For centuries, hair has been used as an avenue to express one’s identity, though it has been highly politicized in determining what styles are deemed “acceptable”. Throughout history, women have molded their hairstyles to fit the Eurocentric image of women with straightened, relaxed hair. For Black women, this can include using a hot comb or wearing a weave, often using real, or “remy”, hair to achieve a “natural” look (Mercer 35). With that, I was curious to find out more about the hair extensions market.
The use of hair extensions now goes beyond simply trying to assimilate into Eurocentric views of what “acceptable” hair looks like. Throughout the US and the UK, getting hair extensions has become a popular method to achieve thicker hair in little time, forming a new hairstyle with no hassle. From short hair to long hair, women are given the agency to choose any look they want to achieve. Many of these women will pay endless amounts of money to have real hair extensions, but where is this hair coming from?
To understand more about the hair extensions industry, I looked into notable companies in the market. Great Lengths is a popular, chic hair extensions studio that sells real Indian hair to consumers throughout the world. According to its website, the Indian hair they use comes from the millions of women who “travel to Hindu temples in southern India every year to get their hair shaved – or “tonsured”
as it is known when it is done for religious reasons. It’s an age-old tradition.” While this company prides itself on managing its social and ethical responsibilities over their hair produces, there is a lack of transparency about the initial manufacturing of this hair.
Indian hair is the most versatile to use for hair extensions because of its abilities to be curled or straightened. Other types of hair used for extensions include Brazilian hair which is seen as “full bodied and full of bounce”, while Chinese hair is deemed as “too coarse” and hard to bleach into the desired blonde color. Similarly, on the Great Lengths website, it states: “The cuticles are destroyed; the natural shine as well as the elasticity and resilience are lost.” Elasticity and resiliency have come to represent society’s standards of beauty of what acceptable hair should look like.
While hair can be seen as an avenue towards building empowerment and identity, it is in these cases where they become politicized and racialized. Evidently, people will view hair not as a part of a woman’s body but merely as a commodity. Ironically, people seek to have Eurocentric styles of hair but use hair extensions obtained from the “Other”. In this case, the separation of the body from hair “denies the Other’s history through a process of decontextualization” and “their power to ignite critical consciousness is diffused when they are commodified (hooks 33). Additionally, Peiss states that historically, “hair, skin and eye color frequently stood as signs of women’s inner virtue (25), so to what extent does hair express their own identities if it is coming from someone else?
On top of that, women in Asia are the ones laboriously untangling hairballs in order to create these extensions – 3.3 lbs of hair take around 80 hours of labor to untangle. This era of “commercial beautifying,” as Peiss states, is a large part of what American society is today, consisting of underlying underpaid labor and exploitation in order to make a profit (62). With that, there is a strong dissonance between dominant women who wear these extensions as a form of representing their own identities and the dehumanization of women of color who are stripped of their identities.
Kobena Mercer, Black hair/style politics. (new formations, 1987), 33-54.
bell hooks, Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance. In Black Looks: Race and Representation. (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 21–39.
Kathy Lee Peiss, Hope in a jar: the making of America’s beauty culture. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).