Beauty in a World of Ugly

The journey of Kajol, a transgender, towards beauty and self-respect

There is nothing exceptional about ‘Look Me’, a beauty parlor in central Tamil Nadu, India: A modest two-room set up, it is equipped to provide services like haircuts, eyebrow trimming, waxing, facials and bridal make up. But, as the first and only beauty parlor run in the state by a transgender, it is one of a kind. Meet Kajol, a transgender who has transcended her community’s traditional occupations of begging, dancing at weddings and prostitution in search of a new identity.

“There is a special connection between a transgender and the concept of beauty because it holds the charm of an ideal: irresistible and unattainable at the same time,” says Kajol, who established the parlor over a year ago.

She walks around the parlor showing off the latest additions she has made, stopping more than once in front of a mirror to check herself out. A little self-conscious, she confesses to using a lot of her products on herself. “Even before I became a beautician, I have always obsessed with the way I dress up and present myself to this world. Now, it’s just part of my job.”

Her pursuit of beauty began even before she found the courage to declare herself as a transgender to the world. “By the time I entered college, I had found my way to other transgenders in the city, with whom I could truly be myself,” she says, “and though I did not give up dressing as a man, I lost interest in college and dropped out.”

Kajol, then, enrolled in a beautician training course at the local Industrial Training Institute. “Once I completed the course, I began a mobile salon (for men alone) on my moped and was soon offering my services to men as well as transgenders,” she recollects. Around the same time, her friends in the community introduced her to a Non Governmental Organization (NGO) that worked with transgenders for their welfare. “Despite being a college dropout, I was still the most educated in my community and I was able to help the NGO secure further funding,” says Kajol.

Eventually, she began working regularly at the NGO, because it not only gave her an excuse to leave home, but also helped her make some important contacts within the mainstream media and government bodies. “I made myself essential to the NGO and worked hard at creating proposals and helping others benefit from various governmental schemes,” says Kajol, who found working with people far more satisfying than her clandestine work as a beautician. Soon, she completely immersed herself in the work of the NGO and used to provide her services as a beautician at the office only during break time.

However, things turned sour between Kajol and her transgender boss at the NGO, and she established her own NGO, Social Action for Emancipation (SAFE). “It was at this juncture that the contacts and goodwill I had gathered previously came to my rescue,” says Kajol. SAFE has enabled seven transgenders to get their driving license and enrolled one transgender (previously involved in prostitution) in a nursing course among other efforts.

When the state government announced that it would offer subsidized loans to transgenders for setting up small businesses, Kajol’s friend and district administrator, Jayashree Muralidharan convinced her to open a parlor that catered to women. Initially, she was wary of stepping outside her community and seeking acceptance from a society that generally shunned transgenders.

“I have never understood why a country that worships Lord Ardhanareshwar, the fused form of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, should attach such stigma to transgenders. We are but a man and a woman fused together,” she rues.

However, with support coming in from the district administrator, she secured a loan and began the process of setting up her parlor. “Though I had the required money at hand, I faced several roadblocks like businessmen assuming I was asking them for a donation, when I was looking for a quotation. Landlords refused to rent their properties and carpenters, plumbers, painters and electricians either feared to work for me or did substandard work.”

While it took her three months to open shop, Kajol felt her daily movement in the area had generated a healthy curiosity about her. “And when members of the local administration and the media swarmed to attend the inauguration of my parlor, it really gave my business a stamp of approval,” she recalls proudly. Her first few customers always came with a bunch of friends, possibly because they were still scared of being alone with a transgender. “But even that turned out to be positive word-of mouth publicity for my parlor and the way I conducted myself,” she laughs.

Today, she is thankful for the unconditional support most of the residents have extended.

“In the beginning when business was slow, my existing customers kept coming back for some other service just to encourage me and keep me afloat; and there were others who welcomed me into their homes, offering me lunch and refreshments,” she beams.

The men in the area, she adds, are very respectful too. Recently, Kajol had to appoint a receptionist to manage the flow of customers, which has grown manifold in the past few months.

“I chose an upcoming residential locality like Ariyamangalam over a busy main street because I wanted to build trust and a brand for myself- make mine the only parlor that the residents of this area would go to,” she explains. She also regularly attends seminars on the latest trends and products in the beauty industry, besides looking up new hair dos and make-up on YouTube. Kajol hopes to have a dedicated television show someday.

Like any success story, this too has a downside: Instead of finding inspiration in her success, the transgender community feels threatened, according to Kajol. In a community as closed as theirs, her individual success had unseen repercussions. “Many of them are angry because people are now refusing to give them alms and are in fact advising them to follow me,” she claims. And there were others who walked into the parlor as a group during business hours, to scare away her customers.

“Over time, I realized that I couldn't change the lives of other transgenders just because I had seen the other side to life- they have to see it too,” she says. But, what really enrages Kajol is the endless soliciting she continues to face on roads and buses.

“I am ready to view the men in this society without sexual desire, but they will never be ready. I might have accepted it in the past, but now as someone who runs a mainstream business I want to be treated better.”

Note: The interview with Kajol was conducted in 2013. The author is presently unaware of any changes in the life of Kajol and her beauty parlour.