Black Gold: where and who hair extensions come from
December 1, 2016 2:38 PM   Subscribe

Obligatory link to the trailer for Good Hair. Here's a clip about the Indian hair trade.

I'd really rather just watch that again than read overblown pearl clutching like this:

Hair extensions are sold in New Zealand salons like slabs of meat in butcheries.
posted by sparklemotion at 2:49 PM on December 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

I thought the article had ended, but no, it was just that I had to flick through a little slideshow before I was allowed to carry on on reading. I'm sorry that this is the second time this week that I've moaned about interfaces but this is getting beyond a joke. These designers were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should...
posted by howfar at 3:06 PM on December 1, 2016 [8 favorites]

I can't remember where I got it, but I was just listening to podcast audio on this same subject, except that the interviews were with people in Myanmar who were selling their hair. It also covered the full range of products made from human hair, including woven cloth and some way it's used to line men's jackets in Japan—I wasn't clear if the linings were made from woven cloth or some other method.
posted by XMLicious at 3:48 PM on December 1, 2016

No girl should ever have to sell her hair because her family is in poverty, but in terms of the damage done by what people are having to do to escape poverty, I can't help but contrast that to the woman in a recent 99% Invisible story who spoke of working sun up to sun down, 7 days a week, selling Christmas decorations to buyers for Western stores. How many people buy Chinese-made Christmas decorations compared to the number who buy human hair sourced from China? Not that this isn't worth some attention, but it's curiously free of a context that relates to the reader.

I would have liked to have seen a story like this with more context through the lens, perhaps, of the holiday season and maybe an O. Henry reference. No room left for smug "well I never would have gotten extensions" superiority: What sacrifices are we or should we be making for the sake of the people who are giving up their most valued possessions, their hair, their time, for us?
posted by Sequence at 4:31 PM on December 1, 2016 [7 favorites]

Seconding "Good Hair".
posted by PJMoore at 7:27 AM on December 2, 2016

No girl should ever have to sell her hair because her family is in poverty

Children get haircuts they don't want all the time. I honestly wonder how much of a big deal this actually is, or whether having a camera stuck in their face was part of what ramped up the "sadness" that those girls were feeling.

One thing that bugged me about the piece is that it didn't talk at all about the assumption that the Indian-sourced hair was more "ethical." On the one hand, yes, the hair is cut as part of a ceremony that the women would perform anyways. On the other hand, a lot of money is being made from this freely given sacrifice. It seems to me like it's more honest for the producers to actually get paid, as in China.

If the piece had done more than skim over the working conditions of the factory workers, and maybe brought to light safety hazards or harsh punishments or whatnot for the people who have the job of turning loose hair into extensions, I feel like it might have been more worthwhile.

But framing it around "oh no, this little girl has short hair now" bothers me for reasons that I can't quite wrap my fingers around, but probably have something to do with the fact that I am the kind of person who has hair that, say, Locks of Love wouldn't even accept as a donation.
posted by sparklemotion at 7:42 AM on December 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think an interesting point the article makes is how important hair is in the West, by describing the size of the industry, women's feelings, etc, but how that same importance cannot be respected in the China, where rural poor have bigger problems than "confidence", or whyever women in the west get hair extensions (medical issues aside).
posted by CPAGirl at 8:03 AM on December 2, 2016

I am a white American guy so my opinion is not coming from a very informed place, but I wonder about the difference between a white New Zealander (or American) wearing extensions and an African-American. It seems like the former is privileged vanity, and the latter is necessity to a greater degree, since African-American women are often harshly judged for their natural hair.
posted by AFABulous at 8:12 AM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I get a rare form of white guilt from this stuff, being as I have blonde, fine, wavy, but thick hair. It's basically perfect hair in terms of the hair privilege pyramid or whatever. AND I KEEP IT TRIMMED SHORT. A wastrel, am I. An ingrate! The very picture of selfish western liberalism: the blonde bob!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:35 AM on December 2, 2016

It seems like the former is privileged vanity, and the latter is necessity to a greater degree

I am sure that it is pure vanity for some women (not that I'm sure there's anything wrong with that, in this instance). But I've gotten the impression that for many white(r*) women who get extensions it's about conforming to a standard of hair presentation that they cannot live up to on their own.

Which, tbh, is a very fraught discussion, that I'm not sure is worth it given how far down on the exploitation spectrum parents forcing girls to cut their hair off** is.

For me, I look at this as something that bodies produce automatically, pretty much for free, and that isn't needed to sustain life. I have no problem with adults anywhere being able to sell, say, blood plasma for money if needed, but I don't think that parents should be able to sell their children's blood plasma (because of the invasiveness, and because you do actually need blood plasma to live). I'm fine with parents selling their children's hair, for the same reasons that I'm fine with parents making all kinds of decisions about their children's appearance.

*at least one of the salon customers in the piece appears to be of SE asian descent.
**the article mentions instances of women and girls being subjected to hair theft***, which is obviously horrible, but I get no sense of how much Chinese hair is sourced in that way as opposed to purchased.
***all this talk about exploiting children for their hair makes me think of The Peanut Butter Solution. Which I think you should all need to think about again as well.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:40 AM on December 2, 2016

Yeah, on the whole, this is just hair. We are not talking about kidneys here.

