Different Routes


In transnational hair trade, an Indian woman’s tresses turn into a well-being project for a middle-class Finn


Different Routes


In transnational hair trade, an Indian woman’s tresses turn into a well-being project for a middle-class Finn

Hair has always been capital that the poor sell to the rich. For a Finn, hair extensions can be a way to show well-being, while for a South African they can express wealth. In this article by journalist Aurora Lemma, Sociologist Riitta Högbacka talks about a society in which people feel the need to constantly improve themselves and change.

Roughly speaking, there are three categories of hair extensions. The cheapest is synthetic, made of nylon, for example. The second highest quality is waste hair, which has been collected from combs and floor drains, etc. The highest quality hair has been cut from a person’s head. This means that the strands of hair are parallel and do not get tangled so easily.

A significant percentage of this highest quality hair comes from a specific temple in India. The temple is called Venkateswara, which refers to one of the forms of Vishnu. Vishnu is one of the three principal deities of Hinduism.

According to legend, Venkateswara was left with a bald patch on top of his head where he had been struck with an axe. One day, Venkateswara happened to meet the goddess Neela Devi who cut off her hair and pressed it onto his bald patch, sacrificing not only her hair but her beauty. There are different versions of this legend, but according to one, Venkateswara promised to replace the woman’s hair by giving her the sacrifices of his followers.

Still today, thousands of people give their hair to Venkateswara every day. At the end of a production chain that reflects global hierarchies of power, a large portion of this hair ends up in Europe, including Finland.

The poor sacrifice their most precious asset

The Venkateswara Temple is visited daily by tens of thousands of pilgrims. With the proceeds gained from hair donations and monetary and other sacrifices, the temple maintains orphanages, schools and hospitals, and provides pilgrims with food and overnight accommodation.

Especially for poor women, the most valuable thing they can sacrifice is their hair. Donating their hair is also a psychological act. Like Neela Devi in the legend, modern women are also thought to give up their beauty and ego along with their hair.

They usually sacrifice their hair after a wish of theirs has come true. Women may have asked the gods to help them get pregnant, for example, and promised their hair in return. When their wish comes true, they must sacrifice their hair or risk bad luck.

Hair collected from India is sent to Myanmar, where it is washed and brushed. From there, most of it goes to China, where the hair is further processed, packaged and eventually sold on to consumer countries.

Sociologist Riitta Högbacka ended up studying the circulation of hair almost by chance. She has previously studied how children are globally circulated; in other words, transnational adoption. From 2006 to 2009, she spent several months in South Africa interviewing the biological mothers of children adopted to Finland.

While conducting these interviews, Högbacka’s attention was drawn to the women’s hair. The importance of hair was conveyed in the women’s words and everyday interactions. A large number of them had hair extensions, and sometimes at the end of the interviews they said they were going somewhere to have their extensions cared for or to buy some.

Back in the 1990s, it was mainly wealthy people who had hair extensions, but today they are used by people from many walks of life.

In 2018, Högbacka formulated her new research question around hair. In what ways does hair circulate around the world? How does the meaning of hair extensions vary in different cultures? She interviewed a total of about eighty hair extension users in Finland and South Africa and about thirty hair donors in India. The subject was supposed to give her a break from heavy research topics.

The answers to the questions are partly open, as the analysis of the data is not yet finished. In the end, Högbacka did not get a break from heavy topics.

“In sociology, there is a long tradition of starting with something small and using it to look at larger entities,” she explains.

This is also what happened with the topic of hair. Still, Högbacka has been surprised at the unexpected depth of the subject.

“In the context of transnational circulation, hair is merchandise. It is packaged and sold. At the same time, hair has important meanings for people. It always has had.”

“Why should I think about them?”

Websites that sell hair usually do not mention where it originates from. It is often called Brazilian, but according to Högbacka, this is just marketing. In the light of statistics, the largest countries of origin are China and India.

A small proportion of the hair coming from China originates in the Xinjiang region. For example, US authorities have surmised that the hair might come from detention centres where the exploitation and human rights violations of Uyghurs with a Muslim background are commonplace.

According to Högbacka, Russian prisons have also sometimes been suspected of selling hair that has been forcibly cut. However, such abuses probably represent only a very small percentage of the hair trade. Most of the hair in circulation is waste hair that has been collected from the floors and bins of hairdressing salons – wherever hair can be found. In addition to these and hair donations, hair is sold by poor women.

Based on Högbacka’s interviews, women who donate their hair to temples usually know that it will be sold. The interviewees were not bothered by the thought that their hair would be sold on. When Högbacka asked one of the interviewees what she thought about western women who buy donated hair, she replied bluntly: “Why should I think about them?”

A hair extension that costs as much as a holiday in the sun

The largest export areas for hair are the United States, Europe and Africa. In 2021, approximately 10,000 kilos of real human hair was imported to Finland. That roughly translates as the hair of 30,000 long-haired people when it is cut off completely.

