The Hair Hustle

May 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

We all know that hair is big business.  Barbershops, salons, peluquerías, or a парикма́херская can make a lot of money.  Part of the reason why barbers and stylists can do this is that we tend to bestow so much meaning to our mops.  Despite the fact that hair may tell a lot about an individual, it’s really just junk.  No, seriously!  It’s as much junk as your fingernails are.  It’s a bunch of protein filaments growing out of our skin.  Like a lot of other animals, humans produce quite a bit of it.  In fact, we have more than our chimpanzee cousins, but it grows funny on us.

Like our fellow primates, we tend to spend a great deal of time grooming.  A lot of the conversations that anthropologists tend to have regarding hair covers a few important areas.  We tend to think about hair’s relationship to notions of beauty.  We talk a lot about the social nature of these popular practices.  Plenty of us know that countless professionals earn incomes in the hair industry, but how often do we think about the political economy of the natural resource that is hair? Timothy Williams’ NYT piece deals with some of these questions.

That’s right, I’m talking about the social and economic relationships linked to extensions.

When we talk about the human hair trade in 2011, we’re talking about a system of production and consumption in which embodied labor (growing hair) influences economic, social, and cultural life in local spaces throughout the world.  We’re not talking about something as major as sugar’s role in the development of Europe here, but it’s fair to say that hair is of economic importance.

Williams’ article offers a glance at some the related phenomena taking place in US cities (he focuses on theft, violence, and the black market in what appears to be Black communities).  In my opinion, the most interesting thing about this hair trade is that there is a hierarchy of hair, and a limited supply of the good stuff.  Remy happens to be just that.  It comes straight from India (that’s what they say).  And it’s not just any Indian hair.  This top of the line hair apparently comes from the heads of women who “have their heads shaved as a sign of having mastered their egos” (it almost sounds like going shopping for organic produce instead of the pesticide-ridden stuff that the masses consume).

But what goes into mastering ego?  I’d like to know a little about the social costs of shaving a woman’s head in India.  I assume that mastering one’s ego is quite a feat, and probably one that most women don’t care to attempt without receiving payment.  The sale/donation of hair grants what in exchange?  Who are these women?  Where are the donors from?  How might a shaved head influence job prospects?  What is the relationship between marriage and a shaved head?  Generally, how might this supplementary income effect individuals, families, or communities?  Hair means a great deal to us all, but what are some of the material and cultural results of this trade?

I assume that if the hair is expensive for customers in the US (“$200 per package, and the average head requires at least 2 packages” according to Williams), the cost is way higher for whoever produces it.  At least, that’s how sugar was.

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§ One Response to The Hair Hustle

  • Shariq Torres says:

    In his movie, Good Hair, Chris Rock speaks a little bit on this practice. He even goes to a factory where the collected hair is washed and woven together to make a market-ready headpiece.

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