Item Girl

Dec. 27, 2022, 1:11 p.m.

“Sorry, haan?” Radhika looks over at me, endearingly apologetic as she slides the hot wax onto my vagina. I grip onto the sides of the narrow beauty bed she’s placed me on, fully trusting her with the most intimate parts of myself. I make eye contact with her wise old brown eyes, tracing the wrinkles on her skin to steady myself. She chuckles at my anxiety and places a wax strip on my pussy, gently patting it down with her fingers. 

I am in Radhika Beauty Salon, a brown woman–led establishment named after the woman before me. As I’m lying down in this tiny corner room getting my body hair obliterated by Radhika’s skilled hand, the song “Sheila Ki Jawaani” plays on a staticy speaker. On the tiny ’90s tube TV set up in the corner, Bollywood’s favorite starlet, Katrina Kaif, shimmies along to the music in her golden lehenga. A crowd of men surrounding her leers at her lean waist as she declares her desirability through seductive song and dance. The cinematic spectacle distracts me momentarily from the arduous task at hand — appearing unfazed as wax strips fade away my growth. But I have this nagging feeling, as I watch Katrina in all her hairless, lean, feminine beauty, that Radhika has set it up in this way to serve as an aspiration: with every swipe of the wax strip, I get closer and closer to achieving this impossible ideal of beauty embodied by women like Katrina, and by having her perfect body to measure my progress against, I will be constantly affirmed of the need to alter myself to that ideal. I glare at Radhika as the realization hits. You sneaky woman, I want to say to her.

Jusszt relakshhh,” is Radhika’s favorite intonation, and she reiterates her words now with the air of a Hindu Brahmin who is imparting the best-kept secrets of life to his disciples. She puckers her plump lips in a gesture of motherly love, and I warily smile back. I start to whisper God’s name under my breath — waheguru, waheguru, waheguru — preparing myself for the final ritual in this torturous process: the merciless ripping off of the wax strip that comes after the gentle dabs. I shiver at the thought. To calm myself down, I refocus on the whispery Bollywood music playing in the background of this tiny, homely place, Radhika Beauty Salon, a ten-minute bike ride away from Stanford’s campus. 

*** 

I come here out of compulsion, following my body’s calendar anytime my upper lip gets too fuzzy, or my eyebrows start to deviate excessively from their upside-down check-mark shape. But it’s not just the checking-off (pun intended) of beauty standards met that keeps bringing me back here. I’m also chasing the aesthetic of homeliness, the Little Delhi that Radhika has curated in this space. The cheap gold-plated ethnic jewelry decorating her walls, the Madhubala shrine on our left, the spilled Desi music and the beautiful brown girls dancing to it on the television all feel like transplants from my life in Delhi, and have all coalesced to make this salon the closest thing to home I could find near Stanford, as an Indian international student. 

There are other Indian-adjacent places around me, like the Zareen’s down the street. But the Zareen’s owner has lived in California since the ’80s, and it shows. Zareen’s Desi wall designs and cultural gimmicks, in contrast to Radhika’s, feel performative — a recreation of a country attempted by people who’ve been displaced from it for decades. And then there’s Okada, Stanford’s Asian American theme dorm, and the Asian American Activities Center (A3C), which both are purportedly pan-Asian but in reality don’t cater to South Asians. For example: Okada’s mostly East Asian murals and the fact that, when two of my friends and I signed up for the A3C’s Big Sib program, we found that we were the only three brown Big Sibs — and that, because there were also only 10 brown Little Sibs, we were all put into a little SibFam. Surrounding us were over a dozen East Asian SibFams. So here we were, trying to find Asian community, only to feel singled out because of our subregional distinction. Stanford South Asian Society exists, but hardly has any programming. Mostly, though, the culture at these Asian- and South Asian–specific organizations feels less, to me as an international student, like any country I’ve known, and more like a mirage of a place that exists only in the diaspora’s collective imagination. I’m not saying any of this to blame anyone — but these systemic issues that may well be nobody’s fault just highlight the importance of Radhika’s salon in my life.

Radhika, unlike these organizations, is almost as “fresh off the boat” as I am, and I love her so dearly for that. She’s “fresh off the boat” enough, for instance, that she complains about Americans’ “work-life balance,” and how her doctor only works nine-to-five. (“Should I just not get sick at any other time?” she says indignantly.) Her opinions may sound ridiculous to an American perspective, but I know exactly where she’s coming from because I’ve seen the way doctors in New Delhi treat their patients like God, leaving their ringers on through the night to take calls. Both Radhika and I have our roots in the same Indian soils, and we are both familiar with the intense competition that is bred out of the sheer inadequacy of resources in a place like India. And so we know no other interpretation of adulthood than to put our work above all else, a distinctly Indian masochism that we learned from our parents and our culture that America (beautifully, tragically) seems to lack. 

