Botox on the black market: inside Buenos Aires' hidden hair salons
On a Tuesday afternoon in downtown Buenos Aires local hairdresser Lorena is lathering Botox paste on to a customer’s scalp. In Argentine hair parlance, “Botox” actually refers to a mixture of vitamins, caviar oil and collagen designed to give your hair some shine. It’s all the rage among Porteñas – natives of the capital.
Another client croons in the background of Lorena’s living room while two others wait on the couch. Framed pictures of toddlers grinning toothlessly hang above their heads. The four women chat about their children’s schools, inflation, and the bizarre world of hair maintenance, but are soon interrupted by Lorena’s four-year-old twins, Facu and Sofía, with their pet cat in tow, who have come to request their afternoon snack.
Lorena, my hairdresser, works out of her small apartment. The bathroom serves as a washing station, the living room as both centre of operations and waiting area. The whole business is illegal: it doesn’t have a permit and isn’t registered with local tax authorities. But thanks to Argentina’s sprawling informal economy – which – clandestine hair salons such as Lorena’s are not only managing to survive, but are also allowing women, especially mothers, to carve out autonomy for themselves in a male-dominated society.
There are many reasons why women choose to open their own businesses en negro (under the table) in Argentina: to avoid despotic bosses and getting cheated by commission-based salaries, or simply because they’re unable to satisfy the host of bureaucratic demands one must meet to legally launch a business. But the chief reason for Lorena and her colleagues is motherhood.
“When you have kids, they get sick, and if you’re employed, you have to continue working. You have to put in your eight hours a day,” Lorena explains.
Argentine policy allows for three months’ (two days of paternity) and requires employers to reduce new mothers’ working hours. However, bosses often don’t comply with these stipulations.
Lorena had her first child 10 years ago while working full-time in a salon. She was a single mother with no help from family or friends. “I fought a lot with my boss because I had to leave work at 7pm at the very latest to pick my daughter up from daycare. He’d get mad because I couldn’t take on more customers,” she says.
So when she became pregnant with twins five years ago, she decided to open her apartment to customers. “I can organise my time how I want this way. It’s easier.” Thanks to lax law enforcement, she isn’t fearful of being exposed for working outside the system.
“Police aren’t concerned with what goes on behind closed doors, they’re more worried by more ‘visible’ forms of the black market, like manteros [street pedlars], who are of a different nationality [often Bolivian or Peruvian] and who people accuse of coming to Argentina to ‘steal jobs’,” explains economist Mercedes D’Alessandro, whose organisation provides economic data and analysis with a view on gender.
Since hairdressing is at the service of middle-class consumerism and doesn’t “sully” the streets of Buenos Aires, Lorena is safe from scrutiny.
Valeria, a beautician and hair stylist, also began working out of her home to play a more active role in her children’s education. “When your kids start going to school, there are so many things to do – homework, parent-teacher conferences, school plays – and I couldn’t do them working at the salon. Your boss doesn’t give you permission to go,” she says.
Argentina’s thriving comprises 33.4% of the working population, according to the latest government figures. Legitimate businesses will often employ a combination of workers en blanco (formally) and en negro (under the table) because it’s easier and cheaper to do so. But for those working in the underground economy, they are not eligible for healthcare, social security or retirement pay.
Lorena and Valeria are covered through their current spouses, and as their own bosses and as part of a stable socioeconomic bracket, both are in a more privileged position than many other women in the informal economy, who are typically paid 40% less than men in the same situation. The gender in the formal economy is 27%.
Aside from seeking a better economic foothold, another reason women turn to informal work is often less a matter of choice. Valeria explains that an ex-partner’s abusive behaviour and threats to take her daughter forced her to take refuge inside the house.
“I had to give up working downtown in order to protect myself as well as my children. Since he knew I worked there, he would come here to the house and be violent,” she says. “Honestly, I feel much safer working in my house because I feel as though my children are much better protected, and me too.”
Valeria’s experience sheds light on the bleak reality of gender-based violence in Argentina. Expressed as piropos (catcalls) at its most “innocuous”, murder at its worst, women across the country have recently mobilised under the rallying cry (Not One Less) following a string of .
Florencia Alcaraz, a journalist and Ni Una Menos representative, says the movement is increasingly focused on securing women’s financial autonomy to fight femicide.
“We need women to be economically independent to get out of these cycles of violence. We have a saying here that goes, ‘Women are the face of poverty in ,’ and it’s a reality,” she says.
Argentina’s economy is currently reeling under harsh austerity measures and 40% annual . According to the , national unemployment stands at 9.3%. If you take into account the number of “housewives” not getting paid for their work, as D’Alessandro, Alcaraz and most Argentine feminists do, unemployment for women in Argentina is almost three times that.
But with basic policy changes, women could find firmer footing, says Alcaraz. “There should be more of a push toward micro businesses to formalise [women working out of their living rooms], because it’s one thing for a woman to be her own boss – which is fantastic – but to make it sustainable, there should be incentives and some kind of structure provided by the state to help businesses grow.”
For the time being, Lorena is weathering the difficult economy remarkably well – women haven’t stopped tending to their locks. She hopes to open a formal salon one day, but that will have to wait until her children are older. “Maybe when they’re 10,” she says. “We’ll see.”
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