January 15, 2011 8:55 AM   Subscribe

Julia Sherman offers us a glimpse into the sheitel industry and the larger global hair trade.

While many of these wigs sell for thousands of dollars, "the market for human hair is generally limited to places with impoverished populations willing to sell a two-foot ponytail—the product of two years of growth—for twenty dollars."

Apologies in advance about the interface and the fact the Rav Ovadia Yosef video is only in Hebrew.
posted by gman (24 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
In the fall of 2009, Helene Rosen, her husband, Yoni, and eight of their eleven children moved from Baltimore to Cusco, Peru, to harvest human hair.

Her husband's name is yoni?
posted by nickyskye at 9:30 AM on January 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

"The shorter men’s tresses are used by chemical companies to make fertilizer and baking products"

what is this i can't even

on preview: it's a common israeli nickname for Yonatan (Jonathan); Johnny, basically.
posted by elizardbits at 9:34 AM on January 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Interesting how this overlaps with the trade in Indian hair used for hair weaves in America, mostly in African American culture, as see in Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair.
posted by cogneuro at 9:37 AM on January 15, 2011

As alluded to in the article, Chris Rock's Good Hair really opened my eyes on how human hair has become a commodity with a global supply chain, meaning hair is harvested/purchased/collected in other countries and then sold in the US. It's fascinating and more than a little strange.

Rock's video is worth renting - it's funny at times, but it's also a serious look at an industry that is little know beyond the isolated communities make use of it.
posted by mosk at 9:37 AM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


[shakes fist at cogneuro]
posted by mosk at 9:39 AM on January 15, 2011

I found this very interesting:

"she is now considering marketing celebrity wigs to the increasing number of young Orthodox women with jobs in the secular world who want to observe the tradition of head-covering without feeling unattractive."

The original point of the tradition has become so distorted that you have young women wearing wigs of perfectly contemporary hairstyles to fit in with the mainstream cultural ideals that sheitels were (sort of) meant to preclude in the first place. It's all circling one huge drain of bizarre logic.
posted by hermitosis at 9:41 AM on January 15, 2011 [20 favorites]

L-Cysteine used to be made from hair; now it's synthesized from e coli. It's an amino acid, used in baking and flavoring.
posted by jenkinsEar at 9:43 AM on January 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also, because I feel nit-picky (pun totally intended): "Jewish modesty law, or halakhah"

The term halakhah describes the entire body of Jewish law; biblical, talmudic, rabbinical. Tzniut is the specific group of laws within halakhah pertaining to modesty in both dress and behavior.
posted by elizardbits at 9:44 AM on January 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

The customs and conventions of any ultra orthodox or fundamentalist believers is often
a bit off the wall. I noted and was a bit bothered as I read about H.'s early days in Israel. She left a West Bank place because the schools were inferior so she moved to the US? I find that difficult to believe for an orthodox person. In fact, there are perhaps better schools in Israel proper. I had often wondered why I came across so many Israelis living in the U.S. Finally, I was told by one lady, a woman who owned a kosher deli, that it was not the daily threat of hostile Arabs but because it was difficult to make a decent living for so many people in Israel (and they have high unemployment rate as well as many living below poverty level), and because taxes are so high.
A great place, she said, for start ups and for young people. But when you reach middle age, and unless you have a nice professional position, you find yourself not very well off. And hence, move to the US, where the streets are paved with gold, so the myth has or had it.
posted by Postroad at 10:05 AM on January 15, 2011

Good lord:
Adhering to the religious injunction to destroy idolatrous objects, Orthodox women burnt their wigs en masse; Williamsburg, Brooklyn hosted a bonfire of more than three hundred sheitels.
The smell must have been awful.
posted by boo_radley at 10:18 AM on January 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can't get the article in the fpp to load on my phone, but I'm considering cutting off about 2 feet of hair, and was going to do the Locks of Love thing. Is that still a viable charity, or would the hair just end up in the market? Anyone know?
posted by dejah420 at 10:36 AM on January 15, 2011

It's a shame that Good Hair isn't available for NetFlix streaming any more, although they'll rent you the DVD. Great documentary.

The article was interesting, although the stupid sideways-scrolling javascript interface is horrible to use on iPad and I see people are having trouble on phones too. I switched to my Mac to read it.
posted by w0mbat at 10:57 AM on January 15, 2011

I love it when religious people try to fool their god. The idea of an Eruv is equally hilarious, as is the old Christian practice of nuns wearing a special robe to bathe. Because, you know, God is omnipotent and all-seeing but somehow he doesn't have X-ray vision. Ceiling Cat has no truck with such nonsense.
posted by Decani at 11:40 AM on January 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

dejah I donated an 8" ponytail to Locks of Love (through my hairdresser) about 3 years ago...their website does still have 2007 copyright though, not sure if that's significant??
posted by supermedusa at 11:48 AM on January 15, 2011

looks like Locks of Love does sell any donated hair that is not conforming to their guidelines...
posted by supermedusa at 11:51 AM on January 15, 2011

I'll third the recommendation on Good Hair. Aside from its infotainment value as an irreverent pop-documentary in the Daily Show/Michael Moore vein, it's also as good a treatise on global economics and cultural appearance norms as anything else I've seen or read since college.

