Parlour who?

Feminism in India has uploaded a few little comics by graphic artist Harini Rajagopalan today – beautifully done – some of them really funny – like the take on right-wing-enforced marriages promised by politically backed-up moral polices all over India on Valentines Day. But then comes one on ‘parlour aunties’ (groans…) and it is problematic.


Copyrights: Feminism in India/Harini Rajagopalam

Rajagopalan writes: “Parlour aunties have this amazing talent of shaming you by asking you the simplest questions. It’s just one of the examples of everyday sexism. Though you can’t really blame them for thinking that only married women should have sex (or only women who have sex get Brazilian waxes). It’s so intrinsic to our patriarchal society.

What does a cartoon do to our mind? Among other things, it stereotypes. For example, a typically misogynist cartoon that depicts a woman driver screwing up is ‘funny’ because it stereotypes the notion that women cannot drive. If it was simply about the cartoonist’s aunt, it wouldn’t have been ‘funny’. In Rajagopalan’s case, she chooses the ‘parlour aunties’ to mouth the voice of patriarchy (or in other words, to demonstrate the symptoms of the disease named patriria – coined by a friend). Why choose them in particular for a cartoon theme? There is a certain kind of ‘vulnerability’ that customers are exposed to in the hands of a beauty parlour-worker attending her. When it comes to waxing in particular, it is probably even more so – given her submission to the (wo)manhandling of her helplessly and awkwardly exposed body and also the sheer pain involved in the process. Is it a form of not-so-passive aggression that leads us to looking at such a parlour-attendant as a foe, who we then have an easy right to stereotype?

But that’s unlikely. That would simply be bad manners of a bad loser. We – reformist individualistic urban elite feminists are not so petty! And yet we – readers and contributors of Feminisms in India – take the liberty of publicly referring the parlour-attendants as ‘parlour aunties’. No, they are not all aunties, many of them are younger than us, many the same age as ours, many older, but they too are nothing like our ‘aunties’ – neither in the sense of a relational proximity, nor in the sense of generic ridicule towards ‘uneducated’ and/or old-fashioned women, who would not (apparently) recognize patriarchy as a problem of mankind. What are they to us? Or we to them? We pay their employer a considerable sum for ‘beautifying’ (more groans…) our bodies and more often than not a similarly considerably small amount out of that sum goes into their pockets, after their day-long squeezing inside the tiny rooms with inadequate time and space for resting – space which is not particularly healthy too. We don’t bother to pay those ones any extra, who are abused and exploited, once in a while by ourselves too.

The least we can do is to call them what they are – labourers, workers, sometimes migrant workers, exploited workers. Not aunties. We cannot draw patronizing (“…you can’t really blame them…”) cartoons about them, nor judge them with our obscure, suave nonchalance. We can at the most admit that we don’t know them. We can at the least admit that we belong to a class different from theirs – and that too not simply in economic terms.

Why can’t we wax our legs ourselves, or shave them, if it really means so much to us? The tools are widely available in the market and the means are much cheaper in comparison to attending parlours. But we won’t, simply because we can afford to get it done by others. On the other hand, the parlour-workers wax each other’s legs. We – their feminist customers – don’t do that for our friends. Why? Other than the fact that we feel it would be a ‘waste of our time’, we probably won’t like the feel of that contact – that really physical contact which is sticky, gooey and sweaty – physical and not intellectual, ugly and not beautiful. We probably won’t even be able to subject our bodies to be exposed in such weird, ridiculous contours, that might be required for waxing certain parts of our dear legs, to those whom we might think of as friends! But we couldn’t care less if it was the ‘parlour aunty’ who sees us spread-leg, lizard-like, with blemishes and scars exposed on the dirty reclining seat, under the dead-white tube-light, where our body may just as well be someone else’s, sans the pain.

And if we would rather dreamily look at the vintage images of our women ancestors tying each other’s hair and write articles on liberation of the women community, then the least we can do is to leave the ‘parlour aunties’ alone.

A small note for ignorant fools such as me – Brazilian wax is shaving not just the legs, but up till the crotch in order to ‘be able to’ wear a bikini. It is mighty painful (look at the abundance of red in Rajagopalan’s image of the waxing seat? It’s that painful! But I forget myself…when has that been a matter to consider in beautification!). It is part of a battle that our very-much patriarchal sense of body aesthetics has with our body – on a regular basis. Parlour-workers more often than not has other regular battles to fight that we choose to ignore in spite of our ‘close contact’ (close enough to ridicule, to stereotype, to judge) with them – even those that choose to perform Brazilian or Peruvian or Alaskan or Lahorean or Himalayan or pan-atlantic waxes on themselves.

Just because we are at it, an even smaller question regarding ‘shaming’: why do we take that question thrown at us by the parlour-worker as shaming? Who’s shaming whom? (groans, groans, groans,….drop it already?)

However, it is said that one should not drive when one is agitated, upset, or angry. The same should probably be said about writing. Although I cannot tell if bell hooks was particularly agitated when she wrote the following – “…Reformist feminism became their route to class mobility. They could break free of male domination in the workforce and be more self-determining in their lifestyles. While sexism did not end, they could maximize their freedom within the existing system … Obviously this way of thinking has made feminism more acceptable because its underlying assumption is that women can be feminists without fundamentally challenging and changing themselves or the culture.” 

Or when Nandini Dhar wrote about another ‘parlour aunty’ in her poem –

The Make-up Season

The storeroom that was once used for shutting the unruly urchins in,
has been shaped into a beauty-parlour. Right at 9 in the morning
Aru Aunty turns the swinging keys into the lock
and opens it. A file of moon hangs from the key-chain. The lock
opens and the massive wall-mirror shivers, suddenly feeling the
chill. Sitting at the tiny gap between the glass and the wooden frame,
aspiring to be Sylvia Plath, poems – one after the other –

are flushed out of Taru Aunty’s pen – the younger sister of Aru Aunty. One
must write, or be left behind. Aru Aunty fills the bottles
with the moon-powders. This is indeed a speciality of hers.
She can decorate an ugly dark beast of a woman
with a bloodless fairness – as white as the pole star.
And if you think you are too good for her, beware! She would strain the constellations
and trick Ponds powder out of it. Your bones too by then are as powdered as…

Waxing yet another lousy bitch’s skin. But even
Aru Aunty possesses a single bad habit. That she won’t – even by mistake –
face that mirror. Who the fuck – at her own will – would attempt to see
leftovers of the stillborn imposed on the face of the green mango leaves?

(Translation – mine)



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