Rummaging through her cart, the small Indian woman draws out a long piece of thread and holds it to her shoulder. She lets the spool fall to the floor, cutting the thin white fiber when it reaches the ground. Examining the length of the thread, she finds one of the ends.
Placing the end of the thread in between her teeth, she wraps the other end around the tip of her index finger and middle finger to form a skewed triangle. Her groomed brows furrow from beneath wisps of hair that cover her face.
She focuses on weaving it around the hairs and close to the skin of the woman before her—concentrating as if her client’s face were her canvas.
The middle-aged client winces. It’s quiet as I sit on an empty white sofa and watch as she continues with the process of winding and pulling the hairs.
The Indian woman wraps the thread around her finger once again and pulls.
The skin above the client’s eyebrow is inflamed bright red. With each pull comes a small wince as well as a grimace. A tear leaks from her eye and pools near the apex.
The Indian woman continues to wind the thread, find the hairs and pull. She creates a cycle, a rhythmic sound from the repeated thread pulling and whisking. Her arms move with a similar pattern of practiced circular motion as she settles into the task at hand.
This exotic ritual happens every day at the Arden Fair Mall.
Its lights attract you to the entrance—turn down the hallway, and you’re drawn to it, the sign reading “Beauty by Thread” purple, bright and illuminated. To find it, start at the main entrance on the lower level, continue left past Nordstrom and the main directory near the center of the mall and pass True Religion, Express and many other popular stores. These women are inside a small cupboard of a store, offset from the main hallway of the mall near the Champs sporting goods shop.
An Indian woman named Balbir meets me at the door as I enter a room filled with bright purple walls lined with shelves upon shelves of all kinds of jewelry. “Oh, please come in,” she says in a thick accent, followed by a questioning “Eyebrows?”
Threading, which originated in ancient India, is used on a young woman the day before her wedding to cleanse her face of hair. It remains a huge part of their society today.
I watch Balbir repeat the process. She is probably in her mid-50’s, standing at 5 feet tall, with a round friendly face and glasses that rest upon the bridge of her nose. Plump with a long ponytail that trails down her back, she continues to talk as thread rests in between one of the gaps of her teeth.
Her uniform is generic: a simple collared T-shirt and dark pants. Her coworkers sport the same style, their look varying by only their age and length of hair.
Balbir lines the thread around a long streak of hairs and pulls, and each of the hair follicles lifts from the skin. She brushes them from the face to clear the space for the next path of unwanted hairs she rips out like weeds.
Skillfully keeping the thread between her two teeth, Balbir tries to explain how this all works.
“Well, I’m not quite sure actually. I started when I was young girl, your age. I just take string and twist it around the lines of hair.”
She makes it sound so simple,
“I came from womb threading,” she says jokingly in an Indian accent. She adds, “I’m just kidding, but I start early. Since I was young girl, I’d been watching girls around me thread. I was, ‘Oh, I want to go to school and learn how to do that.’”
So she did. She spent a year in cosmetology school in India perfecting her threading skills. She said that because threading was such a huge facet of Indian culture, it wasn’t a structured class but varied based on how much skill each person had.
There, she learned different ways to master the ancient method—including one that didn’t involve using her two front teeth. “I’m the only one in my family that knows how to do this,” she says coolly.
Balbir has 20 years of experience under her belt, so I figure why not try it out?
Threading was never intended to be marketed and used for public trade; it was a tradition for female family members to pass this technique on from generation to generation. However, it is now in the West.
Its rising popularity has even managed to challenge the favored waxing and plucking methods, according to Balbir and many online sources. We have access to a “more natural” method of hair removal, Balbir says, which has been around for a long time. She said it’s so “accurate” (I think she meant “ancient”) she doesn’t even know when it started.
Now it’s my turn. I climb into the leather chair and tilt my head back. I close my eyes and prepare for either the worst pain in my life or the easiest eyebrow tweaking ever.
Balbir uses a cotton swab to clean the area and then goes to work with the thread—which she explains was bought from the local Wal-Mart.
It feels like tiny rough beads pushing up against my skin repeatedly. For about two seconds the skin is on fire, but then the pain just vanishes, until the next line is quickly torn away.
She starts by removing the hairs from the top of the eyebrow and then she asks me to pull down on my eyelid as she continues on the hairs below the eyebrow, working her way to a final preened and arched result that she admires. It takes her about five minutes.
Balbir polishes my eyebrows using a combination of scissors and tweezers to finish off the look and then asks if I want anything else done.
What? What else could you remove with thread?
I decide not to ask and instead thank her for a job well done.
I walk over to the list of services offered, which ends up being a better idea. Nowadays, probably anything can be threaded if asked. I was right.
Eyebrows: $12, Upper Lip: $6, Sideburns: $8, Forhead (yes, that’s how it’s spelled): $5, Neck: $5, Chin: $5. Then into the combos—Sideburns and Cheeks: $13, Eyebrows and Upper Lip: $18, Entire Face and Eyebrows: $35. And my personal favorite, Extra Hairs: $5.00
I walk out, and from the corner of my eye, I notice the shining silver store amongst the boring beige ones that are clustered around it.
On Sept. 23 I revisited Beauty By Thread, and much to my surprise the business had taken off. As I entered, a woman asked me to sign in and said that the wait would be only 10 minutes. An obvious increase in employees, from two to four, gave the tiny store a sense of hustle-and-bustle, and the white sofas that were once vacant were now filled with waiting clients.
To think, a little gem of India is buried deep within the Arden Fair Mall.