The 38th client I worked on at Beauty U. was my first full Brazilian wax—the kind where you remove all (or almost all) of your hair below the belt. I'd waxed many bikini lines and other body parts. I'd also assisted on Brazilians, handing my teachers wax-dipped Popsicle sticks the way nurses hand over scalpels. But now, it was my turn to wield the wax, solo. "I know—I'm a hairy beast!" Client 38 apologized, hopping onto the waxing table, clad in disposable thong. "You have to fix me. I'm going on vacation with my boyfriend."
She spread her legs. I put on some vinyl gloves and worked down and across her pelvis, twirling clumps of hair and trimming them free. You have to trim any hair longer than eyebrow-length to prevent "locking" with the wax. You also have to act like this is normal, even though a part of your brain is thinking, "Pubic hair, pubic hair, oh my God, pubic hair." But I was getting better at trimming, and also at acting. And so clouds of hair piled up on the paper-covered table while 38 chatted about her vacation plans (the Poconos; if she was lucky, a proposal), her C-section scar, and how she liked my red glasses.
The $1.8 billion business of superfluous hair removal is our most intimate and uncomfortable kind of beauty labor. When I enrolled in a 600-hour aesthetics program at my local strip mall beauty school, I knew the standard feminist rhetoric against hair removal: Women wax because we've been culturally indoctrinated to hate our bodies in their natural state. I also knew the women's magazine defense, that removing excess hair celebrates our femininity and increases sexual pleasure. And I'd been in 38's position enough to know that waxing can make you feel vulnerable in ways feminists haven't even considered and hurts more than women's magazines (or at least, their beauty advertisers) let you believe.
But being on the other side of the waxing table turns out to feel simultaneously more exploitative and more empowering than I ever expected. There is, for example, the moment when your client shuts off from you, closing her eyes to "relax." Your client is in charge, having commissioned you to perform this service. And yet they are also terribly vulnerable, half naked, exposed and—eyes closed—hoping for the best.
After I trimmed, I tested the temperature of the hot wax on the inside of my wrist and painted a stripe along 38's inner thigh, quickly covering it with a muslin strip. She tensed before I ripped, then relaxed even as her brown skin tinted pink: "That hurt so much less than last time!" I watched some spots of blood well up. "I'm going to have you do my eyebrows, too," she added. And as I waxed my way along the crevice of her inner thigh to some very sensitive parts, 38 closed her eyes, drifting into that blissful state we enter whenever a spa service goes well.
With most Beauty U. clients, I liked offering this respite from their harried lives and from the even more harried relationship they had with their bodies. Before beauty school began, I hoped this body shame part wouldn't be so true. Instead, I saw women hating their bodies—in subtle ways, like 38's matter-of-fact "I'm a hairy beast!"—with every spa service I performed. So I saw my role as providing a kind of safe haven of acceptance, where a client could feel comfortable enough to drift away
Two hours into 38's appointment, I was the one who could not relax. I had waxed right through my dinner break and my back ached from hunching over the table. I removed all the hair 38 had asked me to (all but a delicate landing strip) and cleaned up her brows. I held a hand mirror between her legs, angling it so she could decide if she was satisfied. I'd snipped off her paper thong, so we looked together like those consciousness-raising women's groups from the 1970s. Only with me still wearing my vinyl gloves, now sticky with a layer of wax.