Get your eiebrows fixed…

Photo by Rune Enstad / Unsplash

How "eyebrow aunties" are turning threading into successful business ventures 

Harshdeep Kaur delves into the stories behind the local migrant women turning a 6000-year-old beauty practice into modern day economic lifelines. 

As a woman who grew up with two black rectangles the size of lipstick tubes in place of eyebrows, when I say threading changed my life, I mean it.

Since the age of 13, every three weeks I visit the home of my irreplaceable “eyebrow aunty”. My mother would never have dreamed of allowing me to remove body hair at such a young age, but she took pity on the fact that my brooding brows covered half my face.

Like countless other women in Australia, my go-to salon is a modest bedroom in a suburban home that’s been converted into a business premise. There’s a massage table, pedestal fan, and basic beauty supplies, including rolls and rolls of cotton thread. 

As I enter – now on autopilot – I lie down on the massage table in my eyebrow technician’s home, who I affectionately call "aunty" as a single thread of cotton is held between her hands and teeth and pressed against my skin to root out unruly hair.

With past technicians, this process also came with a side-serving of unwarranted comments about my body. Often the “eyebrow aunty” would begrudge that my eyebrow hair is “too thick” or my skin is too dull, as if I willed them to be that way. They would suggest obscure home remedies that I “have to try”, and I’d absentmindedly nod along. 

This is a shared experience amongst threading clients, many of whom accept these comments as being part-and-parcel of the threading experience. While the comments can be hurtful and shame-inducing, they are often not ill-intentioned, but rather due to a lack of developed body-positive views in the South Asian community.

Threading is an epilation technique that’s believed to have originated 6,000 years ago in South Asia and the Middle East, where it’s commonly used for facial hair removal.

But eyebrow threading is more than a beauty practice; it’s a sacred act. 

Melbourne-based freelance writer and editor Jasmeet Sahi has been getting her eyebrows threaded for 20 years. “For me, eyebrows are a frame of the face. Their shape gives the face a particular angularity, and it is something unique to you,” she says. “The feeling of a good threading session and getting the shape just right is indescribable.”

On top of accentuating facial features, eyebrows are also used in subtle signalling behaviours. A slight arch in a brow can change the meaning behind a smile. Whether they be completely shaven or furry logs that meet in between the eyes, eyebrows reflect who we are. And our acts of tweaking, tweezing, and embellishing our brows are forms of expression.

In ancient Egypt women darkened their brows with black powder. In South Asian cultures, eyebrows are pivotal in storytelling. 

And I’d argue that the intense longing in Kate Sharma’s furrowed brows in season 2 of Bridgerton are part of this tradition. The power of Sharma’s brows even gave rise to a minor TikTok trend of women attempting to recreate her expression. 

Simone Ashley as Kate Sharma in Bridgerton Season 2.

How threading has grown in Australia

Threading has become a popular hair removal technique in the west too, and the customer base of this practice has become more ethnically diverse. The image of a typical threading salon has evolved in Australia as more migrants have established the practice in the country. Google searches for ‘threading’  increased eight-fold between 2009 and 2018

In Australia, threading was once a service only available in the homes of migrant women who brought their beauty practices across the seas with them. For many of these women, with limited access to job opportunities and limited working rights, this practice is a financial lifeline, enabling them to gain independence from within their homes and build their lives in a new country. 

Nowadays, if you walk into any Westfield or suburban shopping centre, you’ll likely find a beauty salon that from the outside is just a brightly-lit room with plush chairs and back-lit mirrors, operated by South Asian women with thread between their fingers. But on the inside, it’s the home of women who’ve taken this 6,000 year-old practice, and turned it into a source of economic liberation.

Monika Sidhu in her salon, Bollywood Cuts N' Brows.

Monika Sidhu’s keen interest in beauty in her teenage years was often considered a distracting hobby by her parents. “I used to get scolded by my dad all the time,” she says. 

Today, Monika is the owner of Bollywood Cuts N’ Brow, a beauty salon in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

She learned how to thread by watching her mum get her eyebrows done at the local beauty parlour, then coming home and experimenting on herself.

“As a young girl I was very interested in [beauty], but I never thought I’d open my own salon,” she says. “But when I first came to Australia [in 2012], I went to a salon to get my waxing done, and it cost a lot and I thought, ‘This is a great business.’”

Like Monika, Sapna Varma, the owner of Sapna’s Brow and Beauty started her journey with a hobby that was considered taboo in her home in Amritsar, India. “My father was very strict. He never allowed us to go to the beauty parlour, so beauty things were like a dream for us,” she says.

When Sapna was 15, she met one of her sister’s friends, who was doing a beauty course at the time. “She did threading on my sister, and I just watched. I recorded in my brain how she was playing with her hands.”

In secret, Sapna started experimenting with thread on her legs. “I was doing legs, then I started to do arms, and then slowly I reached up to the eyebrows.” As her skills improved, Sapna convinced family members to let her practise on them. 

While she wasn’t allowed to pursue education after finishing high school, Sapna managed to convince her father to let her spend one month training in a beauty parlour. Two weeks into the training, Sapna’s father changed his mind, but she calls those two weeks “my degree for my whole life”.