The use of hair extensions has rapidly become widespread. Back in the 1990s, it was mainly wealthy people who had hair extensions, but today they are used by people from many walks of life. According to the hairdressers Högbacka interviewed, customers using them include people of all ages and backgrounds.

One thing hasn’t changed: hair extensions are still expensive. In total, the extensions and applying them at a hairdresser’s cost between a few hundred to a thousand euros. Some people save a long time for them.

In interviews with Högbacka, users of hair extensions in Finland explained why they are willing to spend ‘as much money on their hair as it would cost to have a holiday in the sun’, as one hairdresser put it. One interviewee said she was moved to tears when she saw the extensions on her head for the first time.

The interviewee in question felt that her thin hair had caused her mental distress. She explained that this was the reason she had acquired the extensions – for her own well-being.

The word well-being appears many times in interviews with Finnish hair extension users. They see them as something that helps them to create an image of themselves as a healthy person who takes care of themselves.

As a ‘proper market subject’, as Högbacka puts it.

She is referring to the idea of a responsible citizen – a person who deserves others’ respect for their contribution to society.

In a neoliberal culture, this contribution is first and foremost being a consumer. A responsible market subject builds their identity through consumption and communicates who they are through their consumer choices.

Usually when we talk about neoliberalism, we talk about the economy. More specifically, we talk about the economic policy system that was developed after the Second World War, according to which the best way to achieve prosperity is through private ownership, free trade and the open market.

Högbacka refers to neoliberalism first and foremost as a culture, a social structure created by this economic system. One of the defining features of this culture, according to her, is the illusion of freedom.

The ideal person invests in themselves

In neoliberal culture, the individual is thought to be free to choose – and also to be responsible for their choices. In this way of thinking, any failure is the individual’s own fault, whether it is a matter of finding a job, losing weight or the way they look.

This culture carries with it the idea of constant development. You have to make the right choices, constantly. The individual is expected to improve themselves, increase their value, change. The things you can change about yourself – hair, sleep, your body, the way you think – are constantly expanding as the market creates more and more new ways to change and improve yourself.

Finnish users emphasised that the extensions should look natural. They must be subtle, normal, ordinary.

Högbacka describes this need to change into something else almost compulsive.

“We don’t see our own reflection in the mirror, but what is behind that reflection: the person we could be.”

The need to change and improve oneself was also a recurring theme of the interviews. One interviewee described how she maintains her well-being not only with hair care, but also with facials and being careful not to gain weight.

In the non-fiction book Ulkonäköyhteiskunta (in English: Appearance Society) by researchers Iida Kukkonen, Tero Pajunen, Outi Sarpila and Erica Åberg from the University of Turku, this constantly self-improving person who ‘invests rationally in themselves, their body and their self’ is an example of the ideal middle-class person.

The emphasis on well-being also touches on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of “rules of the game”. According to Bourdieu, the rules by which value judgements are made of people in society must be simultaneously known and denied. You have to play according to them but pretend not to. In fact, the best thing to do is for the ideal person to pretend that they don’t understand the game at all.

‘He exercises because it feels good (not to look good, for example, or because a certain form of exercise is trendy). She wears make-up and spruces herself up for herself (not to look good in the eyes of others),’ the researchers write in their book.

In interviews with Högbacka, Finns stressed how important it is to look healthy.

“You have to look like you take good care of yourself,” she explains.

Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder

Finnish users of hair extensions emphasised to Högbacka that the extensions should look natural and they shouldn’t be obvious. They must be subtle, normal, ordinary.

While Finns hoped above all that their hair extensions wouldn’t be noticed, for South African interviewees it was essential that people notice their hair. South African interviewees described in different ways how other people’s attitude towards them changed with their hair extensions.

“Yes, it’s also about status. [Straight hair] makes you look rich, stylish, sophisticated,” stated one interviewee.

Another one said she puts her ‘status’ on when she applies hair extensions. With her expensive extensions, people see her and assume that she drives a car, which is a sign of prosperity in South Africa.

Of course, it is hard to say how much the local hair ideals reflect racism in South Africa, where only about thirty years have passed since the end of apartheid.

As in Europe and the United States, the thinking that straight or at most wavy hair is neat and feminine, while Afro or curly hairstyles are untidy and ‘wild’, still prevails in many African countries. In South Africa, for example, it is still quite a common requirement for customer service workers to have a ‘European’ hairstyle.

These ideals and patterns of thought date back to colonialism and the slave trade, during which the racial hierarchy was built. However, this is not just a matter of history. In today’s global market economy, consumer culture and the ideals it has created are also global. The people who determine these ideals are still mostly white and western.

‘Beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder, but rather it is determined by the eyes of those whose gaze carries the most weight. Beauty, therefore, is literally power,’ is how the book Ulkonäköyhteiskunta describes it.

