The Thread Between Them: Affective and Intimate Labor in Los Angeles Threading Salons
This dissertation examines the transnational beauty practice of threading in salons across Los Angeles county through its emergence, labor, regulation, and contestation in the neoliberal immigrant service sector. I argue that threading salons, which provide facial hair removal and skin care services, rely on South Asian immigrant and refugee women’s affective and intimate labor; their labor not only produces clean eyebrows but also a global beauty aesthetic and relations rooted in a South Asian imaginary emerging in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Once learned informally among friends in schoolyards or at home in India, Pakistan, and Nepal, threading takes on a different form as service work in Los Angeles salons in ethnic enclaves, strip malls, and chains where the practice is represented as ancient, cultural, and/or natural.
I draw from feminist theories of work on racialized and gendered service to demonstrate continuities in how immigrant and refugee women of color have long performed devalued reproductive service work that produces and requires affects, emotions, and feelings in contemporary global capitalism. I examine salon workers’ service interactions as well as broader forms of worker advocacy through the lens of affect to understand new dimensions of exploitation. Ultimately, salon workers navigate relationships with customers, other co-workers, and owners embedded in workplace pleasure and instability as a way to challenge affective and intimate forms of exploitation in non-unionized work.
I deploy interdisciplinary methods, including 18 months of ethnographic participant observation at two different threading salons, one in an ethnic enclave and another in a multi- ethnic neighborhood, along with 26 interviews with workers and owners in the region, to compare salon workers care and body maintenance work. I also use discourse and policy analysis to parse out the ways threading gets situated within multicultural incorporation and deregulation. Additionally, I participated in local, regional, and national beauty salon organizing meetings to capture how advocates build intersectional organizing across racial, environmental, and reproductive justice movements necessary in the beauty service industry.