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Hits from the Past
Written by Christopher Box
Published on June 20, 2011
Every year, as an act of religious piety, hundreds of thousands of Indian women shave their heads. What they are unaware of is the fact that their hair is a valuable commodity.
What happens next certainly isn’t quite so spiritual, as the hair is then gathered together and used to support the multi-million-dollar wig and hair extension industry.
It sounds like the ultimate in cynical exploitation but let’s take a closer look at the facts…
Thousands and thousands of Hindus regularly make a pilgrimage to India’s biggest temples. Here they make special requests to the Gods and give thanks for wishes granted previously.
As many people have no money to offer the Gods they give something else, and for many women the most valuable offering they can make is to give their hair. This act is known as tonsuring and is also practiced by some Buddhist novices and was common amongst early Christians.
For many Indian women their hair is an expression of their femininity, they take great pride in caring for it and keeping it soft, shiny and healthy. At the temples the long hair is shaved and in the past was used to stuff mattresses.
However all has changed and now temples sell off the sacrificed hair to the Western hair extension trade for around $200 - $300 per kilogram.
Hair is sent to Bangalore where it is hand-brushed and prepared for shipment to the West. On this simple journey from India to the West the value of the hair increases to $500 per kilogram.
The hair is then dyed a variety of fashion colors and sent out to hair salons in around 50 different countries spanning the Western world. A hair salon can charge as much as $4000 for a full head of extensions.
The hair extension industry claims that this is a win-win situation. Western women get their thicker, longer hair, the Indian women fulfil a spiritual sacrifice and the temples make money, which they claim can be used to help people within the community and support local projects.
However some people are less sure about the process. British pop star Jamelia, a previous fan of hair extensions, was shocked when a documentary team took her to India to see the ‘source’ of her lovely locks. Watching a small child having her head shaved reduced the singer to tears.
Jamelia now thinks that if you want hair extensions you should check that your new hair has been ethically sourced. It’s possible that the Hindu pilgrims do not feel exploited but the question remains, should those providing the hair reap some of the financial benefits?
The hair extension industry is certainly making some people a lot of money…but is the money going to the right people?
My personal experience in hair gathering or sourcing has left me conflicted. I have never been to India. I have only seen the Chinese methods of used to collect hair. I remember driving up to a hair gatherer's office with a line of women waiting to sell their hair. There were even several ladies bent over with scissors cutting their hair on the spot.
The whole process seemed very quid pro quo. I did not leave feeling like something was stolen or taken. Of course these ladies were not shaving their hair, only cutting it very short.
I am not sure that Jamelia (who I love as an artist, check out her song Something About You ) understood that the the little girl crying had nothing to do with the hair extension industry. She was crying for the sacrifice she had made.
The real question is what the Temples are doing with the money they received for this hair. What are your thoughts?
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