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Taiwan's 'betel nut beauties' drum up business,
 
 
 
 
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Outsiders often assume the industry is a cover for prostitution. Although some cases may exist, experts say, doing 12-hour shifts in a glass box isn't exactly conducive to "the world's oldest profession," which is amply served by the island's many barber shops and escort services.

"Everyone has preconceived notions, but they're not necessarily true," says Tobie Openshaw, a photographer who has chronicled this salacious but socially accepted world. "They are underdogs, misunderstood, real people with real dreams."

Most stands feature glaring neon lights and a large mirror designed to draw attention to the women. Not exactly subtle, but it stops traffic. At which point the women teeter to the curb in their high heels, bend into the car window suggestively and hand over a couple of packets of betel nuts and a plastic cup for drivers to spit into.

Many of the women recruited by the booth owners are dropouts, single parents or runaways from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, says Christian Wu, an artist and scholar, named the unofficial "Minister of Betel Nut Beauties" by Taiwan's Art Critic magazine for her long-standing work with the community.

"The average age is 14 to 17," Wu says. "By 20, you're often too old."

The businesses are legal, but many are owned by gangsters who bribe police to alert them of pending raids, allowing them to hide underage workers. Where women once faced pressure from heavy-handed owners, a commission system now puts more of the onus on the women to decide how they want to dress, allowing some to earn upward of $50,000 a year. This has prompted a debate in Taiwan's academia over whether they are being empowered or exploited.

Current and former betel nut beauties say owners give new recruits some basic tips on what to wear and how to act -- let your hand linger when passing off the nuts, wear an oversized bra, smile, wave at motorists -- but ultimately the women develop their own style.
 
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