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How the unisex salons are wiping out the little shame in Chennai girls…

November 19, 2017

India may not be Middle East but neither is India, America or Hawaii or Australia or even Mauritius. Family is our strongest point. Culture is the recipe for our success story everywhere. Strike at our roots, break the Indian  family, it is then shall India fall, not otherwise: not for China or Pakistan military in a million years. Nor am I the prim and proper Indian Nari. Still I am old school who happens to think, the innate beauty secret of an Indian woman lies in her ability to blush. No apologies from the feminine me if you think I am sexist. I wonder since when the so-called feminists started making femininity or womanhood feel-sound like sexism.

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Imagine getting your pedicure done in a beauty salon (you being the woman in the wrong side of your 40s) and having a fiftyish man lounging right next to you having a hair-cut and both your eyes meet across the mirrored wall opposite you. At that moment you feel like fleeing from there, run, run, run and jump into a well at full throttle if you can manage to find one!!! Well, that happened to me. I don’t know whether the Mama (uncle) who had the haircut felt the way I did, he seemed to be enjoying the ambiance, and it looks like i am the only one around so old-fashioned. Or so it appears. Welcome to unisex salons of Chennai: if you want the branded salons, this is what you have to come to terms with: men all around you including the service staff – not merely guests.

Slowly but steadily as the dividing lines blur, the shame of the Chennai women is also vaporizing into thin air. Or this is how I feel whatever you may think. If this is the condition in a laid back city like mine, think of those metros like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Goa. I have clarified my stance many times in my previous posts: i am neither for the burqa nor for the bikini. I am somewhere in-between. Hmm…

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Honestly upto my 36th year I never stepped into a regular beauty salon. Beauty was the last thing on my mind then. Very busy with life. I did once for my wedding, before the wednesday I got married. Tuesday evening was the reception so i called upon them tuesday noon time. I had rung them up from my bank on saturday to fix the appointment. ‘Kanya’ was the first ever beauty parlour i visited therefore. It was in Luz, Mylapore and I am not sure if its functioning now. Right then it was popular and was suggested by friends for bridal make-up. I still cannot forget how the girls there went aghast that it was my first ever parlour visit. I went further pale looking at their rates. 700 bucks was way too steep for me then, including for sari tie-up. The lady in-charge bit her lips and sighed!

Next time I visited a beauty salon was over 10 years later. I was 36 and mother of a 10 year old kid. Finally there was time to breathe in life. In between thanks to my co-sisters, I had had a girl come and do basic cleansing once an year right at home. Nothing more. Once again, I became the hot topic for the parlour girls to discuss when I started Green Trends where I went after consulting my friends who also were trying out parlours mainly for Henna. By 36, most of us girls already had tummy after 1-2 deliveries, grey hair, hair fall, joint pain, a few miscarriages behind, BP or Diabetes or Cholesterol (few cases), chronic back ache, with rare ones even going for removal of uterus thanks to excessive bleeding and resultant tumours. 25-35 or may be 25-40 is the peak of an average Indian woman’s life – with kids growing up, home loans in progress, husbands’ career looking up, changing cars… too many things happening at the same time… and over everything, our harmones are at full swing.

So generally speaking, it was/is after 40 most of us start paying attention to ourselves – to our bodies. By now we’re low on our estrogen and we need some confidence building measures. Finally the kids are independent, husbands well settled in professional life and family home is stable. Now comes the inevitable lull that we have to either fill up or go crazy.  This is where therefore grooming steps in. Too late. So even though I started parlour as a regular thing in my life by my 36th year, I was still hopping in there only once an year – mostly when occasions arose like say a family wedding. Otherwise there was no reason. Another factor was, indulging was something most of us women thought to be frivolous. Beauty routine never came cheap. For middle-class families, the cost factor hence remained the greatest deterrent when it came to grooming.

Back in my Green Trends days, the girls still remembered me because of my membership there that I hardly used. My son and husband (whenever in town) also used it as it was unisex salon. So the first time I tried Green Trends in Kilpauk, (it was right over the SBI branch), I almost turned back at the last step but the receptionist called out to me and girls came running after me! Reason was, I saw a couple of men chatting up there that knocked the senses out of me! Whatever guys had to do in a beauty salon!

I was escorted inside and the girls explained to me it was a unisex parlour but the areas for men and women were strictly demarcated. Only the reception area was common. They showed me around and I noticed that there was complete privacy for women. It was only after they convinced me clearly that I trusted them.

