“These days, even housemaids have started working as beauticians, or what?” remarked a client looking at dark skinned Anu* in her fifth week as a beautician in Nirmal Beauty parlour in small bylane of Sadiq Nagar in South Delhi. The owner, Nirmal, is 38 years old and started the parlour about 15 years ago. The parlour has two rooms where 10-15 clients are catered every hour. Nirmal smiled sheepishly at the client’s diminishing comment on Anu. She told Anu later to never work with this client again. “They just keep saying things. Don’t take them to heart,” she said.
According to a 2014 Business Today report, the beauty industry in India was valued at Rs 41,224 crore in 2012-13 and was expected to grow to Rs 80, 370 crore in 2017-18. The KPMG report on Beauty and Wellness in India found that the workforce involved in the beauty business was 3.4 million in 2013 and expected it to shoot up to 12.1 million in 2022, including the unorganised sector.
Beauty is a tricky business that thrives on creating insecurity among people on the way they look. More for women, less for men. The increasing corporatisation of the beauty business has further complicated things. It is defining not just how people should look but also how the providers of beauty should behave. Players like VLCC, Lakme, Naturals, Jawed Habib account for the organised sector in the industry worth Rs 2,500 crore. Beauticians are expected not just to take care of clients’ bodies but also their ‘class.’ English is the go to language and green tea adorns tables as women sit with their heads under a steamer, sipping it bit by bit. Class is demarcated with uniforms, more expensive equipment and branding, appointments and lack of human connection. They thrive only on exchange of services, thereby monetising the returns of the labour, bringing them under the organised labour sector.
Madhurita*, 60, gets extremely angry if she is not treated respectfully in a parlour. “In one of my visits to a parlour, all the employees were sitting, but nobody got up to greet me or ask me what I wanted. Not even a good morning. I was very upset. I shouted very badly at the receptionist asking him where is the luxury in the luxury beauty parlour. ‘You’ re not giving any comfort to the client, any welcome to the client, why will any client will come to you?’” she narrates. A consistent beauty parlour visitor since college, she says, “These days even maids want to go to the parlour. It’s open for everyone now.”
On the other hand, the unorganised sector, in this case, embodied by small end parlours still account for the larger share in the business. According to a study conducted by Pune-based research firm, Value Notes Database in 2004, India had over 61,000 beauty salons in towns that have a population of over one million. The data may be much higher now.
These parlours in the Indian bylanes are mostly run by women. Their clientele is built not by branding or advertising but through friendships and networking with the local residents.
Nirmal says, “One year on karwachauth, a woman came to the parlour but sat outside at the door. I thought she was there to rest so I let her be. Eventually, I asked her what she wanted. She said ‘threading.’ I immediately called her in. She seemed very hesitant and asked me about the prices of services. I found great joy in realising that all kinds of people come to my parlour.”
Unlike the beauty salons of the high street, the lower end parlours enable democratisation of beauty regimes. They give access to mostly all people across castes and classes, both as a beautician and a client.
Anu is 26 years old and trained as a beautician on the job. She has been working with Nirmal for seven years and takes care of at least 30 to 35 clients every day. She earns about Rs 9,000 a month.
According to studies, 32 per cent of the total workers in the unorganised sector are women. Women doing business from home have incomes that are not accounted for in the economy. The KPMG survey on wellness indicates that even when over 50 per cent workforce among salons and slimming centres are women, men continue to dominate counter sales and managerial roles. There is also an element of ‘time pass’ associated with these women. Most women internalise this to the extent that they disregard their own work as ‘labour’, considering themselves only as an extended arm of housework. Beauticians working in smaller beauty parlours, most often, come under the informal category. They learn on the job and get absorbed permanently wherever they train. They don’t often receive an official certificate of training and remain, technically, ‘unskilled’ even as they deliver skilled services. Most of these women are equal bread winners of their families.
Anu who grew up in Delhi does not have parents. She is Dalit but refuses to divulge more details. She spends most of her money to raise her siblings. “The clients who come to us ask me what would look good on them. That feels nice. After all, we have all the knowledge about this. So I listen to their ideas but the final decision is mine,” she says. Pune-based researchers Jayashree Upadhye and Arwah Madan in their paper ‘Entrepreneurship and Women Empowerment’ noted that women working in small businesses like parlours enjoyed power over economic resources and participated in decision-making and felt empowered.
When Anu serves a client, she ‘prefers to be their friend instead of a worker’, even though she knows that relationship will be limited only to the beauty parlour. Conversations flow seamlessly; from one’s own or the neighbours’ household matters to films to the news, nothing is off limits. These conversations help in the establishment of a friendship between the client and the beautician. In the high street parlours, these conversations are a no-no because the prescription for workers is to be clinical and professional which often translates into being non-friendly.
Thirty-nine-year-old Disha*, teacher and resident of a posh locality in Gurgaon, categorically denies having any friendly conversations with her beautician. “I share a professional relationship with them. I did go to a smaller parlour once. They kind of share their stories and all that, where they come from, what is their family like and why are they doing this job, so I prefer to stick to the bigger parlours,” she says.
Twenty-five-year old Nandini* still prefers smaller parlours. “High-end parlours end up setting a beauty standard with their big advertisements and posters. This, I don’t find in lower end parlours. It doesn’t make me feel awkward about my body. Besides, smaller parlours are cheaper,” she says.
Workers are increasingly preferring to work here over the posh salons for the promise of dignity, identity and its humaneness. Literary theorist Micheal Hardt coined the term ‘Affective labour’ and it refers to exactly this kind of work that entails producing or modifying emotional experiences in people. According to Hardt, affective labour brings a ‘sense of connectedness and community’. The concept was recognised to make it count as labour that required monetary remuneration. Not surprisingly, most of the small beauty parlours are surviving because they erase class differences through affective labour of care inside the parlour. The friendly interactions ease out interaction between socio-economic classes.
Anu is pregnant and currently on a sabbatical. She is looking forward to returning to work soon. “Of course, salary matters which is higher in posh salons. But the clients in high-end parlours have too many tantrums that I can’t deal with. I would want to be in a place where my work is understood, where I am understood,” she says.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
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