On the Subject of Selling Hair

Blond Extensions

This story from last week’s New York Times is still haunting me and it seems like nobody really took much notice, so we better: Poor Russian women are selling their blond hair for around $50 a braid, so you can pay an average of $439 for glorious golden extensions.

This actually made the gray lady’s front page, which surprised me — except for how this piece got top billing there too, so clearly, somebody at the ole NYT has a hair fetish, methinks — because this isn’t quite news. Indian women sell or donate their hair in religious ceremonies all the time, as everyone knows if they saw the Chris Rock movie. In fact, (brunette) hair from Asian countries makes up the majority of the $250 million per year human hair extension market. And the NYT reports that blond women have been selling their hair since the 1960s, only now the demand has substantially increased thanks to extensioned-out stars like Jessica Simpson and my hair crush Blake Lively.

I’m a soft touch when it comes to hair — I cried buckets when Jo sold hers in Little Women — but crowning glory rhetoric aside, doesn’t this whole practice feels like a bad Disney movie in the making? Only instead of Cruella Deville chasing puppies, we’ll have some pretty-yet-plucky blonde (with the Indian chick as her sarcastic sidekick, I mean, it is Disney) running from a cartoon Kevin Paves wielding evil magic scissors, with her spun-gold tresses hidden under a jaunty newsboy cap.

And yet, it’s far more real than that.

So many black women have this lifelong struggle against their natural hair texture, which starts young (check out this awesome news story about a black mom who decided to cut off her extensions after her five-year-old daughter talked about hating her own hair) and never really ends unless they decide to wear it super short once they hit middle age, as Debra J. Dickerson explains over on DoubleX.

Meanwhile, all these Indian, Russian and insert-other-poor-countries-with-great-hair-here women are selling off these pieces of their bodies for grocery money. So their more affluent sisters can achieve cartoonishly long, volumized hair.

Which, by the way, most of us still don’t even realize isn’t real — I just had to break the whole “yes it’s extensions” news about Blake Lively to a good friend last week, and I spent most of last summer in denial myself about the girls on Pretty Little Liars. Like Photoshopping and really good plastic surgery, you can know extensions are out there happening somewhere.. and still not know them when they’re right smack there in front of you, making you feel inadequate about your own hair’s naturally flat top and just-below-the-shoulders stopping point.

In short, human hair extensions make everyone’s hair worth less. While costing you a small fortune.

But this is a tough one for me, because extensioned-up hair just looks so damn good. And I spend hours trying to make my growing-out-of-my-own-head hair look like that, to no avail, so I have to admit, there have been moments where I’d think, well gosh, that just makes sense. Sure you have to spend hundreds of dollars and hours in a salon chair, but then you get to walk around with hair that just looks right all the time, without stressing about it. Golly, just talking about it makes me want some! This is definitely one of those beauty standards that I feel somewhere deep in my bones.

But I’ve held back from actually Going There because the new white girl extensions are, also like plastic surgery, one of those shallow beauty things that smart girls/feminists/anyone who purports to appreciate “natural beauty” supposedly doesn’t do.

I actually think that was kind of a dumb reason, because it was mostly just about adhering to another (equally unhelpful) standard.

But now that I know this whole human back story, I’m feeling a little relieved that it held me back. This whole idea of rich women wearing the hair of poorer women like some badge of honor is creepy in a very primitive, almost cannibalistic way. And now I don’t have to run my fingers through my hair and wonder, who was this woman that it originally belonged to? Where is she now? Did she cry after she cut it off or was she relieved to have all that weight gone? And was the $50 she earned enough to make any kind of difference in her life?

Okay, I know I just maybe sort of called you cannibals, but has anyone here gone the human extensions route? Will you tell us how awesome they are and any feelings you might have about this whole idea of where the hair comes from?

And, everyone else: Thoughts about selling hair, in general?

[Photo: “Girl Getting Long Hair Extensions” by D. Sharon Pruitt of Pink Sherbet Photography, via Flickr’s Creative Commons License.]

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10 Comments

Filed under Hair, Happenings

10 responses to “On the Subject of Selling Hair

  1. Denise

    It wouldn’t be so bad if the people that sold their hair got the money that it’s worth. The whole idea of making that much money because people are so depraved that they would sell their hair for $50 is a disgraceful situation.

  2. From the time I was a kid until about the age 25, I would secretly wish that I was Asian (I’m Black) so that I could have long black hair. I’ve spent my entire life with short hair in various cute, but relaxed styles. Over 9 months I spent maybe $1000 on hair extensions that gave my a “normal” length of hair, but also left me in physical pain (the braids in which the weave was woven were sooooo tight I had to take a vicodin the first two nights every time I got my hair done) and I still felt horrible about myself. I went back to wearing my hair short and straight until last year I decided to cut it off and just wear my natural, short, extremely thick hair. Its like a weight has been lifted off my self esteem. I’m really glad there are women like you and the girls at curlynikki on the net casting a critical eye on the emotional and economical business of hair.

