By that time, I knew that 38 had two kids, was divorced, and was going back to college. I liked 38. I wanted her to enjoy vacation and get engaged and have a good life. But we weren't friends. There was nothing reciprocal in our conversation. We were taught to avoid sharing personal information about ourselves whenever possible. "Customers don't care about your life," teachers told us. "They're buying your full attention." And that seemed to work. Once clients relaxed, they told us all sorts of personal things, like when they next expected to have sex and why their mothers made them crazy. And we learned that letting clients share these intimate details was good for business. "Remember to mention something about them or their life that they've talked about previously. Keep notes about each customer on file if you need to," advised one handout. It was much like being a therapist, serving soul and body.
In April, the New York Post reported that "NYC Women are Strangely Bonded to the Beauticians who Wax Their Brazilians," quoting smitten spa-goers who viewed their waxers as surrogate moms. But the story didn't explain how this one-sided friendship is made all the more awkward by socioeconomic differences. No matter how friendly their relationship, the client still pays and the waxer still needs that money. Nail technicians and skin-care specialists (the salon workers who do the most waxing) earn a mean annual pre-tax wage of $22,150 to $31,990. This figure doesn't include tips, which can total another $4,430 to $6,398—a clear financial incentive to befriend your clients in this service-based, nonreciprocal way.
Before starting, I assumed that most clients tip the industry's expected standard of 20 percent. They don't. I wasn't surprised, for example, when 38 tipped me just $5 (under 15 percent) because we never got big tips when clients got naked. Like johns who mistake their hooker's acrobatics for true love, clients can put such emphasis on the girlfriend-bonding time that slipping us a wad of cash would destroy the fantasy.
If her tip had been bigger, I would have been more delighted that 38 had taken time to write a "Client Kudos!" card about me: "She was professional and friendly at the same time. … Thanks so much!" She even drew a star on top next to my name. "That makes up for the bad tip," said my classmate Campbell about my Client Kudos. "Look how happy you made her!" Most salon workers say making clients feel good is their biggest source of job satisfaction. But I'm not convinced it's enough to balance out the often exhausting, difficult, and underpaid labor. No matter how much we liked our clients, we still had to brush stray pubic hairs off our sleeves, pick seaweed-stained disposable thongs out of the shower, and work around the occasional menstruating bikini wax client.
But it's also true that many waxers find this work empowering because the services require such skill and our clients are so thrilled with the results. Even if we don't totally return our clients' affections, we feel a kind of sisterhood with them and our fellow salon workers, because we're all toiling away together to meet some impossible beauty standard. When Campbell and I practiced our first Brazilian together, she rubbed the back of our "client" (another classmate), singing songs to distract her from the pain. We all traded stories about waxing and then, childbirth—that other time when a woman spreads her legs in pain and the support of other women gets her through.
And yet. When it came to 38, I wanted the cash, not the compliment, to show the value of my abilities. And maybe, to compensate for how she got to leave feeling so clean and sexy—but I could still smell her body on me, ever so faintly, even after I threw away the gloves and washed my hands.