s condition.
The process of not letting these comments affect one’s confidence involves understanding that parlour workers are just selling a product, albeit in a misguided way.
Then the blogger mocks their struggles saying, “Agar yeh products itne acche hain toh aap kyun aise dikhte ho didi? Aap ’Price-Of-Your-Kidney/- only products nahi lagate???” The Instagram post was meant to promote body positivity and “self love”.
The blogger adds in the post possibly meant to encourage women like us to fight body shaming, “Oh and THAT’S when they’re extremely offended because you called them dull and suddenly everything becomes about their daily struggles and lack of resources in life because they have struggles. Ever notice how people that give you casual shit can never handle taking any back.”
Another viral video suggested that parlour workers are victims of ‘toxic patriarchal conditioning’ like us but should understand that parlours are considered safe spaces, surrounded by women. That might not be entirely the reason women working in parlours try to push services and products to clients.
A couple of weeks ago, when Hemlata—a beauty professional I booked on an app—asked me for the third time why I would not consider threading my eyebrows, I explained that it felt like time wasted on something I did not care much about. She quickly apologised, saying that she doesn’t meet a lot of women who didn’t opt for a service when a ‘package’ included that.
Also, she added, she is sort of used to ‘persuading’ customers, that’s how she knows the industry and sales to work.
“I have to ask, right? What if you change your mind later?” she said.
Working in beauty parlours for more than a decade has made Hemlata think that the only way to get a client use a service is to convince them that they need it.
“Say your skin is looking a little dull. I can study it and suggest a facial, and your skin will look fresh and you will feel better… but I have to tell you if I can spot something, isn’t it? Why else will you take a facial?” she said, proceeding to ask me why I felt that people may be offended by this.
“I am wanting their good only, isn’t it?” she said.
Many women who come under the umbrella of ‘parlour didis’ pick up their skills of waxing, threading, pedicures and manicures by working for free in the small neighbourhood parlours that we often visit for a wax or a quick pedicure. Many times, the parlour owner lets them learn from seniors in exchange for cleaning the place and doing odd jobs.
Eight years ago, when Hemlata moved to Delhi from Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh, she learnt the ropes of the trade by working as a temp at two outlets in Kalkaji, a south Delhi neighbourhood dotted with salons. She spent close to 10 hours every day without pay, just watching more experienced women do pedicures and head massages, and sometimes trying her hand at waxing.
In the evenings, she sang at jagratas and mata ki chowkis in local temples and around the neighbourhood to pay for her travel and food. “The day I came to Delhi, I had Rs70 on me. I ran away after a huge fight with my husband who kept drinking, beating me up and losing all his money. No one wanted to give me a job, but a parlour took me in on the condition that I learn work in exchange of cleaning and running errands for them,” she said.
She initially lived with a cousin and his family in their small, rented two-room house in Govindpuri in south Delhi. Six months later, she moved to another parlour—a ‘big, shiny one with big ACs’—which promised to pay her, but did not specify how much. After a month of working 11 hours a day, the owner gave her Rs1,000, arguing that she was learning at his expense and should be grateful that she was even getting paid.
Hemlata accepted the compensation for the reasons most women in her position do—they have no other option and no one to speak for them. She was told that should may get some incentives if she sold an additional service or two. She was not taught how to go about that.
“I picked up tricks by watching the other women. They would be flattering, but also point out how you can look better. If your hair needs a spa, if you need a facial,” she said.
In most of the parlours she worked at, the ‘incentive’ ranged from a flat Rs 50 on services worth Rs1,000 or 5-10% of the value of the service itself.
While Hemlata had some kind of a choice, in many parlours, these sales are necessary to hold on to the job itself.
Maitreyee Ghosh, a Kolkata-based beauty professional, said incentives are miniscule and hardly the reason parlour workers pushed to sell products and services.
“In a neighbourhood parlour where you go for waxing and stuff, there is no incentive unless, say, it is a festival or something. At the end of the month, owners compare the services sold by workers and pull them up for slacking,” she said.
What comprises slacking?
“They will say, this is how much money I am giving you, how much business have you got me? The measure of how good you are as a worker is not how good your work is to the owner, but how many services you have sold. Women are mostly just trying to keep their jobs,” she said. Many women she knew took up jobs as parlour hands driven by a financial crisis and they did not have the required qualifications to land other jobs. “This job can be easy to pick up if you need one desperately and as women, we often learn some basics at home itself,” she added.
The category of professionals dissed as ‘parlour aunties’—women who do facials, waxing, pedicures and manicures—are often the lowest paid in the hierarchy of parlours, Ghosh explained. Most neighbourhood parlours, several beauty professionals I spoke to said, pay no more than Rs 5,000-6,000 a month to these women.
“The highest you can go, in a good chain of parlours, is, I think, Rs12,000-14,000. But that happens after years of experience,” Ghosh said.