As for the article, I had no idea previously that Orthodox women also went to such lengths for their hair. I find it interesting that it's the long, black hair of South American and South Asian women that is so prized, considering how western beauty standards have been trying to turn everyone blonde for the last century.
posted by Strange Interlude at 11:53 AM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, is it just me, or did the author use the wigmaker's real first name in the second paragraph of part III?
posted by greatgefilte at 11:59 AM on January 15, 2011

Apologies in advance about … the fact the Rav Ovadia Yosef video is only in Hebrew.

I'm sorry, is this the same Rav Ovadia Yosef who discourages jews from receiving kidney transplants from non-jews? I think the less I hear of him, the better.
posted by Nomyte at 12:04 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Paul Mitchell once told me that hair floor sweepings in salons were collected and used to make "keratin" as an ingredient in hair conditioner. His The Conditioner used human hair keratin. But in order to support sustainable Hawaiian agriculture (before he died he lived in Hawaii), he changed the recipe to contain Hawaiian ginger (awapuhi), instead of keratin and it was, imo, never as good a conditioner.

Googling the cites to this comment I see his partner (John Paul DeJoria) has made a new product using sheep's wool as the keratin source. Maybe it's worth trying again.
posted by nickyskye at 12:21 PM on January 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

"The original point of the tradition has become so distorted that you have young women wearing wigs of perfectly contemporary hairstyles to fit in with the mainstream cultural ideals that sheitels were (sort of) meant to preclude in the first place."

Actually, there is nothing behind the tradition that is supposed to make the woman look less attractive - and sheitels were never meant to preclude them. The practice of married women covering their hair stems from a mention in the Torah of the punishment for adultery - the woman's hair is uncovered (other possible translations of the Hebrew word are unpinned, or even disarrayed). Because it can be assumed from that passage that married women wore their hair covered (or pinned up), married women chose to continue the practice. It becomes a modesty (Tznius) issue only because things that are kept covered are supposed to remain covered - if showing hair was immodest, unmarried women would not be allowed to do so. Sheitels - even beautiful ones - are allowed because keeping the commandments should not create a hardship.

Of course, there are fundamentalist rabbis who do not allow sheitels at all, and rabbis who insist that only sheitels are appropriate because with hats you often allow hairs to stray from underneath, and entire sects who wear sheitels with hats on top (so no one thinks it is real), and women who shave their heads underneath so no hair ever shows. Putting people in charge of how the law is interpreted means there will be all sorts of opinions on this, and because it's considered a practice and not a commandment (there is no law in the Torah that married women must cover their hair; in fact, there is no way to know whether unmarried women also covered their hair at the time, since they could not be tried for adultery so the subject didn't come up), there is a lot more wiggle room than there is in other aspects of Jewish law.

Not to mention that when it comes to religious men making rules for women, you'll always get your share of power-hunger control monkeys when it comes to anything even tangentially related to sexuality.
posted by Mchelly at 4:01 PM on January 15, 2011 [5 favorites]

"the market for human hair is generally limited to places with impoverished populations willing to sell a two-foot ponytail—the product of two years of growth—for twenty dollars."

Then again - and I'm referencing Good Hair for this - much of the hair from India comes from people who are dedicating themselves to baldness at temples anyway, so if the operation can get a few rupees out of it, everybody gains.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:27 PM on January 15, 2011

I liked the bit about how they won't buy curly hair because it's indicative of an unruly spirit.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:46 PM on January 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a 30-something caucasian woman who wears a wig for the simple reason that my own hair is extremely fine, I have very little of it and feel very uncomfortable with how it looks naturally. It runs in the family and my aunt does the same thing.

After reading this article, I can't wait to talk to the woman who makes it for me - most of her clients fall into two groups not mentioned in the article - women with cancer and other diseases that leave them with full or partial baldness, and women who want custom-made "European hair" extensions - think high-end fake ponytails.

I'm intrigued that the wig industry is a huge moneymaker at least in theory but that, even with her expertise, the businesswoman depicted here is living almost hand to mouth. I pay a fortune for my hair and yet the woman I buy it from doesn't seem to make much from her business.
posted by paindemie at 9:59 AM on January 16, 2011

Interesting comment from one of the interviewees in Good Hair about black womens' hairpieces being intended to make them look as natural as possible. Is there something a bit fucked up about that thinking? Look more natural by wearing a wig? I don't get it.
posted by Lleyam at 2:34 PM on January 16, 2011

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