“I’m tiiired,” Radhika feigns in an exaggerated American accent. “That must be Americans’ favorite phrase. They say they’re tiiired even on Monday morning because they’re hungover from the weekend, and they think it’s a valid excuse. Oh, these nashedis, these drunkards. That’s America for you.” She rolls her eyes, holding everyone here but the two of us in contempt, and my stomach hurts from laughing at our inside jokes that nobody who isn’t Indian like us could ever comprehend. Even if I don’t always agree with her exaggerated, contemptuous view on all things American, I know my mother definitely would, and so talking to Radhika helps me ease back into the Desi mindset that I was raised in. 

Radhika moved here a decade ago from Rajouri Garden — a neighborhood just ten minutes away from the New Delhi house I grew up in — when she was married off to her husband, a brown Silicon Valley engineer. From our conversations, we’ve gathered that it is very likely that we must have crossed paths back home in Delhi (took the same bus route, had the same driving instructor, etc.) — but back then, our respective faces held no particular pull for the other’s. But now, in this foreign country where we once again — so fortuitously — live within ten minutes of each other, we finally recognize each other — or rather, we have begun to recognize pieces of ourselves in the brown of the other’s skin, so much more striking now against a white background. 

***

Radhika’s tales keep me enraptured even as she pricks and prunes my body. Through interrogation, I’ve learned that this isn’t the first iteration of her beauty business. She used to run a salon exactly like this back home in Rajouri Garden, and she loved it so much that she decided to bring it with her to Palo Alto. 

But she never let the change of scenery alter the makeup of her business: Palo Alto may be an affluent American neighborhood, but the cheap old-timey Bollywood posters and the fake-gold ethnic wedding jewelry displays on the walls make no notice of that fact. Radhika’s life may have been topsy-turvy changed, but her beauty salon still seems to exist to cater strictly to a Desi lower-middle-class clientele — exactly the kind of person whom you would expect to be living in Rajouri Garden, and very far from the Bay Area venture capitalists and Stanford students who live around its new location. It’s as if she’s created this place just for her old neighbors to come visit, disregarding any notions of profit maximization based on consumer research. She’s just so Indian that she can’t help but have it bleed into her work.

Radhika’s main endeavor — and accomplishment — has been to preserve this little microcosm of Indianness in Palo Alto, and even today, every time I walk in here, I can feel the sweet longing for home in the air. 

***

If Radhika is the main character in this salon, Katrina and all the other Bollywood dancers on the salon’s television are important supporting acts, for all the complex subtext that their existence symbolizes. They belong to a subclass of performers known as the “item girls” of Bollywood cinema, a term referring to vampy women who dance in sexy sequined outfits in musical sequences. These girls are always irrelevant to the plot and yet still manage to steal the show. Female leads in the Bollywood movies I grew up watching were always more modest — the demure wives and shy daughters. All the sex appeal in the movie was an item girl’s job to bring, and I always felt so dirty singing along to their songs as a kid.

It’s ironic that Radhika plays these same item girls’ “item songs” in her salon, a space dedicated not just to beauty, but to upholding specifically the very rigid set of Indian beauty ideals that have been transplanted along with the women of the diaspora who gripped onto them — even as they left the society that imprinted those messages on them. The item girls are emblematic of the standards each one of Radhika’s clients is inching towards. I wonder if Radhika ever looks to the item girls’ hairless bodies as a form of artistic inspiration as she contemplates her work. 

I know that I, for one, always looked up to the item girls. While my parents pointed out the virtues of the heroines of Bollywood cinema — the women who were “pure enough” to be capable of true love — I valorized the item girls, whose bare midriffs glistened with body oil as they danced. Their mudras and the ear-wormy lyrics of their musical numbers became the clandestine anthems my girlfriends and I whispered and hummed, feeling rebellious as we mimicked their seductive dance sequences during recess in elementary school, not knowing what the motions of our synchronized bodies signified back then, knowing only that, somehow, they unlocked a secret part of us. These item number dance sequences showed us the power of owning our sexuality far before we had the vocabulary to express it — indeed, far before we had any man to express it to — so that we were doing it solely for ourselves, almost instinctively and with the purest of intent. We just wanted to feel as confident as the item girls looked, no longer inspired by heroines who dressed modestly and kept their heads down, no longer looking to camouflage our bodies behind a veil of loose clothing, but to access every part of ourselves through movement that felt, at once, so foreign and so natural. 

Item girlhood was an element of my childhood that I’d nearly forgotten about until I unexpectedly heard its tunes floating around in Radhika’s salon. These item songs are all Radhika ever plays in her little salon, and if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have realized how much I needed them in my life today, a decade after I’d first heard them. “Munni badnaam hui, darling tere liye,” a line from one of the most iconic songs goes, meaning: “the young girl ruined her reputation, darling, just for you.” It feels so exciting to once again imagine myself as one of these risqué Desi girls, ludicrous as the songs’ lyrics can be. It is especially exciting in this location, lying bare-skinned in this beauty bar, enduring the pain of epilation in order to achieve some crazy beauty ideal — an ideal that can sometimes itself feel ludicrous considering modern feminist thought, but which still feels comforting in its constancy, ritualization and frivolity. 

I am just a young girl, and it may be ruining my reputation as a feminist among some leftist circles, but sometimes I want nothing but to be this sexual being, switching off my mind to focus on my body and making it beautiful in all the ways I know how. 