Even big beauty service chains don’t offer much in the way of incentives.
A popular franchise Ghosh worked with until recently offered a monthly incentive of 2% for services sold worth Rs 25,000, 5% for Rs 50,000 and around 8% for Rs 1 lakh.
“Women work almost 12 hours a day. Since a lot of them also learn their skills on the job and cannot afford to pay for a beauty degree, parlours pay them less citing that. There are heavy penalties if a customer complains and can include banning from doing a job for days, which means they can’t meet targets,” Ghosh explained.
Hemlata, for example, said she used to buy cans of wax and knock on her neighbours’ doors, offering them full arm waxing for as little as Rs 50 or Rs 100, or whatever they wanted to pay.
“I practised that way so that the next time I got a job, I could at least pay for a month’s food with my salary,” she said.
When Seema, who worked at a busy South Delhi beauty parlour, couldn’t bear the pain anymore, she told Meenu that she was going to have to lie down for a while. But there was a problem. Their workplace didn’t have any space for an employee to lie down or even recline.
So Seema lay down on the narrow single bed inside a cubicle, normally used by women who came in for waxing procedures. Whenever she had to make room for a client, Seema sat hunched up in one corner of the same cubicle.
An hour passed. It was a busy Saturday, and as the number of customers increased, so did Seema’s stomach pain. A little while later, her voice was down to a whisper, and she couldn’t haul herself up. Finally, Meenu and her colleagues had to ask the parlour’s owner, who had been in and out all day without offering to help, if they could take her to the hospital. The owner allowed one person to take Seema to a doctor nearby and gave a little money for expenses.
“She was still whining that there were two people less on a Saturday and who would make up for her losses when Seema gets better,” Meenu told me.
Seema was rushed to a nearby hospital, where she died a few hours later of infection from a ruptured appendix.
She had been experiencing sharp pain for a few days but did not want to miss work and have to take a pay cut. Her husband, an autorickshaw driver, had to borrow money to pay the hospital bills and then cremate her. A part of that money was paid by the parlour owner.
“She deducted that amount when she gave her settlement to her husband,” Meenu said.
Seema’s death affected Meenu so much that she quit her job, took out a loan and began working for apps that provide beauty services at home. Life hasn’t magically transformed since then, she says, but she can at least stay home now when she’s sick without being scolded. One of the apps she works for also provides medical insurance.
In the 15 years Meenu had worked prior to that, no parlour offered medical insurance or even paid them a medical allowance. The popular chain Ghosh worked for, in fact, also did not provide insurance. “When I was leaving earlier this year, I heard some conversation about giving medical insurance to employees, don’t know if they have got it,” she said.
In any reasonable world, the series of events that led to Seema’s death would qualify as a human rights violation, but for the thousands of women who work in Indian beauty parlours, this would be just another day, perhaps a little more cruel than usual.
Even after multiple conversations with people in the trade union movement, HuffPost India couldn’t find one active organisation that advocates for the rights and welfare of women working in beauty parlours.
Apart from their meagre salaries, most don’t get other benefits such as sick leaves, and are often called to work even on their only weekly holiday. Komal, who worked with an expensive chain of parlours with branches across Delhi and Gurgaon, said she was often summoned on her only weekly off and paid just Rs 200 for a 10-11 hour shift. She couldn’t take another leave in lieu of the day she worked.
Trade unionist Rakhi Sehgal said that like other unorganised sector workers such as delivery boys, there are various reasons why parlour workers have not been able to unionise.
“One of the reasons is finding common cause. The hair stylists and make-up artistes will probably not find common cause with women who do jobs like waxing and pedicures, making it difficult for them to come under one umbrella as a union,” she said.
Also, she pointed out, many parlour workers are poor migrants with no proper proof of residence and other documents required to establish their identity. Any talk of forming a union, as a result, could scare these women and put them off the idea. “So one would have to tread carefully with parlour workers just as one would with any other precariously employed worker. It’s difficult but not impossible to unionize them,” she added.
In an industry with little job security, many workers also keep shifting jobs frequently.
At least five women parlour workers I spoke to, from different cities, said that they left parlours for apps and freelance work when they could afford to, sometimes because they detested having to tell women to use this service or that. “It feels like begging. So many times, clients snap at us for trying to get them to do a facial or manicure,” Meenu said.
Komal recollected how she felt pressured to suggest pedicures to clients who came in with no intention of getting one.
“A girl like you, you know what you want, right? I don’t need to tell you. But owners in parlours always push you to keep badgering people,” she said.
And what do they get in return?
“Nothing, we get nothing,” Ghosh said, pointing out that she quit her job after she fell sick and could barely leave her bed for 15 days. “That was the first long leave I had taken my entire stint at the place. But they deducted 15 days’ salary.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.