September 8, 2021
When Swathi Balaji grips a thin thread of cotton and sweeps it across a customer’s arched eyebrows, Balaji loves to tell her clients, “There’s a tear gland right under the eyebrow. You might cry, but that’s not from pain.” Threading is a popular method of hair removal that originates in South Asia and the Middle East. Threading artists, like Balaji, twist narrow strings of cotton to grab and remove hair from the follicles.
Growing up in New Jersey, Balaji is now a Manhattan-based business owner of iBrows by Swathi and threads eyebrows for a living. The 23-year-old often watched her mom go to a salon to get her eyebrows threaded. By the end of middle school, she had started to go herself. “It was really inspiring — I wanted to get certified,” she told me.
South Asian threading artists and salons have recently exploded in popularity across the U.S. — a simple Yelp search for New York City will show at least 240 businesses. Growing South Asian immigration into the U.S. and the deregulated nature of the threading industry has helped — in many states, threading technicians are not required to obtain a cosmetology license and can train on site.
The first threading salons in the country, however, began blossoming in the 1980s and 1990s in cities and suburbs with large South Asian diasporas, such as Los Angeles and New York. Makeshift salons also opened up in the living rooms and basements of new immigrants with few financial resources. Businesses grew from word-of-mouth. Shut out of other work due to their limited language skills, immigrant women with precarious legal status could lift their economic stature through threading opportunities. Today, a new wave of first and second-generation women are still looking to make it in the industry, on their terms.