Credit: (Illustrations by Greg Houston)

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It is 1:15 on a busy Saturday afternoon, and I sigh in relief and frustration as a chic woman in her early 30s strides into the day spa where I work. She takes her time making her way to the front desk, chatting on her cell phone. A busy associate attempts to greet her, and she ignores him, still talking on the phone, holding her hand up. Other clients and customers in line peer around her, looking at one another quizzically.

After a minute or so, the woman ends her call and announces that she is here for her 1:15 appointment. I look at the clock, which reads 1:30. There are 30 minutes allotted for her service, so now I have to complete the woman’s Brazilian bikini wax in half that time to stay on schedule for my next client. This can throw my whole day off. But I lead her back to my room anyway. If I tell her she’s too late, I’d risk creating more of a problem. Plus I work very quickly, and I figure I can make up the time. Like most aestheticians, I’m paid by commission—no salary, no hourly wage.

She takes another call as she undresses. Now I’m incredulous. I look nervously at my watch and tell the woman that we need to be mindful of the dwindling time. She hangs up and apologizes for being “a few minutes late”; she had rushed over from hot yoga. She hasn’t even had time to shower, she adds. So you smell, I think.

As I begin her wax, I see that the woman not only has her period but also is in dire need of a tampon change.

When I decided to become an aesthetician, I envisioned myself performing luxurious facial treatments, shaping eyebrows to transform looks in ways a plastic surgeon would envy, and maybe doing a bikini wax or two. The reality is not entirely unlike my fantasy; I do my share of facials, and the vast majority of my clients are cool, interesting, hygienic people. However, it’s waxes—particularly Brazilian bikini waxes—that now fill most of my appointment book.

For those still blissfully unaware of what that means, in a Brazilian, all hair is removed from the pelvic region. Yes, there. And there, too. There are myriad variations on the Brazilian, with names like the “Full Rio” and the “Vegas,” which describe small hair configurations left here and there, but in the United States, the term generally means all hair is removed save for a strip or patch up top—the undercarriage is clean. (Ironically, according to a Brazilian friend, in her country the standard is a bit more conservative. A small amount of hair is left along the outer labia.)

It hurts to get a Brazilian. Everyone’s pain threshold is different, but most waxees would agree that it’s no fun. Before I became an aesthetician, I’d gotten my share of Brazilians, and the experience ranged from excellent to downright traumatic. So it’s important to me that my clients feel safe and as comfortable as the situation allows and that they experience as little pain as possible. That means more than just speedy defoliating and a practiced hand with the baby powder. It means establishing a personal relationship that you and the client both want to last.

Waxing is a peculiar thing; it’s strangely intimate and intensely social, akin to the way that people tell their hairstylists everything. I’ve become friends with a few of my clients, but that’s rare. Most of my clients are people with whom I clicked right away, but a certain distance stays in place to make the whole thing less weird. The way I see it, both a client and I feel the need to create a connection to make sense of the bizarre pseudo-intimacy of the situation, i.e., to deal with the fact that a total stranger is ripping the hair from your most private areas while you lay naked from the waist down in positions only your gynecologist and very close personal friends have ever seen you in. Then, in a final indignity, you thank me and pay me.

This odd vulnerability breeds a kind of conspiratorial relationship; aesthetics is essentially a service profession, but it’s nothing like serving someone another round of vodka tonics. I take client confidentiality very seriously. I know things about them; they know things about me. I am privy to love affairs with married public figures, relationship troubles, and sexual escapades. One very young woman, a 19-year-old college student, told of an ill-fated threesome with such nonchalance I had to ask if this was a common activity for her.

(Illustrations by Greg Houston)

There have been a few instances I would be grateful not to relive. The woman who showed up 20 minutes late for a 30-minute appointment, demanded to be seen anyway, and then tipped $3, for instance. (Tipping at day spas is pretty much the same as at restaurants, by the way: 20 percent is the norm.)