 ***

“Delhi mei kaisa chal raha hai, family theek hai?” Radhika asks me sweetly, making conversation as if I have the capacity for pleasantries while she swipes hot wax onto my skin, pulling my body hair out by its roots. But the more times I visit her salon, the more my threshold for pain increases, and our conversations get deeper and deeper, now no longer interrupted by my desire to scream my lungs out. 

So I tell her about my mother and my sister and how I sometimes fear I’m only here torturing my body because the women in my family prized my beauty above all else from a very, very young age. I tell her that I don’t know how to separate my own likes and dislikes from the steady stream of societal conditioning I have been subject to for these past two decades. I tell her that I read a Joan Didion essay for my English class where she talked about how easy it is for women to “be the unconscious instruments of values they would strenuously reject on a conscious level,” and now every time I walk into this salon I think of that one sentence, and what it means for me to be actively restraining my natural hair growth in the name of “beauty.” And I may be the feminist studies major among the two of us, but Radhika has the lived experience of having been a woman in this world for many more decades than I, and the nature of her work allows her to build intimate relationships with many of her clientele, so that the strength of her feminist perspectives on the body never fails to astonish me. She hasn’t gotten beyond a high-school education, and spells “scissors” as “scizers” when she’s labeling her supplies, but she helps me see beauty in a whole new light. 

“This is not self-oppression,” she said to me once, making air quotes around the last word to exaggerate the fact that she didn’t agree with my use of it in this context. “I am only helping you become who you want to be. And when you leave, you will be happier than you were when you walked in. Don’t you enjoy it? Come on, I know you do.” When looked at in this way, in the most bare-bones sense, the act of waxing away my hair only felt empowering. 

Granted, this framework of thought is wobbly because it centers the “I” and rejects the possibility of having outside influence in one’s decisions. Katrina danced for herself only; I wax my legs solely for my personal happiness. But are people really so thick-skinned and self-contained? Surely one’s perception of self is inexorably linked to societal feedback: even if Katrina dances only for personal enjoyment, the minute she chooses to do so in a public setting, she won’t be able to separate personal enjoyment from the audience’s approval. Similarly, waxing enhances my happiness at least partially because society has told me that my leg hair is unhygienic. As a performer in a society that “sees” my body and actively makes collective judgments on what is “good” and “bad” in a woman, I cannot separate personal degrees of comfort within my body from societal comfort surrounding it and its conformity. The internal and the external act simultaneously and, as much as I want to say I know how to separate them, I know that is not true. I think of my younger self’s clandestine yearnings towards item girlhood and wish I could become a fugitive again, hiding from the world not just my dances but my entire self, getting to perform my beauty for my eyes only.

But Radhika’s words still ring true in essence. Even if there is no way to tease out the different threads of my happiness — no singular source to connect it all back to — it is true that waxing makes me “happier,” for whatever insidious reason that may be. So I continue visiting Radhika’s salon, carrying on a tradition so widespread that it is shared among women of practically all socioeconomic backgrounds, tying us all together in its grip.

 ***

Radhika’s salon feels exactly like the parlor my mother used to take me to in the gully a few minutes away from our house. The mildly unkempt physical space, the low-quality speaker playing Bollywood music and the sassy Hindi banter exchanged amongst the ladies in the salon transport me back to my family’s country for a few minutes. Back to my mother initiating me into teen girlhood all those years ago, sharing these salon rituals with me knowing well the chokehold they’ve had on her — and will now have on me — for years and years. I am a woman of the diaspora and I will, indeed, grip desperately onto the beauty rituals of my home country, even as I try to escape the society that imprinted those messages on me. Every time I walk into Radhika Beauty Salon, I am continuing this centuries-old tradition that my mother passed on to me, and understand that I am a small part of a much larger story of femininity. 

***

“Okay, this is the last one,” says Radhika as she lifts the wax strip from the dead center of my vulva, the grand finale that clears all the rough black hairiness out to leave only a smooth, pink lower layer. It is in this revealing of my unobscured skin that I am most interested. I have shed a layer of hair, only to reveal something that is perhaps even more personal and true to myself. The hair I have epilated may have been made of dead cells, but the skin that has surfaced in its place is very much a living thing. I have rejuvenated myself, bringing the outermost layer of my body to life again.

But as I’m about to get up from the beauty bed, thinking the torture is finally over, Radhika pats me back down.

“Wait, there’s still some hair left,” she says. “Still a bit more to go. Sorry.” There’s still more to be done, there’s still more to be thought about, always another alteration to be made to this womanly body. When will it ever be enough?  In the background, a new item number starts playing — a song I can’t name but do recognize from that old Bollywood movie, “Aansoo Ban Gaye Phool,” meaning “my tears turn into flowers,” meaning my pain results in beauty. Helen the item girl shimmies her hips and smirks suggestively at the camera. I think of all the pain it took to make her so beautiful, like a delicate flower.

Diya Sabharwal is an undergraduate studying Computer Science with minors in Feminist Studies and Creative Writing.

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