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Inside the beauty parlours of Bangladesh

The salons offer a glimpse into the class divide as well as the colour prejudice prevalent across the country

DHAKA • Every winter, I return to my hometown Dhaka in Bangladesh, and every year, I feel a little shabbier. This time, when I was meeting a few old school friends at a cafe, I finally understood why: the blow-dry. Everyone else had one. Everyone else had gone to the beauty parlour, and I hadn’t.

When I was growing up, there were just three beauty salons in the capital: Lily’s, Lisa’s and Neelo’s. Lily’s, run by a Chinese family, was built above a garage. I got my first perm there, a chemical baptism that left me smelling like a tyre factory for months.

Then there was Lisa, a woman of enormous girth who gave one of my aunts a particular side parting that remained in place throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s. I never went to Neelo’s because, being on the upscale side of town, it was too intimidating. But one of my friends told me that her mother never washed her hair in the winter; she just went to Neelo’s every other day between November and March.

Beauty parlours have now proliferated throughout the city. They have names like Dazzle and Hairobics. You can get anything from a haircut to a full bridal package, which includes waxing, make-up and a hairdo.

I see the appeal of the parlour – a reasonably affordable way to transform oneself into someone who appears to know what they’re doing with a hairbrush and a bottle of nail polish – though, to me, it has always seemed like a chamber of mediaeval torture. Yet the anthropologist in me is intrigued in spite of my discomfort.


A Bangladeshi woman with the national flag painted on her hand. As the rising popularity of beauty apps suggests, the pressure to look immaculately chic has dramatically increased in the age of Instagram.  PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

There is the issue of class, first and foremost. The women who work in the salons are from minority communities from the west and south of the capital. They themselves wear no make-up, their hair is never blow-dried, and they shuffle around the parlour looking defeated. The proprietors are paternalistic: In return for putting up these women in small, shared rooms above the premises, the owners expect unquestioning loyalty and long hours.

As for the clientele, the sleek, airbrushed- look hair that is now ubiquitous sets a certain class of women apart. You can spot the difference between a wealthy woman and a merely middle-class one not just by the neighbourhood she lives in and the clothes she wears, but also by the permanent sheen and movement of her hair.

The beauty parlour is also where women are forced to face the colour prejudice that is widespread in Bangladesh. Eavesdrop on a conversation and you’re very likely to hear someone complaining about the colour of her skin. She might then be offered a range of skin-lightening treatments. Once, a parlour girl nodded towards the customer next to me who was being embalmed in some kind of noxious white cream, and said: “Her shoulders are too dark.” Finally, there is what I call “extreme grooming”: a whole stack of procedures that take practically all day, including a mask of make-up to finish with, just for a night out. Once reserved for brides, these packages are now being purchased by anyone who wants to look perfect for an evening out.

The relentless rise of personal grooming is not unique to Dhaka. As the rise of blow-dry salons in major cities worldwide and the increasing popularity of on-demand beauty apps suggest, the pressure to look immaculately chic and coiffed has dramatically increased in the age of Instagram. The idea that beauty should be accessible to all now means more and more women aspire to ever higher standards.

There may be some who will breezily declare the rise of the blow-dry an innocent, possibly even empowering, trend. But it rubs me the wrong way. The women of my mother’s generation were revolutionaries; they called each other comrade and marched on the streets demanding independence for Bangladesh. And that feminist movement is one of the major reasons that today Bangladesh is still, against all the odds, posting impressive statistics on everything from girls’ enrolment in primary school to maternal health.

So I hold on to my feeling that there is no such thing as an innocent blow-dry. Yet there are subtle complexities to this social trend.

I have a friend who is, by her own admission, a compulsive parlour goer. If she’s been abroad, the first thing she does when she gets home is visit the parlour. She brings gifts for the salon girls, and they shower her with attention.

“I’m addicted to the keratin blow-dry,” she tells me. But it’s more than that: She likes being greeted by women who have watched her grow from an awkward teenager with kinky hair into an adult; she likes that they know exactly how her hair should be done; and she likes the expert, almost loving way they tend to her body. It’s not quite a friendship, but there’s an intimacy beyond the regular client-server relationship.

After a week in Dhaka, I succumb and pay a visit to my local parlour, Bliss. As I enter, I’m hit by the smell of nail polish remover. I hover around the entrance for a while, but no one notices me. There is a row of chairs in front where women are getting their hair done, and another section towards the back for manicures and waxing. I spot an older woman who looks like she’s in charge, and ask for a leg wax.

I’m shown into a narrow booth and given a petticoat and instructed to fasten it under my arms. After a few minutes, a skinny young woman approaches with an implement that looks like a butter knife, a torn-off strip of towel and a bowl of wax, which is actually not wax at all but a mixture of melted sugar and lemon juice. She grabs my calf and smears the goo from knee to ankle. It’s very hot. She presses the rag to the mix and pulls it off in one sharp movement. I wince.

“It only hurts because your hairs are so long,” she complains. The shame.

“Your skin is scaly,” she goes on, mercilessly. “Don’t you moisturise?” When she’s done with my calves, she’ll tell me I have fat knees. I pick up other snatches of conversation and note the easy way the parlour girls and their clients tease one another, and I’m secretly happy. Although this young woman fills me with self-loathing, I find I’m glad she feels free to insult me.

The parlour laughter is genuine, at least in the moment, but it’s all carefully orchestrated. There’s only so far she will go, and there are the scary older aunties who will tolerate no comedy at all.

The beauty parlour is a place where the rules are reinscribed, yet also upended. Peppered through the class-based rituals are moments when two people from disparate spheres of life might chafe against each other, and the person with less power may triumph, if just momentarily.

A woman in a neighbouring booth is getting a bikini wax. I hear her giving the parlour girl strict instructions. There’s a pause, and then the sound of the wax being ripped off. The woman cries out in pain. “What do you want me to do, rub it better?” the parlour girl asks. They both explode in laughter.

NEWYORKTIMES

  • Tahmima Anam, a writer and anthropologist, is the author of the novel A Golden Age.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline '(No headline) - NYTBEAUTY'. Print Edition | Subscribe