An admittedly amateur documentary, but still fascinating: Just Extensions

I love that she interviews the women who sell and donate their hair, as well as the women who sort and clean it.
posted by fiercecupcake at 11:21 AM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

But I've gotten the impression that for many white(r*) women who get extensions it's about conforming to a standard of hair presentation that they cannot live up to on their own.

I didn't know non-Black women got extensions until this article, and I'm still kind of confused on why they can't/don't just grow out their own hair (presuming they don't have alopecia or cancer or something). I'm not judging them for getting them; I'd bet most of us have a houseful of stuff tied to unethical labor practices.
posted by AFABulous at 11:45 AM on December 2, 2016

AFABulous, a lot (a LOT) a lot of women seem to have either thin hair, or damaged hair that breaks, or otherwise hair that's never going to look like a well-done set of extensions. Keep in mind that basically every woman you see on TV or in the movies has extensions, too.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:00 PM on December 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

Also, human hair wigs. I guarantee you that you know and see and work with people with REALLY good wigs and you don't even know it.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:03 PM on December 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

I had waist length hair for decades. Hardly a week went past without some random stranger telling me I could donate it to Locks of Love, they saw it on Oprah, blah blah blah. It always annoyed me. I looked into it and Locks of Love only actually distributes a few wigs per year to their vaunted children with cancer, and the rest is just sold to pay the expenses of their charity. If the dollar value of my hair was, say, $50, well, why should I donate my hair? I could write a $50 check instead. Or they could, if they're so keen on that particular charity, and leave me to send my monetary donation to the charities I choose. Why should the fact I had good hair and the patience to not cut it, obligate me to help what seems to be pretty sketchy charity?

Anyways, I wonder if, when you donate your hair to Locks of Love, what you are REALLY doing is helping drive down the price those poor women get, by flooding the market with free hair? Supply and demand.

Also, I wonder how often women with extensions are encouraged to donate their hair? And how they feel about it when it happens?
posted by elizilla at 1:33 PM on December 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm still kind of confused on why they can't/don't just grow out their own hair (presuming they don't have alopecia or cancer or something).

A comprehensive answer could go on for pages and pages.

As a general rule, Afro-American hair is delicate. It also varies rather widely in texture, so sweeping generalizations aren't always helpful when discussing it. But in many people, it tends to curl naturally and is prone to higher levels of potentially-damaging dehydration and breakage than Asian or Caucasian hair. Especially if it is naturally fine or thin. Preventing that hair from being stripped of its natural oils is also more important than in other hair textures, because when it is washed too frequently or treated with chemicals, the loss of those oils tends to cause dehydration and breakage.

For this and many other reasons, caring for African American hair can be a bit of a learning curve for non-POC hairstylists, and perhaps at times even for Black stylists as well. Sometimes, those stylists are the ones who teach African-American women how to take care of their own hair. The wonderful natural hair trend which has been growing in popularity has helped spread knowledge and pushed back against other, damaging beauty trends, which is great.

So. There are many possible reasons why braiding, chemical straighteners, wigs, weaves and extensions have been and still are popular in the African-American community. In some settings, societal norms penalize Black women for wearing their hair naturally. For decades, standards of beauty portrayed in popular media for hair were very White -- straight or wavy was the norm, and if curly hair was in, it wasn't tight kinky African American curls. African American women have been fed a steady diet in popular media (and in some cases, from their peers) of White beauty standards. For decades. That poisonous narrative is slowly being countered but its racism runs deep.

Which brings us back to the hairstylists. Who straightened or waved their clients' hair with hot tools, coated them in 'wet' products such as gels, pomades, oils or petrolatum, or even harsh chemical relaxers which stripped the hair of its natural oils and dried it out until high breakage levels were assured -- often in the name of the latest White trend. That damaged hair and scarred the scalp and caused hair loss. An entire industry perpetuated trends that were harmful to Black women across multiple generations. Multiple industries if you include beauty magazines, various television shows and movies, etc.

As a result, hair loss related to those styles and treatments is a common problem for African American women. There have been studies. CCCA, (central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia) which is also known as scarring alopecia or follicular degeneration syndrome is one of the most common cause of scarring hair loss in African American women. Traction alopecia is also a serious problem for African American women, especially those who may have worn tight extensions or braids over many years and inadvertently caused damage to their scalp.

Hair loss is one of the reasons why wigs and weaves have become more popular with African American women in recent years -- they cover the symptoms of hair loss, but also allow one's natural hair to grow out, protected from environmental damage such as UV rays or the elements. They also can let the scalp heal.

It's all interconnected, on one level or another.
posted by zarq at 1:47 PM on December 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Didja ever have a moment where you realized that you had just written eight paragraphs answering a question that someone hadn't actually asked? Right after the edit window had closed?

AFABulous, I totally missed the "non" in your comment. As in "non-Black women." Stupid of me. Sorry. Please ignore my last comment. :(
posted by zarq at 2:00 PM on December 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Your comment was great and informative (if misdirected) zarq. It should be an FPP, or at least the start of one.
posted by sparklemotion at 2:16 PM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thank you!

I just felt really stupid when I realized.
posted by zarq at 5:00 PM on December 2, 2016

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