Global ideals are not just about appearance, but about lifestyles more broadly. Riitta Högbacka does not believe that the women she interviewed actually want to ‘be white’. According to her, they simply want to share in the same benefits as us westerners. This is how a South African interviewee put it:

“If you don’t have straight hair, you look cheap; you’re not a classy lady, do you see? It has a lot to do with which class people want to be identified with.”

The model of a life worth pursuing is conveyed globally through advertisements, the media and popular culture.

“They portray fast cars, fancy clothes and people living a modern life,” Högbacka says.

Although the majority of the world is exposed to the same imagery of the good life created by advertising and popular culture, only a small percentage actually can afford it.

Could our current economic policy system even function without global social inequality?

There have always been people who have nothing to sell but their hair

The climate crisis and biodiversity loss have shown that the lifestyle glorified by global advertising – the lifestyle of a middle-class western person – is only possible for a small percentage of people. Our planet cannot withstand the current state of affairs as it is.

It is unclear whether our current economic policy system could even function without global social inequality. Where would we get cheap raw materials and cheap labour for fast fashion? Who would sell their hair or delouse the hair collected from floor drains?

The global circulation of hair is a relatively new phenomenon. Poor people selling their hair is not.

Throughout history, hair has been donated, sold and forcibly taken for both aesthetic and manufacturing purposes. It has been used, for example, as filling in mattresses and made into ropes. The Nazis cut off the hair of Jewish people before sending them to incineration ovens for precisely these reasons. 

In ancient Egypt, the customs of the noble class included shaving hair in its entirety for the sake of cleanliness and hygiene, and therefore Cleopatra’s famous hairstyle, for example, must have been a wig. Since antiquity, wigs have been in fashion in Europe to varying degrees, for both men and women. Also in Finland, the upper class used to wear artificial hair, for example, in the 19th century.

And just as there have always been people who want to wear wigs or hair extensions or vary their hairstyles, there have always been poor people who have nothing to sell but their hair.

The 1898 San Francisco Call magazine wrote about the hair trade of the time. The article describes how hair dealers collected this commodity for sale from villages. On Fridays, they walked from one end of a street to another with shears hanging from their belts, while girls stood in front of their houses showing off their pigtails.

“How we look at things these days”

Högbacka emphasises that she does not judge people for wearing hair extensions. Placing blame on the individual is certainly a part of neoliberal culture, however, as we can see from discussions about appearance and the pressures of looking good, which often lead to the conversation shifting to judgments of the individual involved and their choices.

“When everything is individualised, you don’t have to think about the structures,” she says.

Of course, it is not just about structures, the pressures of society or sociological theories. Appearance and how people shape it is also about self-expression, play and visual pleasure.

Investing in appearance is also good for your wallet: studies show that it has an impact, for example, on employment and pay.

The Finnish users of hair extensions interviewed by Högbacka were aware of this.

“I feel it makes a difference when you look like you take care of yourself,” one interviewee said.

She said that she believes that, for example, in a job search situation with two applicants that have the same qualifications, the one who looks better groomed will get the job.

In the book Ulkonäköyhteiskunta, the writers define the title (Appearance Society in English) as follows: a society in which the meaning of outward appearance extends beyond the areas where it is traditionally seen as having an effect. These traditional areas include, for example, romantic relationships, where the effect of appearance is considered natural to some extent. The external areas into which the researchers see the influence of appearance spreading include, for example, working life and politics.

The book echoes an idea that reflects Högbacka’s diagnosis of the neoliberal culture: in an appearance society, people must constantly change and improve themselves. The reason this is important is that a person’s appearance determines their identity in such a society. According to the book, the way a person looks in this culture can be thought of as ‘a simplified summary of a person’s identity’.

Bringing hair extensions and other means of shaping appearance, such as lip fillers and Botox injections, to the masses gives more people the opportunity to increase their beauty capital. A kind of equality.

At the same time, the question arises as to whether this is a self-reinforcing cycle in which the increasing pressure to look good leads to more and more significant shaping of appearance, further increasing the pressure, and on and on. All the while, the potential self hidden behind the mirror remains forever out of reach.

The South African interviewees at least seemed to be aware of this.

“I’ve also realised that it puts a certain amount of pressure to certain people who can’t afford the hair, and instantly, I mean like I told you before, once you have this hair you are put into a certain category,” one of them explains.

An understanding of the social background of the phenomenon was present in other ways too in the interviews with South Africans. However, the interviewees considered the matter outside the sphere of an individual’s influence.

Interviewee: “If I were to wear this outfit with that curly hair, someone might perceive me like ’and this one, she might be lost or ghetto, you know.”

Högbacka: “From the ghetto?”

Interviewee: “Yes. With this same outfit and then I have this hair, ’OK she looks good, she’s safe’. It’s more perception. I know it’s very lame, but it’s perception, how we look at things these days.”

Riitta Högbacka is an Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the University of Helsinki. With funding from Kone Foundation, she has been researching the transnational hair trade since 2018. The results of her research will be published at the end of 2023 in the book Global Hair and Women’s Worth (Palgrave Macmillan).