Anthropologist Emma Tarlo just published a new book, Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair, investigating the weird culture and business surrounding hair, from Jewish wig parlors to its use in Hindu temples to hair loss clinics. In an excerpt at Smithsonian, Tarlo tells of the hair trade, tracing the path from the growers to the sellers to the buyers:
An Ohio woman who goes by the pseudonym Shelly-Rapunzel sold 38 inches of her ankle-length brown hair on BuyandSellHair.com for $1,800. "All money is going to doctor appointments that have to be paid upfront," she says. She is not alone. The website is full of women auctioning their hair to the highest bidder. Not all have tales of hardship: some simply want a change of hairstyle; others do it to raise money for specific purposes such as education or charity; others are regulars who use the hair on their heads to bring in some extra cash every few years.
As a hair seller whose identity is at least somewhat known, Shelly-Rapunzel is an anomaly in a largely anonymous world. The gathering of human hair is on the whole a backstage business about which little is known to those outside the trade. Transactions of this sort where named individuals negotiate good deals for their hair make up only a tiny fragment of the billion-dollar trade in human hair…
Much of the hair procured for wigs and extensions on the global market today is collected in bulk by intermediaries in contexts where hair sellers and buyers occupy different social and economic worlds. Most of it is gathered in Asian countries in exchange for modest sums of money. By the time the hair reaches the marketplace, it is usually divorced from not only the head of the woman who sold it, but from its place of origin. Even many of the shopkeepers and traders who sell hair extensions and wigs know very little about how it has been gathered unless they go to the considerable trouble of collecting it themselves or work for a major hair-manufacturing company with a department dedicated to hair procurement. Labels such as "Brazilian", "Peruvian", "Indian", "European", "Euro-Asian" and "Mongolian" adorn packets of hair, but they often operate more as exotic promises of variety than indicators of hair origin.
Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair by Emma Tarlo (Amazon)