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.
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.