The Guardian today reports on a story Socialist Courier posted about back in March - the business of selling human hair.
Hair extensions sales are up to £60m a year and growing (pardon the pun). Last year HM Revenue and Customs recorded more than £38m worth of hair (human, with some mixed human and animal) entering the country, making the UK the third biggest importer of human hair in the world.
Yet behind the profitis what hair historian Caroline Cox calls the "dark side" of the industry. Most hair comes from countries where long, natural hair remains a badge of beauty - but where the women are poor enough to consider selling a treasured asset. Much of the hair on sale comes from small agents who tour villages in India, China, and eastern Europe, offering poverty-stricken women small payments to part with their hair. As one importer, based in Ukraine, told the New York Times recently: "They are not doing it for fun. Usually only people who have temporary financial difficulties in depressed regions sell their hair." More worryingly, back in 2006, the Observer reported that in India some husbands were forcing their wives into selling their hair, slum children were being tricked into having their heads shaved in exchange for toys, and in one case a gang stole a woman's hair, holding her down and cutting it off. Moscow Centre for Prison Reform admitted warders were forcibly shaving and selling the hair of prisoners.
In temples in south India devotees travel for hundreds of miles and queue for hours to have their hair tonsured, or ritually shaved. Some have prayed for a child, others for a sick relative or a good harvest, and when their prayers are answered they offer up their hair. According to one report, most are rural women whose hair has often never been dyed, blow-dried, or even cut and is worth around £200. The hair is then sorted and sold, often by online auction. Last year Tirumala temple, apparently made 2,000m rupees (more than £22m), from auctioning hair.
Cox points out that such exploitation has underpinned the industry since false fronts and hair pieces became popular in the UK in Edwardian times. "It's taking advantage of those who are disadvantaged," she says. "Working-class women's hair is used to bedeck the head of those who are more privileged. It's been going on for hundreds of years." According to Cox extensions, like long fake nails, are status symbols. "If you have long nails, there is a suggestion you have a lot of leisure time. If hair costs a lot to do, and to keep up, there is the same suggestion. It's almost as though you are living the life of a The Only Way is Essex girl or glamour model." Cox explains that "The fashion for such a long time has been about the glorification of artificiality. Fake tans, fake teeth, fake boobs and fake nails – and you need fake hair to go with all that. The whole idea of beauty is [now] predicated on artificiality and getting rid of humanness – waxing every hair from your body but putting fake hair on your head."