Hair; short or long, lose or tightly pulled back, light or dark, is used as a fashion statement. This is true whether you own a full head of it or crop it short or shave it off entirely.
That is why I pay a lot of money for a haircut and style. With visions of a ‘new me’ in mind, I arrived at my local hair salon to have a cut and color. The aesthetician bounced up, all waves of beautiful hair and smiles.
As she worked the color into my hair, I enquired after hers. “Where did you get such beautiful hair?”
I asked this question with some incredulity as her long sweeping locks brushed past my shoulders. I expected to hear about her mother’s genes, her father’s descent from a long line beauties with hair that could be styled in fantastical ways. I did not expect her response.
“Online”, she smiled into the mirror into which we were both peering, each considering the other’s tresses.
I was taken aback. Hair grows on your head. How could you get it ‘online’?
Seeing my confusion, she reached up into her flowing locks of hair and pulled out a single tuft. It had a clip in the end. “They are extensions!”
I had no idea hair extensions could transform limp and fine hair into the stuff which photo shoots are made. Every romantic description of men or women mentions hair. It flows, it blows, it gently caresses the skin, but it is never described as ‘bought online’ and ‘clipped in’. I needed more answers.
I learned two important things: A) it turns out that you can get hair online from many websites. You hire an aesthetician, who is trained in extensions, to attach them by taping, gluing, weaving, sewing, or clipping them into your existing hair. And…
B). Some of the highest quality hair, greatly prized for its softness and for its ‘cuticle’ is branded as Peruvian. Women, and men, sell their hair to be worn by other men and women. Their hair is sold by the ounce and is touted as “the most exclusive and rare type of hair”. (1)
For each question I answered, as if the issue were a hydra head filled with snakes, two more leaped to replace it. Questions about what constitutes ‘beauty’ began to coalesce in my brain. Why do women desire longer, fuller manes when shorter is simpler? According to a Daily Mail 2008 poll, most men prefer women who have long flowing locks to those with shorter cropped hair.
(Daily Mail Poll, Aug. 2008). Men were asked which picture of women’s hair they preferred. Almost half chose the long and wavy look of Cheryl Cole. (2)
However, the men in “Good Hair”, the 2009 documentary about hair by Chris Rock, feel differently about the ‘weave’. Women in the movie discuss extensions and the effect it has on their sense of beauty, while men talk about the effect on their sex lives.
“You don’t touch a black woman’s hair” is the general consensus of the men in the movie. A weave just isn’t something you can run your fingers through. There is also value to ‘smooth hair’ according to Rock’s documentary. “If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy white people aren’t happy”. (3) Using extensions and ‘relaxing’ hair leaves black hair wavy, long and lush.
While Chris Rock’s approach to the issue of hair left me smiling, there were still niggling anthropological questions to be answered … Why do women sell their beautiful hair to be worn by other women? (This question bothered me as images of Edward Gein floated across my vision.)
Hair is a culturally rich part of the body. Some Muslim women cover hair for modesty. Some Catholics have used beautiful mantillas to cover their tresses in church. Some Jewish men wear a kippah to honor God.
Hair is dressed in many ways across the globe. In Peru a woman may wear her hair in braids. Traditionally, indigenous women wore two braids. There is a beauty in the braids, and according to Stephanie Flor in “Around the World Beauty”, she may incorporate yarn into the braid to thicken it so it remains full and beautiful. (4)
The full and beautiful hair that is sold as Peruvian may not be authentic, however. There are concerns in the beauty industry about the authenticity of hair origin. Is the consumer actually buying Peruvian hair? How does it get branded as ‘Peruvian’ hair?
There are many scams.
The website Hello Beautiful calls into question the authenticity of hair origin, noting the common practice of ‘blending’ hair of different regions and treating it by dying, perming and sealing the cuticle with waxy substances that come out after the first washing (some human hair may even be blended with animal hair).
They conclude, “With sales exceeding 12 billion dollars a year, customers should look out for scams and marketing ploys of every kind”. (5) To me, it seems unlikely… or more correctly… impossible that all hair from a particular country is essentially the same, given ethnic diversity.
Getting a cut and color take the better part of a day, so I used my ‘processing’ time to go online to find the pricing for Peruvian hair. I found that for 200 grams, I would pay a “special” price of $122.60. I would need at least 300 grams for 20 inch extensions, according to my hair dresser. The price of the initial insertion would also be about $250 bringing the total to almost $500 for hair and application. Besides these costs, there would also need to be regular adjustments made as my hair grew, that may cost several hundred dollars per adjustment. This did not include the price of coloring the hair to match my own. Within the year the hair would have ‘worn out’ and would need to be replaced. Again, I started to ask questions. How much was the woman who donated the hair getting of my investment?
In this video of a woman getting her hair cut in Peru, she is offered 3/s (less than a dollar) for her 16 inch length. There is huge discrepancy between the value offered to the person who has grown the hair and the cost to person who is buying it. On another website I found a woman in England who was offered almost $150 for her hair, despite the salon owner telling her that ‘if it were any curlier, I couldn’t use it’ (6)
A few years ago, as I was scheduled to undergo chemo treatments, I looked for wigs to replace my own hair. I was happy to find that many people, like my friend Jeremy Clements, donate their hair for others who have none. However, as I sat and considered paying hundreds of dollars to wear another person’s body parts, I saw the extensions in a different light.
For me, it was not worth the money or coping with the ethically challenging questions. Bianca Gascogine, actress and hair extension wearer, explains her feelings like this when asked if she thinks about the people whose hair she is wearing, “I never ask where the hair comes from, I just love it so much. When you have big, bouncy hair you feel a million dollars.”(7)
I laughed and concluded I didn’t need bouncy hair to feel like a million dollars. And the ethics matter too much.
5) Hello Beautiful)