The sight of gorgeous Indian models hiding their faces while their long, cascading locks of shiny black hair take centre stage is something of a given on Indian TV. It is surprising to note, however, just how far the obsession with our hair really goes. Spoiler alert—our locks are coveted all the way across the world, and then some.
As bizarre as the export of human hair sounds, the business is absolutely booming in India where it averages out at a Rs. 2,000 crore industry (as per The Dollar Business, July 2015). The Western world (read: America, Canada and several European countries) constitute the main markets for this export, but India’s export of two thousand tonnes annually (as of 2012) is divided. Along with shipping human hair to the above-mentioned countries, India also sells its top-notch product to Rangoon, where they purchase the raw material to be converted into weaves and wigs, as well as Africa, another massive market for this organic product. In January this year, Godrej Consumer Products in India even announced their plans to acquire the South African-based company Friska, who specializes in a wide range of quality hair extensions.
What makes the ‘cut’
While hair is thought of as an added natural accessory by most people, for human hair exporters, it’s business. And business has rules. Length, thickness, colour, place of origin are only a few of the various factors that are judged before deciding the worth of a particular batch of hair. Their qualities vary from Remy, unstripped and uniformly lined, high-priced hair, to Non-Remy, a lower-quality, cheaper variety. Hair travels from the source (temples, villages, barber shops and so on), to hair collectors and online auctions, until it is finally sold to manufacturers and exporters. They then clean, untangle and process the hair, and craft it into a final product that is then ready to ship abroad, where it can be seen in top-notch magazine spreads in the form of fashion supermodels’ hair extensions.
All the world’s a parlour
So where does the demand really stem from? The world is no stranger to beauty myths being propagated through different forms of media, and as Naomi Wolf argues in The Beauty Myth, the adherence to conventional standards of beauty is a major form of power control over women. Body image insecurities are created in various forms - skin tone, body weight, shape, and even hair. American comedian Chris Rock too, in his witty narration, attempts to analyse the conventional image of ‘good hair’ in the Western world, and marvels at how it has managed to grow into a nearly 9 billion dollar industry (as of 2009, when the documentary was made) of human hair.
Through his amusing rhetoric, we learned that in America, the natural texture, shape and look of an African American woman’s hair doesn’t fall into the linear definition of beauty, and it’s this mentality that pushes these women towards weaves, hair extensions and other such methods of hair alteration, in an effort to normalise themselves, while integrating themselves into society’s expectations. Naturally, this deficit in self-esteem is creating a huge market for human hair imports. And while the ludicrous amount of money women spend on straight, black ‘beautiful’ hair seems bad enough, it’s not the only thing harming them. Those thousands of dollars buy equally harmful chemical products, bleaches and processes that can have serious health hazards. So while this industry might be just about selling ‘good hair’, it’s less aesthetic and more a tool of ethnic domination. And while the Western world is importing hair to fit the beauty ideal, the Eastern world is supplying it.
Watch the trailer of Chris Rock’s documentary ‘Good Hair’ here.
Combing through the variety
To be fair, Indian hair isn’t only sought after due to conventional beauty myths. It’s high-quality too. As the owner of Just Extensions in L.A. and The Weave Express in Washington D.C. Riqua Hailes stated, “Indian hair, with its thick, dark, slightly wavy texture, is very popular in the hair extension industry.” While urban city women colour, straighten, process and dye their hair, the untouched hair from less urban areas is preferred, and referred to as ‘virgin hair’. So for these pure tresses, hair collectors make their way to rural India’s villages. Several women, and even young girls, shave their heads regularly and sell it to collectors for a nominal fee.
Holy hair is worth consumers’ time
Apart from village hair, human hair in India has another large source. For anyone familiar with temple rituals in India, the process of ‘tonsuring’ your hair would be one you’re well acquainted with. As millions of devotees flock to large temples, such as the thriving Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanam in Andhra Pradesh, they shave their heads in veneration and donate their hair to God. About 20 years ago, this hair used to be stuffed into mattresses. However, today, as the human hair export industry in India is a massively lucrative one, these temple tresses are auctioned off to the highest bidder. And they even go one step further and e-auction this hair, reeling in about Rs. 200 crore a year. These profits are then said to be put into social activities, education, health, and temple maintenance, though more than a few people have their doubts about that. Devout believers that sacrifice their hair as an offering to their divine power will probably never know that their strands travel across the world, and could possibly end up as the hair extensions of a New York runway model, strutting the ramp with temple tresses.
Brush with fate
While the beautiful, long, black locks of Remy hair from Tirupati, Palani and other such places are expensive, high quality products, India also supplies non-Remy lower quality hair. All female readers can attest to the daily struggle between your hair and your comb, with the comb always walking away with the prize of a few strands. These strands are then bought by hair collectors and sold to exporters at a much lower rate, owing to the dip in quality. So, while high quality locks go for anywhere between Rs. 4,000 to Rs. 25,000 per kg, the lower quality human hair ‘waste’ starts at a comparatively measly Rs. 4 per kg.
Watch Al Jazeera’s documentary ‘Hair India’ here.
Smugglers of drugs, arms and... hair?
Finally, no industry in India would be complete without an illegal counter-industry, and human hair is no exception. As the president of the All India Human Hair Exporters Association (yes, it exists) told Business Standard, “The livelihood of millions of Indians depends on the collection, processing and sale of human hair. Besides, it also brings foreign exchange earnings. Smuggling is a threat to both.” India’s human hair industry has suffered a 17 percent fall in exports in the last year; while it was a Rs. 2,354 crore industry in 2013 - 14, it is now only Rs. 1,932 crores in 2014 - 15. That too, compared to China’s estimated Rs. 13,000 crore human hair export industry. Picturing crates of cocaine, or guns, or even beef being smuggled is not inconceivable, but truckloads of human hair spilling over the border into Myanmar takes a little bit of imagination.
Last year, Bangalore’s local police was forced to imagine this bizarre picture when a South African national walked into Sanjaynagar’s police station panicking about a 40 kg bag of human hair that was stolen from his residence. As many people in India aren’t familiar with the large human hair export industry brimming in our country, Bangalore’s police was baffled at the bizarre report. But, as they investigated further into the matter, the large scale human hair theft and smuggling scam came to light.
For a bodily growth that women in India themselves spend so much time preening or, well, getting rid off, should it show up in large quantities in the wrong place, not to mention our own base weakness for media manipulation when it comes to global beauty standards (read: fair skin) it’s interesting to note a perspective that puts us on top of the beauty wish list so to speak. We’re not fans of any trends that allow marketeers to prey on people’s insecurities but as far as India’s hair industry goes, it doesn’t look like we’ll be weaving our way out of this surprising market any time soon.