In her mid-twenties, Sapna’s taste for parlour life came to an abrupt end. But 10 years later, Sapna had a fresh opportunity to come into her own as a beautician and businesswoman once she moved to Australia.

Migration turned Monika and Sapna into successful businesswomen. Neither had taken their beauty skills too seriously until migrating to Australia, but the need to build a financial future for themselves and their families meant they had more bargaining power in their households to turn these taboo skills into a fruitful venture.

Monika moved to Australia in 2012, and despite having no business training, quickly found a lucrative business opportunity. She observed the high customer traffic at Indian beauty parlours in Melbourne and had a gut feeling that this was a business she could succeed at. “I felt that I could do it. I went back to India to do my diploma [in beauty]. I also spent around three months training at a salon.”

At this time Monika’s son was only eight months old, but she had the support of her mother and mother-in-law to raise him.

Monika’s business started in a spare bedroom of her Melbourne home, when she was a new migrant. She initially offered just three services; threading, waxing, and basic facials but has since expanded to owning her own salon with two employees and an array of services, including hairdressing, lash lifting, and semi permanent tattoos. 

“In this line you have to keep updating yourself,” she says. “When clients call and ask whether you’re doing a certain service or not, it comes to your mind that you have to update now.”

Looking ahead, Monika is aiming to buy out a salon, and hire and train more staff. “I really want to go in a shopping centre. It’s a big risk, my husband always says so too, but I want to experience it,” she says.

Sapna was the first woman to bring threading to Geelong, Victoria back in 2006. She’d never imagined owning her own business. “In [my husband’s] family they also believed that men should work and ladies should not work. So after marriage, for 10 years I did nothing,” she tells me.

But not all South Asian men thought this way. In fact, one of Sapna’s family friend’s, Sunil – upon learning of her threading skills became her number one first believer. “There was God in his body for us,” Sapna says about Sunil. He would not get off her back about opening her own threading salon in Geelong. At the time, women, including Sunil’s wife, would travel an hour to Melbourne to get their eyebrows done.

“Within the first 10 days [of moving to Australia], Sunil came with his laptop. He asked me what I can do and he made pamphlets for me,” Sapna says. “He himself went to put the pamphlets in letterboxes in my area.”

Sapna’s business started with these pamphlets, and an investment of less than $20; a borrowed dressing table, a $15 op shop chair, and some cotton thread. “Within 20 days I started to get phone calls,” she says. Sapna was charging $7 for eyebrow threading back then, and nowadays she charges $20.

Word of mouth was huge for Sapna. The majority of her customers were white Australians who were discovering threading for the first time. She made $600 in her first month, and within three months of kicking off, she was offered a side job in a skin clinic as a threading technician.

While only at the clinic for a small stint, this was where Sapna picked up tricks of the trade as a silent observer. She learned the intricacies of customer service and how to build a positive reputation as a business. “I was not just doing threading, I was talking all the time too. I’d listen to [my customers] and tell my story – that’s very important in business,” she says.  

“And I was using perfume all the time.” Sapna wanted her customers to feel at ease the moment they wanted through the door.

Observing other beauty businesses in Geelong, she also started offering gift vouchers. She then focused on upskilling, expanding her offerings to include facials, waxing, massages, ear-candling, and reiki. 

In many ways, turning the skill of threading into a career is more accessible in Australia than in South Asian countries. In Australia’s context of a growing migrant population, limited industry competition, and higher cost of labour, threading is a skill with a better payoff and a more accessible pathway to economic stability. 

Monika Sidhu touches up a customer's hair.

Monika has seen first hand how pivotal her customers’ trust is. “The first six months, business was very quiet. People don’t want to take a risk, especially with their face,” Monika says. Today, Monika has an ongoing flow of customers. “Now, whoever is coming, they always come back, " she says.

In a similar sense, Sapna is hyper-aware of how important eyebrows are for her customers, many of whom refuse to see any other technician. “One of my customers went to America for six months and when she was coming home, she came directly from the airport to me,” Sapna tells me. “So I never said, ‘no I can’t do today’ even if it was Sunday at 7am, I will do it.” 

While that might sound over the top, it’s not uncommon. The risk of having one’s eyebrow shape ruined by a new technician is a nightmare-inducing terror for clients, which is why many of them go out of their way to avoid visiting new eyebrow technicians.

“You have this moment of fear, sitting in the chair and narrating your preferences, and they nod or add their own ideas (very fear-inducing) to what’s best for your face,” Jasmeet says about visiting a new threading technician.

On the odd occasions I’ve had to get my eyebrows threaded by someone I don’t know, it’s been terrifying. I irritate the technician, and try to micromanage them (I’m not proud of it) despite having no threading skills myself. 

When you find a threading technician you trust with shaping the frame of your face, you cling to them. Knowing this, these women invest deeply in the relationships they build with their clients. They are dedicated, savvy, and entrepreneurial.

What may start with four humble walls, a chair, and some thread has the potential to become a source of economic nourishment and an opportunity to live a far more vibrant life.