Next 10 years or so, the annual visits to parlours thus was restricted mostly to Green Trends for me who used Johnsons products mostly. I always made it a point to ask them beforehand what they used. Once or twice may be I tried out Maha in Mylapore who used Shehnaz. It was 100% ladies to my great relief but the hygiene conditions there did not match my expectations.

A few years back, Green Trends expanded and shifted to a new place. Walking one fine day I found that the dividing partition between the men’s and women’s section was gone. The private cabins were aligned on both sides of the lounge that either of the sexes could use. It was a highly unsettling experience for me. Having fixed an appointment, I could not go back on them. At least the servicewoman was a 22 year old girl. I was told that the sex of the service people was interchangeable depending on their availability! That was the last time I went in there.

After that I tried out YLG (Nungambakkam) (where I had Mama having haircut next to me because of whom the pedicure experience that must normally bring one such a soothing joy was lost for me) and Naturals (Chetpet) – both of which were unisex. I understood Chennai had changed for good.

Only I seemed to be making a fuss over the unisex salons where anyone could service anyone – a guy could do a facial to a woman like you and a girl could do massage for a man!

What mostly disturbed me was, how younger and younger girls were trotting up the beauty salons on regular basis, some as young as 12-13 years. They seemed to be unaffected by the fact that the hair-cuts were given now routinely by young stylish guys. Or may be they liked it this way??!! That’s what my friends tell me anyhow!

Finally last year I went for Keratin smoothening to Toni & Guy, Purasawalkam. This was also a friend’s recommendation. The work was done by a guy over 15 years younger to me agreed. 2 or 3 more guys came very close to me and stood inches away from me. Never in life was I surrounded by such young chaps in such a closed space. I forgot my age and for a moment, my panic mode set it. It felt menacing that so many guys were touching your hair (hair only) and even their slightest touch on my scalp made me ultra sensitive. I think i jerked and they felt it. They kept saying ‘easy, easy’ through out. “M’am look next to you. Aren’t these girls comfortable?’ said one. I saw 2-3 girls below 30 all having hair treatments going on at various stages. They appeared pretty relaxed. The men did n’t seem to bother them as they did me. Looked like it wasn’t their first time like it was for me.

I must say, the hair treatment was a very  uncomfortable experience for me. Two or three men touching your hair and rubbing your scalp was not a normal thing for me. I was told that, mostly when it comes to hair treatment, as far as India is concerned, men were the best and they outnumbered the women-staff. For the simpler reason that they had more powerful hands thanks to a stronger physique which made it child’s play for them to do the head massage or hair ironing. I understood the logic, still it felt strange throughout to be handled by men in a beauty routine. The way they spoke about my scalp and hair felt even stranger. I thought until then these were of very personal nature for a woman, any woman.

I did earlier read up that even Keratin treatment involved heavy usage of ‘formaldehyde’ a very toxic chemical. I remembered to ask the guys at least that. They showed me some concoctions that looked creamy and buttery that looked more like ice creams than beauty aids. One tapped at the details of constituents and told me that they used only formaldehyde-free products in T&G. God knows!

Hair treatment is one thing. But a guy massaging your head like that is OMG !!! I must say it’s out of world experience, i don’t deny i enjoyed it in spite of my persisting embarrassment. There is always this small uncomfortable thing about a guy doing these physical services to you that’s like a dampening factor. If you may forget it, you may enjoy the experience. To be honest, the guys were extremely professional, totally detached. In fact I was taking note of how they behaved with the younger girls out of the corner of my eyes. I know in my age, I don’t have to suspect any foul play (in my case) from them. The guys and the younger girls seemed to have struck an easy friendship. They were chatty. But there was still this unmistakable professionalism in the working men, some consolation. Nowhere was the line crossed in the 3 hours I spent therein for my hair treatment.

I must admit, I got satisfactory results. I knew I was in good hands after all. The men did eventually earn my trust. I could go back someday really. For hair treatments, the big relief is, you don’t have to change clothes. They merely throw a towel on you. Small blessings.

Still, the fumes of the formaldehyde was in my mind for days to come after the Keratin process. I thought I had put myself at great risk. I was all the more worried for the young girls. They were all working or studying, easy to guess. Not yet married, obviously. How can you let yourself consume such a toxic vapour in such an young age when you have not had a baby yet. This was what was going in my mind. I am big coffee lover now. But until my son’s birth and even after that for 1 year, I never had coffee or tea except on very rare occasions. Even eating out was ruled out. We led such a strict and clean life. My husband used to smoke but he would never in front of me. Right from day 1 made sure of that.

