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Basement Beauty

by Caitlin Agnew
February 12, 2024
Caitlin Agnew

What role does the beauty industry play in the immigrant experience? 

The new novel Sunshine Nails tells the story of the Tran family, first- and second-generation Vietnamese-Canadians who run a nail salon in Toronto. When a pricey American mani-pedi chain opens up across the street from their salon and rent goes up in their rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood, daughter Jessica steps in to help keep their business afloat. It’s a story about making it in a new country that author Mai Nguyen, whose parents opened Lee’s Nails in Halifax when she was eight years old, knows well. 

Whether they’re operating out of a storefront or as a kitchen or hideaway business, beauty-based enterprises have offered many newcomers a pathway to financial stability and community. Recent immigrants not only make up a large portion of the Canadian population (Statistics Canada recently projected that immigrants could represent as much as 34 percent of the population by 2041) but also play an important role in the professional-beauty industry, which is finally being recognized in immigration policies. Last year, Canada added aestheticians to the list of Federal Skilled Workers who can apply for permanent residency through the Federal Skilled Worker Program. 

The role of the beauty industry in the immigration experience is something that’s being explored from many perspectives, including academically. In her 2020 Ph.D. dissertation in sociology at Loyola University Chicago, Soulit Chacko shared her findings in “Shaping Beauty, Claiming Authenticity: Gender, Work, and Immigration Experiences of Low-Wage South Asian Immigrant Women Workers.” Her research described not only place-making practices in the beauty salon but also how participants claim their status and dignity, which are often lost during the immigration process. She argues that the beauty-industry workers in her studies created an “authentic self” through their work. 

Brazilian-born, New York-based artist and filmmaker Ares Maia, meanwhile, is using her work and her photography zine Beauty & Immigration to take an intimate, personal look at the role that beauty played in her experience of moving to the U.S. While growing up, she shared Brazilian beauty practices, like waxing and hair dyeing, at home with her mother, which resulted in the two having a very close relationship. But living in Connecticut, where these types of domestic beauty rituals were rare, wasn’t always easy. “I was really embarrassed about my at-home beauty practices, especially because at the time they weren’t in style,” Maia told Allure.  

That complicated relationship with mainstream beauty is all too common. In her 2019 book Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture, author Cheryl Thompson explores the history of Canada’s Black beauty culture, calling for institutional support from cosmetology schools to include training for textured hair. When it comes to personal care, inclusivity can make a world of difference.

Moving to a new country can involve a lot of difficulties and real trauma, and it’s clear that beauty rituals are a valuable part of healing, building and connecting with community. They can offer a sense of ownership, agency and empowerment that can otherwise be difficult to achieve. It’s a spirit that Nguyen captures in Sunshine Nails when patriarch Phil is reflecting on everything he built at his family’s nail salon: “He loved that damn salon. He loved being the person people unleashed all of their problems on. They walked in with overgrown cuticles and walked out with a good mood. This made him feel important, like he had given these people a level of peace they couldn’t get anywhere else. The salon represented the first time in his life that he got to call the shots.”  

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