Wearing Another Woman – Power and Exploitation

 

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? 

 

greatlengths
Great Lengths hair extensions advertising photo.

 

hair-extensions
Hair extensions come in all colors but are coming from the same people.

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?

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Indian temple hair sorted in a factory in Chennai. Photo by Emma Tarlo

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).

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2 thoughts on “Wearing Another Woman – Power and Exploitation

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  1. Cynthia, you make an insightful point about how hair is commodified, racialized and agential all at once. It definitely privileges people with fuller heads of hair, and disregards those that lose hair due to chemotherapy or nervous impulse control disorders (trichotillomania), or those that simply can’t afford to buy hair extensions or wigs. I’m really interested in Great Lengths’ advertisement and caption: “Life Means Change”. With this caption, Great Lengths implies that if you do not change your hair into one that looks more exotic, you are not living life. Even the body posture of the two women seem like two completely different people. With thick curly hair, the woman on the right diverts her seductive gaze from the camera and crosses her arms. Both her hair and body take up a lot more space in the frame of this photograph, signifying sexual liberation as a woman with this change in hairstyle. This is juxtaposed against the woman on the left who seems much more reserved and dull. She tries to smile but is unable to. bell hooks writes: “within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (21). With hair looking more foreign and exotic, white women are able to “eat the other” and gain “life” out of this appropriation, as it appears more exciting, empowering, but also sexual, in this case.

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  2. Hair is one of the first features that our eyes land on when we see someone for the first time. Hair frames a person and who they are perceived to be. Specifically, hair communicates certain messages about who that person is, what their personality may be like, what their values are. But as consumers of beauty in a capitalistic world, we have the choice to make changes to our bodies to fit a certain look, or to even stretch our standards of beauty even further. As cynthichang noted in her blog post, in using hair extensions, “women have the agency to choose any look they want to achieve.” But as cynthichang also notes, this is problematic in many ways. Because hair is so important to a person’s identity, since it communicates that person’s identity to others, women of color who cut their hair to be sold for hair extensions lose that sense of identity. Most of these women who decide to cut their hair for hair extensions may do so to earn some money, but at the same time, the industry itself may be a bit problematic as well, as cynthichang notes that 3.3 pounds of hair could take about 80 hours to untangle.
    The way that the types of ethnic hair are described makes it sound like “shopping” for an exotic good. Hair is personal and yet with hair extensions, it makes it impersonal and superficial. It creates a fabricated look and commercializes the importance of hair and downplays the identity that was attached to the hair. Privileged women with money to buy hair extensions wear it around like an accessory, choosing from hair that has “bounce” or rejecting hair that may be “too coarse.” In doing so, this decontextualizes the history that comes along with that hair. While women who use hair extensions to spice up their look, it devalues the struggles and the history of the hair used in the hair extensions. As bell hooks states, “the commodification of difference promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization.” As a result, women who give up their hair lose that part of their identity while their hair is devalued and decontextualized from their experiences, only to be viewed as mere qualities that consumers seek in hair.

    Works cited:

    [1] cynthichang, “Wearing Another Woman – Power and Exploitation,” Beauty and Race in America: 2017 (blog), April 25, 2017, https://beautyandrace2017.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/wearing-another-woman-power-and-exploitation/.

    [2] bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation. (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 31.

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