Or there’s the older lady to whom I was giving a facial. She seemed unhappy right off the bat and particularly uncomfortable during the “extractions” portion of her service. Extractions can be annoying at best, painful at worst—it involves removing debris from clogged pores. I asked her repeatedly if she was OK, whether I should stop and move on, but she insisted I continue, snarling disgustedly that she wasn’t “going to hit me or anything.” It had not occurred to me up to that point that I should be concerned about her hitting me.

There have been toupee-wearing sugar daddies wanting to watch while I give their beautiful boys their facials, women with yeast infections, and people who are just mean. And sometimes things just get bizarre.

A man who looked to be in his late 50s came in to have his eyelashes and brows tinted and his chest and back waxed. We went back to my room, and the instant he lay down on the table, he asked, “Have you ever been in love?”

I answered, and he informed me that he was head over heels in love with someone. That’s nice, I thought. “She’s a professional escort,” he announced. “What do you think of that?”

“Wow,” I said. “I think it’s great that you’re in love.”

“Well, she used to be a he. What about that? And I am not gay. Did you think I was gay? Because I am not, I assure you!”

“I hadn’t really thought about it one way or the other,” I replied, waxing away.

“I’m getting waxed because women like it. Women like it, right?”

“Some do, sure. Everyone’s different,” I said, now waxing frantically.

He went on to tell me that the object of his affection is stunningly gorgeous, an internationally known model, and that she routinely takes guys for everything they have. In the same breath, he told me how much money he spends on her, and that he pays for her to fly all over the world, buys her expensive gifts, and is happy to support her lifestyle.

Then he had a couple of other questions: Is it “normal” for straight men to wax their bottoms, and would I wax his?

I told him that I could wax his buttocks, but that’s it. I don’t do men’s Brazilians, and I was certainly not about to start with this guy. After the whole process was finished, he had received almost $200 of services from me. He left no tip whatsoever.

Another time, a woman came in for a Brazilian. She seemed a little off, but there were no readily identifiable signs of insanity. I asked her, as I always ask new clients, if she’d ever had a Brazilian before, because it can be painful and feel somewhat invasive. She assured me that, yes, she had done this before. We chitchatted a bit, and everything seemed fine.

About halfway through, her whole demeanor suddenly changed. She looked at me with disgust and annoyance and said, “What are you doing?

Confused, I asked her if she wanted me to stop, if I had misunderstood what she wanted. “I’m sorry; did you not want a Brazilian?”

“Yes, but I’m not used to being touched that way by a female.”

It was as if a completely different person was now lying on my waxing table. Did she usually have men perform this service? What could I possibly have done or said wrong? I was totally freaked out and started to feel queasy at her implication.

“Well, just keep going,” she snapped. I continued the service, and she got angry again. “Can you just hurry up? Just take it off!”

“I will,” I told her, “but the wax hasn’t hardened yet, so it’ll just be a minute before I can take it off, OK?” I finished the horrible task, with her tsking and rolling her eyes the whole time. I prepared to apply lotion to the just-waxed area, as is standard practice, and she stopped me as if she was foiling some evil plan. “Oh no, you don’t. I’ll do it myself!”

Oh no, you don’t? Her reaction affected me deeply and for a long time. It made me feel dirty. Did she actually think that there was anything remotely sexual, let alone titillating, about doing a bikini wax? And, that ridiculous notion aside, did she believe that her vagina was so compelling that I, a professional (and heterosexual, not that it matters) who performs hundreds of Brazilians per year would inappropriately, illegally, and immorally risk my job, life, and career to do something so disgusting? That’s some impressive narcissism right there.

Everyone I told about the incident assured me that it sounded like the woman had some serious issues that had nothing to do with my waxing technique. But it haunts me from time to time. The woman’s reaction exposed how delicate the balance is between pseudo-­friendship and a business relationship in this line of work. I racked my brain to pinpoint exactly where things went wrong and how I could have made it better. I’ve decided that’s because I always make such an effort to put my clients at ease. I felt helpless and vulnerable, exactly the feelings that I painstakingly try to quell in my clients. If I don’t, their pain can become my own.