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Chapter 6 (Tom and Kyle)

May 3, 2012

Niko Besnier’s informative ethnography brings to light the present conditions in the postcolonial Global South, focusing on the Tongan island. His work highlights the ways in which segments of this small-scale society hold on to different understandings of modernism, and how it coincides with traditional practices in the twenty-first century.  This includes how to express a modern self without opening oneself to criticism.
Bessnier interest in beauty salons was sparked by earlier research on the transgender known as Leiti.    Beauty in Tongan culture is heavily influenced by the transgender.  Leti identifies more with the women found in western society; focusing on cleanliness, avoiding the sun, and taking on outside labor, characteristics that contradict traditional Tongan culture.  The immense effort put into defining their identity as a “Lady” qualifies them as experts within the beauty industry.  According to Besnier the fact that Leti are still men give them an advantage over their female peers including: added hand strength for massaging clients, the ability to work for longer periods of time.
Traditionally Tongan hair represented power; only select persons could cut the hair of a chief.  Before colonization Tongan hair was long and thick, women’s hair was typically a little shorter.  Long hair signifies masculinity a concept that remains true today.  Baldness, although rare in Tongan men is seen as inferior.  According to Besnier, “…references to Western men’s stereotypical ineffectiveness, lack of virility, and unattractiveness” (pg. 166).  Hair style for women is dictated by social restraint.  The social norm for women is to be worn tight while in public, but can be loosened in a private setting, or when mourning the loss of a loved one.  Loosing of the hair is a way for women to resist social control.
Besnier reports that during the 1980’s beauty salons in Nukualofa were obsolete; hair was cut more out of necessity than for style.  By 2008 Besnier counted approximately 41 hair salons operating in the countries capital, not counting the salons in outlying areas.  What caused the sudden emergence in the beauty salon industry? Besnier suggests that opening a salon is a more glamorous and attractive business, unlike a business in food handling (pg. 168).    Another possible cause is the increase in importance Tongan women place on their appearance is consistent with their culture’s modernity, a way of expressing one’s self in today’s world.
The world of beauty salons represents the socio-economic and cultural changes taking place in Tonga.  People residing in rural areas tend to be more traditional and less affluent than those living in urban areas.  In traditional Tongan culture, physical signs of aging are acceptable and should not be concealed.  Aging people find youthfulness through interacting with their children and grandchildren.  Traditional Tongans view the modern women’s attempts at covering up signs of aging as “selfish” and should only be pursued by younger Tongans.  However, for the modern Tongan women, trips to the salon represent their breaking away from the social constraint of traditional Tongan culture.


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