Women’s bodies have been a commodity used by consumers for centuries. Hair included.
The conversations around women’s hair and hairstyles, vary as much as the ways of exploiting women. We observe orthodox Jews to Muslims, to nuns, covering their heads for modesty. To many women around the world and how females are portrayed in fairytales such as Rapunzel, a woman’s head of hair is seen as her femininity and her ‘powerful’ beauty. Women are shamed for their hair choices and appearances. Gabby Douglas receiving her gold medal for US Olympic Gymnastics was told her hair was messy and reflected badly on her community. Miley Cyrus cutting her hair short was deemed as a sign that she was out of control.
The popularity of real hair extensions in the western culture brought further opportunity of exploiting women. Taking advantage of the disadvantaged is a dynamic as old as time. In the hair trade, impoverished women sell their hair for little to nothing, to adorn the heads of the wealthy. Often they are forced by their families, tricked into it, even held down against their will. Those collecting the hair in these desperate situations are often scammers and con artists, making promises and not following through, leaving the victims with pennies on the dollars they were promised. ‘Hair Brokers’ descend on areas in conflict and war torn countries where exploiting women for such a valuable product is easy. The stories of women and children in areas of Myanmar, areas of Africa, Ukraine, and elsewhere being robbed of their hair at gun or knifepoint is a common theme.
The more disenfranchised the women, the less the dealers have to pay for their hair.
This is not a sustainable commodity. Long hair takes years to grow. This is not an easily renewable resource for anyone selling their hair. This is taking advantage of someones despairing situation, offering them very little for part of their body, because they are hungry, impoverished and have families relying on them.
As I was making this straight jacket out of vintage human hair pieces I bought from someones storage unit, I thought about how many women those ponytails came from, about how little money they received, about how they sat in a box in a storage unit in California and about 30 years later reached my studio.
My own perceptions of hair and beauty have been greatly challenged, by my aging and by working on this very piece, in my Camisole de Force series. What is the price of sought after beauty? It’s not just a question of how much will we pay, but how much we expect others to pay - with their lives and their self worth.