Modernity is the driving force behind women who continue a trend that has swept the globe for more than three decades for hair extensions. This multi billion dollar industry is layered thick at the expense of the poor by the demands of the wealthy, under the premises of beauty.
Hair. There is a reason religions around the world cover it up, either covering it or shaving it in efforts to rid themselves of their ego, or to hide themselves from promiscuous advances. As humans, without it we are lost; beauty and identity fades.
From ancient Egypt we begin to see the recycling of hair. By making good use of knots, beeswax and resin, the ancient Egyptians would shave their heads and create towering wigs to be used instead. The Manchu women and men of China held hair in great regard, it was so important to them that if a man was caught without his long braided cue he could be executed.
Along with the collection of plastic bottles and knife sharpening services, Aiyi’s and Shushu’s also collect hair. The buying and selling of human hair has been an industry here for as long as can be remembered and is even stronger today. “收长头发！收小辫子! Shōu zhǎng tóufǎ! shōu xiǎo biànzi! Long hair! Also accept small plait!” People of Nanjing are occasionally awoken by this solemn repetitive below that makes its way through the hutongs (small alleyways) of every xiao qu (neighbourhood) across the city.
More prevalent in the countryside is the collection of “virgin hair”. Sold on the market for upwards of £100 a piece. Virgin hair is named so due to its untouched nature. It has not been dyed, heated, treated or washed too many times and because of this it is the most desired human hair extension in the industry. Unfortunately, young girls from China and India to Peru and Brazil are handing over their hair for pittance.
Obviously this is a way for poor women from impoverished areas of the world to earn some money. Unfortunately, while yes hair does grow back, the money they are paid for their hair is far below industry standard and one woman can only sell her hair once a year, which denies any sort of sustainable income.
In China young girls mainly from rural areas sell their hair regularly, whether to make money for themselves or for their families. This hair is then taken to a reprocessing factory where it is cleaned and painstakingly detangled and sorted into small bunches. After this, most of the hair ends up in Henan province where it is distributed to Europe, Australia, New Zealand and America for use.
Not all the hair leaves the country; some of it remains and is found in beauty parlors all over China. Speaking with the Nanjinger in Xinjiekou Fashion Lady’s nail and beauty den, parlor owner and beautician Mrs. Wang Wen spoke about existing and growing trends among her Chinese clients. “I have been applying hair extensions for more than 10 years, we get it from the factories and the factories get it from the aiyi’s whom collect it from neighbourhoods. They cycle around the neighbourhoods repeating a recorded message that calls for people to come out and sell their hair. Most of the time they [my clients] worry the hair is coming from dead people. But once I’ve assured them it comes from a person who’s alive they don’t worry anymore”.
“Most Chinese woman will come to elongate the hair as it’s more beautiful but a lot also come to thicken their hair. Now my clients prefer to recycle the extensions they have; when it grows longer we cut it for them and add it to the top to create thickness,” Mrs. Wen said.
“Like I said, I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years and the patterns have remained the same, I predict they will continue to remain the same for the next 10, long thick hair is strongly desired in China,” she said.
Tirupathi temple in Bangalore, India reportedly earns $2m a year selling Indian virgin hair at auction. Devotees promise that if their prayers are answered they will return to the temple to have their heads shaved. Women and children have been photographed and documented all over India donating their hair to temples. What money is made at auction from the hair is at the temples discretion to do what they like with. More often than not any profits made do not filter back into the community.
One such buyer of Tirupathi temple hair is Italian hair giant Great Lengths. It is this company that during the 1980s convinced people that hair extensions is not “just for strippers”. Big companies such as Great Lengths and China’s Rebecca Inc. claim to follow the labour laws in whichever countries they operate, but investigations have revealed this is not always the case.
Rebecca Inc. Henan claims the company has “total assets of ¥3.7 billion, more than 11,000 employees and covers an are of over 700,000 meters”. It also claims that it “strictly obeys state laws and regulations and adheres to people-oriented managements concepts”. However, allegations have been made about ethical standards of practice by which the hair is processed. Rebecca Inc. has been accused of using forced prison labour in Xuchang city No. 3 Labour Camp in order to process hair cheaper, allegations which they have denied.
These days, the UK is the third largest importer of human hair and it is astounding just how many women use hair extensions. To the untrained eye, one would not even know if a woman was wearing extensions or not. The demand for human hair extensions in our throwaway society means cheap labour will continue to happen in impoverished places.
“Hair stylists keep the prices artificially high”, said Flores, “It’s like a dirty little industry secret”. Women could buy the extension directly, install it themselves or bring it to their hair stylist and save a bundle,” reported Geri Stengle, Forbes magazine. But most women do not even think about buying the extensions separately and take them to the salon, let alone installing them at home. So who is making the money here? Big companies and big salons. It seems both the suppliers and the demanders come off second best here; both are getting ripped off yet again by an industry that promotes artificial beauty.
Zimbabwe has recently banned the import of human hair after it was reported her people blew $13m last year on fake hair alone. Women of Nigeria, Camaroon and South Africa also spent an estimated $1.1b on their hair last year. Even in countries of lesser wealth the demand is high. The desire to be beautiful is high.
It is all fine and well to go on about the injustices of cheap labour from within the human hair recycling industry, but once almost every woman has her first Repunzel look installed, the princess addiction is hard to stop. Most women do not even consider where the hair came from or how it got there, all they know is it makes them look beautiful. They do not need to know anymore.
Bloomsbury London is a company in which specialises in making wigs for clients who have lost their hair due to chemotherapy or other illnesses. Their custom made wigs are made from British recycled hair bought at £50-150 for 16 to 18 inches and are very realistic. When clients are fitted with their new head of hair it is written all over their faces, they are given a new lease on life, their confidence skyrockets again after years of vulnerability and heartache.
In the last 5 years there has been a 75% growth in the industry and professionals claim this is due to product innovation and improved technology. While recycled hair is used for vanity purposes for the most part, it remains important to give people the opportunity they deserve. Everyone deserves to be beautiful but not at the cost of others.