'Parlour didis' have long been caricatured; it's time to acknowledge their quiet feminism
Some of latest videos on YouTube have often made videos roasting the parlour didi for encouraging internalised misogyny and market-driven ideas of beauty.
With newer online content created every day, digital platforms in India are getting more and more innovative and creative. The content that is being produced varies from mundane everyday things like thoughts you have while shopping online to the ones that address stigmatised topics such as women trying sustainable period products. While this new age content should be duly applauded for its imagination and for changing the face of what young audience/millennials consume, it is also important to constructively critique it to further the cause of socially conscious media.
Some of latest videos on YouTube by channels like Buzzfeed India, PopXo, and others have often made videos roasting the parlour didi for encouraging internalised misogyny and market-driven ideas of beauty. These videos are characterised by a Hindi speaking, loud-mouthed, and uncultured female employee who is hyper-enthusiastic, unprofessional, and a curious gossip monger. In addition to that, there is a lot of content in print media as well that has discussed these parlours as an extension of a society that has a unidimensional understanding of a woman’s beauty — that being fair skin as an ideal beauty standard that lies at an intersection of gender and caste in India.
From a sociology of labour point of view, there are debates that have criticised such content for stereotyping these women into a caricature of crass sounding body-shamers who are then addressed as ‘aunties’ and ‘didis’ to further informalise the profession and take away their dignity and much deserved respect. In addition to that, targeting parlour employees is attacking the weakest link in the vast network of the beauty industry that then intersects with the class and possibly a caste divide between these women who work at small and medium-sized enterprises and the content generators who shame them.
While the parlour discourse is the one that is loaded with various intersectionalities of feminism, ideal beauty standards, and women in the unorganised sector, it is also important to look at the issue from a spatial standpoint. As opposed to men who have always had space in the public realm to stand at nukkads/thelas for discussing politics while having chai and sutta, Indian women can rarely boast of such access, even in urban areas. Their mutterings often found their place around the boundary walls of their houses that they shared with neighbors to water-filling spots that were a part of their everyday life. In such a scenario, beauty parlours have played a significant part in providing refuge to women. These parlours are a real-life equivalent of a feminist utopia that Rokeya Hussain talks about in Sultana’s Dream in which women run everything and men are excluded. The woman who owns and runs the beauty parlour is like Sultana, the female equivalent the term Sultan who not only hires and gives financial stability to her employees but also creates a matrilineal set-up passing on her skills.
These parlours are replete with badly Photoshopped pictures of Indian actresses in bright hues with some dusty bottles of some unheard cosmetic brand lined up on their shelves. On entering these parlours, one can see archetypical Indian women dressed ordinarily who then take you in, part the curtain, and devirginise your hairy limbs with their gentle and experienced touch. These places, despite their profit-making agenda, are also body positive spaces in a way that women of all shapes and sizes from conservative households sit with their legs apart and talk about their personal lives. In the background of this surgical strike on body hair in the form of ripping wax strips, one can hear bangles and their payals clinking. Unlike many big beauty salon chains who train their employees before hiring them, these women acquire skills on-the-job by observing and practicing on themselves and their peers. They are the ones who are relatively from poor households with no breadwinner in the family or have had to drop out of school because of a lack of resources at home. There are also some who get attracted to the glamour and glitz of the beauty industry and use their agency to voluntarily be a part of this business.
For content creators and new-age influencers, it becomes easy to shame this space, but it is also important to understand that most of the women in these parlours do not have the privilege of language or access to feminist theories about the beauty myth for them to be able to theorise their own realities. In fact, these spaces enable and empower innumerable women, every day, to look the way they want to look and feel confident.
Spatially, these parlours are egalitarian spaces wherein women not only help each in the beauty procedures that they perform on their consumers, but the coordination of their motor skills while doing these procedures is like a sweet symphony. These beauty parlour employees are also the women who understand the physical pain that you ‘choose’ to inflict upon yourself despite being a socially conscious person and then help you to get through it. Without the word ‘women empowerment’ at play in their everyday lives, they still pick other women up, hold their hands, and pluck every strand their ingrown hair while distracting them from pain. And, that in itself is the truest form of feminist sisterhood.
With the advent of digital India, on-demand services marketplace has forayed in the beauty and wellness market as well. Bigger corporations with required capital invest in training, control cosmetics purchase, integrate technology with the beauticians, provide payment and banking support and do frequent quality audits posing a plausible threat to these neighborhood beauty parlours — a feminised space where women sought a sense of escape and pleasure.
These parlours are a paradox wherein they provide employment, opportunity, and financial freedom to their employees on one hand while encouraging the unattainable standards beauty on the other. As a space of female camaraderie, digital and social media could do better than to target/trivialise them. They could do well instead to inquire, talk, and promote equal opportunities and rights of these workers in the beauty industry. There are issues ranging from minimum wages to employee benefits to other labour laws that nobody seems to care about and in that way, it becomes all the more important for media to use their platform for something that benefits this tiny spec of the unorganised sector.
Sumati Thusoo is with the Department of Sociology, Monk Prayogshala
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