I was also extremely cautious when it was time for hair wash. I had read up somewhere that when a woman was getting hair wash, her neck accidentally snapped in the wash basin and she went into an irreversible coma. This happened somewhere in Mumbai, I guess. So the danger was throughout playing up in my mind. It is impossible to dismiss these thoughts when you know too much on these things from browsing the internet.

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Modesty will never go out of fashion. Modesty is Dignity.

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However today’s girls seem to think of no such things that seemed so important to us in those days. Caution is thrown to winds. Under 20-25-30, I felt awful that their chins were uplifted by young guys even if it may be only in beauty salons, their scalp massaged… The uneasiness that I was feeling in my late 40s, the younger girls of Chennai were not feeling even in their 20s, serviced by guys in the age band 25-30 years. The risks of having regular hair wash with your head bent back in an unnatural angle, the poisonous chemicals that could impact on and harm your health – all these mean nothing. In simple terms, formaldehyde translates to carcinogen.

I understand, my city has come a long way. Now short term pleasures mean more than life long bliss.

Finally this year I tried out VLCC which is walking distance from my place. Honestly I went in there only because i got free coupons to cash in. They refused to give me their label products for coupons and insisted that I could only avail of services for the coupons.

So for one coupon I opted for a facial. I should have become alert when they asked me whether they wanted Mr yyy or Miss xxx to do the facial for me as both were available. I was not prepared for the question but i recovered in a second and opted for a service girl. I was shocked that a facial could be done to a woman by a man. Because even if it is only once or twice an year, I still know a facial process involves massage that can go upto your chest level and most of your back after you change to their robes with open slits on all sides.

My facial was almost over and the girl put a final pack on my face and cucumber slices over my tired eyes and asked me to relax. The room was in total darkness and the air conditioner was mild. I was beginning to snooze, it was heavenly. Just then, the door opened a crack and the voice of a man was heard. He was asking my attendant girl some lotion or cream. Before I could utter a word, the light was switched on for a moment as the girl found the tube for him and he closed the door with a thud as he left. The incident extremely disturbed me. I was fully covered up. Over the robes the girl had also thrown in a couple of towels upon me as I felt the a/c chill. Thank god I asked for extra cover. My clothes were in the hanger.

Once the facial finished, I fired the management like anything for letting in a male staff even if for a second. They sounded unapologetic and told me it was unisex salon. Where you could have a man service you for a facial or even massage, what is there to fuss. They said I was out of tune with what was happening in Chennai. My pedicure remained. For this they offered the services of a 22 year old guy. First i refused. Then they said, ‘M’am, no division of sex here. This guy is like your son. Once if you do it, you will  know how ultra professional they are. It is not like you think.’ Just then another senior matron in her 60s walked out of a cubicle having had a facial done with a male staff. The service staff showed her to me and the lady spoke of her experience. Looks like there’s nothing to be ashamed of or feel uncomfortable about. Finally i let in the guy do my pedicure just as a test. I took pictures and shared them with my friends 😀 I have to say, it is the best pedicure i have had in my life (me having pedicure only in last 3 years or so). I told the guy himself that I allowed him to do it for me because he was younger than my son. He said, ‘M’am if you refuse our services, what will happen to us guys. I am from North East India. I am from Assam. I will be unemployed if more and more women like you would say ‘no’ to unisex salons. 75% of our guests are ladies. So please change your mind.’

There was truth in what the boy said. Still I told the management, it was okay with pedicure but never would i have a facial done by a guy. They said, in that case I would have to call a couple of days before so that they’d find time for a female staff to service me. Otherwise anyone available would be assigned to me.

As I was waiting in the lobby, I could see young girls go for facials with these guys – into dimly lit cabins. I shuddered. Even if there was thorough professionalism on the part of male staff, my mind always keeps wondering about spy cams etc. At my age, I am past caring for all that. I know whoever dares to record me can only get a heart attack hahaha – but what about teenagers and young working girls. The beauty salons are employing young guys under 30 years of age. If i must have a daughter, I would never allow her to visit a salon ever.

