Hair Extensions and the Beauty Myth
Do you know where your weave comes from?
When I was 17, I cut off all my hair, packed it into a large envelope and sent it to a charity that made wigs for children with leukemia. I remember a friend at the time expressing horror: “Isn’t it creepy that some kid is wearing your hair?”
I had to concede that it was slightly creepy. And yet, one in twenty women are doing exactly that — wearing other people’s hair. This is hardly new: hair extensions actually date all the way back to ancient times.
A very hairy history
We have the Egyptians to thank for bolstering the notion that one could be made more beautiful by adorning one’s head with the hair of others. The Romans introduced the element of exploitation, with wealthy Roman wives upping their volume of their coiffure by making wigs out of the hair of slaves. Then the Edwardians in England turned hair into a commercial venture by harvesting working-class women’s hair for sale to aristocratic ladies.
So it should be no surprise to learn the precise origins of the ‘100% real human hair’ sold in hundreds of Australian salons as coming from some of the poorest regions of the world, namely Asia and Eastern Europe.
When Victoria Beckham joked back in the 2000s that her hair extensions came from Russian prisoners, her PR team were quick to leap in with amendments and apologies. But it turned out Posh was not far off the mark once it was revealed that Moscow prison guards were making a side business out of selling off the shaven locks of their female inmates.
Where hair comes from
From Russia to India, collectors scour female populations, convincing impoverished women to part with their hair for a fraction of the price it fetches in salons in the developed countries. Reports have emerged of ‘hair factories’ which draw women in poor countries with no other viable income to feed their families.
In India, hair is often sourced from temples who rake in millions of dollars selling the hair that is discarded on the temple floor during a Hindu cleansing ritual. Even more disturbing stories from India have husbands coercing their wives to sell their hair, street children being paid for hair in toys, and attacks on women by gangs forcibly removing their hair.
From there, hair is cleaned, sorted, bleached and treated then shipped to salons in Australia where women pay upwards of several hundred dollars to have it attached to their own for a period of a few months before it needs to be replaced. The developing world already supplies us with our commodities, our cheap labour force, our offshore factories and call centres, so why not our hair?
The meaning of hair
Women’s hair has always been recognised as a marker of identity. When Jo March cut her hair to help her family in Little Women, the unselfishness of the sacrifice resonated with 19th century readers — she had given up her “one beauty”.
Across cultures, hair takes on different significance: Hindu women shave if off and offer it to the god Vishnu while followers of Orthodox Judaism and Islam cover their hair for modesty, as do Catholic nuns. The debate on how women should wear their hair and how much and when they should expose it is as old as time. The importance of hair is no lesser for the women of Russia and India who are selling it off than it is for the women of Australia, America and Europe who are buying it.
Hair is beauty. According to Naomi Wolf’s searing indictment of The Beauty Myth in her 1991 bestseller, “inside the majority of the West’s controlled, attractive, successful working women, there is a secret ‘underlife’ poisoning our freedom; infused with notions of beauty, it is a dark vein of self-hatred, physical obsessions, terror of aging, and dread of lost control.” Wolf argues that the fixation on physical appearance in the West, as well as increasingly unattainable notions of what constitutes beauty, is perpetuated by the media and serves the interests of the fashion and cosmetics industries.
Growth of the hair industry
The popularity of hair weaves has soared in the last few decades, resulting in a market that is growing annually by a remarkable 40 percent, contributing to a multi-billion dollar hair industry worldwide. This boom coincides with the rise of the cult of the celebrity which has brought the wearing of hair extensions out into the open rather than being, as it once was, a shameful secret. At the same time, technological advancements have driven the cost down so that hair weaves are no longer the exclusive domain of the incredibly wealthy.
However, it is not just beauty that is being packaged and sold to image-obsessed women of the West but a particular kind of beauty. In Australia’s best salons, ‘virgin’ or ‘pure’ Russian hair extensions will set you back almost $2000, twice the cost of Asian hair. In the US, the largest market for hair products is the African-American community with over 70% percent of black women applying damaging and toxic chemicals to their heads in an attempt to transform their natural frizz into so-called ‘good hair’ ie white person’s hair.
Just as many Asian and Arabic women bleach their skin in order to lighten it, the ideal of beauty that is being sold by celebrity culture is one that is shamelessly and exclusively a white, western and wealthy one. In the case of hair extensions, it is being sold on the backs (or heads) of women who are often none of these things.
Wolf anticipates a future in which “poor women will be pressed to sell actual body material — breasts or skin or hair or fat — to service the reconstruction of rich women.”
In the hair industry, at least, this grim vision of the world already exists.