    Also, ‘we’ll have some pretty-yet-plucky blonde (with the Indian chick as her sarcastic sidekick, I mean, it is Disney) running from a cartoon Kevin Paves wielding evil magic scissors, with her spun-gold tresses hidden under a jaunty newsboy cap.’ isn’t this the plot to Disney’s “Tangled”? Kidding.

  3. Merethe

    I have never thought about selling my hair, but I have thought about donating it, to make natural-looking wigs for cancer patients.

  4. Maggie

    Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as easy as “don’t buy hair extentions” or “don’t go to Vienamese manicurists” or “don’t buy clothes made in sweatshops.” At the end of the day, that’s how somebody makes their money. Boycotting those kinds of businesses sends a message to exploitative corporations and business owners, ideally, but I remember reading a year or so ago about how various anti-sweatshop efforts were so successful somewhere in Africa (sorry I can’t be more specific than that…) that the companies simply moved to Southeast Asia, where the changes hadn’t taken place. Leaving a lot of very poor people even poorer. Now, I’m not going to run out and get me some waist-length hair to ensure that some Russian girl somewhere gets her $50, but if we really want to end this kind of exploitation we need to look at the global economy and what’s causing women to be so poor that they sell their hair.

  5. knb

    I have gotten human hair extensions. Yes. I am a white girl, who wanted long wavy perfect black/brown hair. I wanted to look like Betty Page.
    So I went to a salon that a friend recommended, had a consultation, was told where to go to buy it, how many tracks/inches, etc. I went to the warehouse….WAREHOUSE…of hair, where you walk up to a small desk in front of rows and rows of shelves of…hair. She took a look at my hair color and texture, then disappeared into the maze (it was like the warehouse in Indiana Jones. really) and then returned with four or five boxes. She took a bit out of each, and held them next to my own hair, and finally decided on one. I walked away with about5 tracks (i would guess about 20 inches?) for some exorbitant amount. The next day, I went to the salon at FIVE AM (because I am white, I think my hair is harder to braid, and then sew the extensions into…it takes longer so I had to go before they even opened) where I was sat next to Iman getting her extensions done. Which was awesome. It hurt so much I cried, but they did an amazing job.
    I guess the reason I wrote all of this was to say…the extension still took styling. Alot more than I was used to because of the amount of hair I had now. Because my hair is naturally thick, she had to match the thickness, so it was REALLY heavy and gave me headaches. After being washed and air dried it was a very tight curly wavy texture that I had no idea what to do with. The thing I find interesting is that people think that the extensions are what make starlets hair look amazing and bouncy and wavy…but it is the stylists, running around behind them tirelessly.
    Human hair is just that. The same stuff that the woman who’s head it grew out of was complaining about all the time, just like you complain about yours…flat, thin, curly, coarse, etc. I don’t think ANYONE’S hair naturally looks like what Blake Lively’s looks like. Clearly, not even Blake Lively.

  6. camelshoes

    I’m in Australia and I’ve sold my hair before – about 8 years ago. I went to a particular salon where they buy hair (it has to be ‘virgin’ hair – never dyed or permed etc). They bought it by weight, and my almost-butt-length hair (which I had cut to just above shoulders) only weighed enough to get me $20. However, the salon then told me that they tend to give the hair to wig makers that make wigs for cancer patients. So perhaps it was just a nominal fee. But I did wonder afterwards if I should have donated my hair instead?

    • Maggie

      Locks for Love doesn’t require “virgin” hair, at least according to the stylist who cut mine when I donated. Mine still had the vestiges of blue dye in it.

  7. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as easy as “don’t buy hair extentions” or “don’t go to Vienamese manicurists” or “don’t buy clothes made in sweatshops.” At the end of the day, that’s how somebody makes their money. Boycotting those kinds of businesses sends a message to exploitative corporations and business owners, ideally, but I remember reading a year or so ago about how various anti-sweatshop efforts were so successful somewhere in Africa (sorry I can’t be more specific than that…) that the companies simply moved to Southeast Asia, where the changes hadn’t taken place. Leaving a lot of very poor people even poorer. Now, I’m not going to run out and get me some waist-length hair to ensure that some Russian girl somewhere gets her $50, but if we really want to end this kind of exploitation we need to look at the global economy and what’s causing women to be so poor that they sell their hair.

  8. Pingback: Pretty Price Check (05.27.11) | Beauty Schooled

  9. Anna

    I recently decided to grow my hair out and while at the salon my regular stylist suggested I try extensions ‘Just to see’. At first I was into it, but I got price quote first. She said it was be around $500 because of the amount of hair I have and the hair it will take to mimic that. Yeah, no thanks, I’d like to be able to actually see my family once this year. 0.0

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