One more thing I wanted to talk about: use of a single toilet for both men and women. No separate demarcated wash rooms for gents and ladies in unisex salons as I have noticed so far. It is highly risky for us women to use restrooms used by men, as men generally are found wanting when it comes to hygiene. I have also mentioned this factor at the salons i have so far visited to no avail. Space is a precious commodity in Chennai. I don’t think they would want to waste another few hundred square foot of space for a separate ladies bathroom.

Beauty business remains largely an unregulated service industry in India. ‘Make in India’ is a big joke in the flourishing personal care industry, with 100% product procurement only from countries like France, Germany and Brazil. Cent percent import including other beauty aids like trimmers, scissors etc.

  • I would like a complete audit of unisex salons ensuring the privacy and safety of women who visit them. Even in unisex salons, cabins must be demarcated separately for men and women. Men including the service staff must not venture without specific permission into the ladies quarters.
  • Separate restrooms for men and women
  • The salons must inform clients about the use of harmful chemicals like formaldehyde – if possible in writing. It may be binding on both parties.
  • Branded salons in India I believe may not be using products past expiry date but this must be ensured by regular govt inspections.
  • Ensuring that the towels and bed sheets and aprons are fresh/washed after every use in a foolproof manner. How about supplying them in sealed sterilized pouches as they do in airplanes.
  • Clear and complete product listing with brand names and rates displayed in bold in the reception.
  • Personal details of male staff with past track record must be available on demand.

I also get a fairly good idea why beauty salons are always looked down upon by the public as if they are whorehouses. A friend of mine owned a building in Mogappair, the city suburb. It was leased to a beauty salon. When the salon moved to another address, the drainage choked in the building. My friend says, they flushed out hundreds of condoms from the blocked drain pipes in the building. Now she has made up her mind to never lease her space to beauty salons.

I wish the young girls of Chennai, not just Chennai but entire India, stay very vigilant when visiting beauty salons. It is easy to get trapped. I don’t get the comfortable feel anymore – the one that you normally may associate with visiting a beauty parlour some 20-25 years back. Instead there is always something foreboding about them these days. Of course, for me and my friends, all this is secondary now. We are not bothered about guys 20 years younger to us. Still we are women. We have our dignity.

I am not saying all men are vicious or bad or scheming. But there is also the age factor. They  may look professional, act professional, yet they are mostly under 30. As a woman in my late 40s, I am not okay with them wholeheartedly still, so i wonder how these younger girls are so readily shameless. Such a cosmopolitan thing, i don’t know why, only causes me acute embarrassment.

I recall my Yoga sessions in Chennai. I had an excellent Yoga guru about my age. Age bound us in the same bracket so I found that he was too very aware of me over other ladies in our batch. Others also noticed it and teased me about it. Doing stretches on my back always was uncomfortable for me owing to this factor. Whatever we feel uncomfortable about, we must avoid.

However I have had this great Zumba trainer. He is a young chap over 10 years younger. What i even today like about him is, never would he notice us women – I mean he would never look at any of us other than in face. His eyes would never dart or linger on any of our body parts. Gem of a guy.  In fact, we also always had body conditioning following up. We ladies felt safe and secure with this one always. It is tough to be in this business I know, but the way this guy detaches himself from women is what endears him to us most to this day. Women can easily gauge men and their intentions.

Yoga gurus or physical trainers like gym trainers and even male beauticians can still thus similarly detach themselves from women clients in a way that would give the ladies a sense of security and comfort. We could still continue to hang out as great buddies, this is what I learned from my Zumba trainer in Chennai.

I have had a Zumba trainer here too ( in middle east). Since this is a dangerous terrain to discuss these subjects, I don’t want to talk frankly about him. I can write about him only in India. He has left for the Philippines. He was a super but not character-wise. I think women should be very careful when it comes to not just beauty routines, but also fitness regimen where it concerns male trainers. I am saying this out of personal experience. I was also under the false sense of security that age was on my side and that my age gauranteed the complete protection that I needed. I discovered for the first time that, age is not a factor for some guys. Women are vulnerable at any age. And a few weird younger guys actually are for experienced, middle-aged women. Sick!

In general, only direct and regular government inspection and audit can prevent mistakes from happening in personal care industry as well as in physical fitness arena. I wonder if India has such a regulatory board at all. Personal grooming is fine, but not at the expense of your shame and dignity.

It is high time, Modi government appoints a regulatory authority to oversee the personal care industry and the physical fitness business in India. This is a multi-billion dollar game. Our Gujarati Bania PM must know.

From → Bharatiya Naari

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