Making a personal choice at the expense of other women

In a recent New York Times article, For Russia’s Poor, Blond Hair is Snippet of Gold, we learn about the international market for blonde hair:

…on a lane where geese waddle through muddy puddles, a brick building holds crate upon crate of this region’s one precious harvestable commodity: human hair, much of it naturally blond.

For the global beauty industry, this is golden treasure.

“Nobody else has this, nobody in the world,” said Aleksei N. Kuznetsov, the building’s owner. “Russian hair is the best in the world.”

Buyers of human hair, most of them small-scale Russian and Ukrainian itinerant operators who sell to hair processors like Mr. Kuznetsov, flock to poor regions like this. Cash in hand, they pay small sums for a head’s worth of tresses sheared from women who often have few economic alternatives.

Although I have never bought blonde human hair, I know what it is like to come to the realization that there is a person on the other side of your personal choice. This moment happened for me a year ago around this time while viewing the film Good Hair. It was the scene where Chris Rock takes a voyage to India to investigate the origins of the hair used for hair extensions in many Black salons. Soon after it is revealed that a lot of the hair comes from Indian women who shaved their heads as a religious sacrifice. None of them were compensated for it or and many did not know that their hair would later be sold.

At the time, I was two years into my locs and I hadn’t worn hair extensions since 2006. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had participated in these women being hoodwinked. This is not to make a judgment about religious sacrifice; I simply felt guilty that I had paid nearly $40 a pack for hair that these women didn’t see a dime of even when some of these religious sacrifices were made along with prayers for financial relief or economic security.

I was anxious about offering this anecdote. The issues that lead many black women to seek comfort in long tresses cannot be compared to the decisions made by Paris Hilton or Jessica Simpson. Also, I didn’t want to invalidate the struggle of Russian women by implying that they were better off than Indian women because they were being financially compensated for their hair. But despite the anxiety I felt, I wanted to talk about making personal choices at the expense of other people. Although feminism is often synonymous in the US context with respecting women’s choices, sometimes we as feminists make choices that exploit other women. This was tough for me to acknowledge, but learning about the plight of women in foreign countries has broadened my feminist work and enabled me to resolve that hair extensions are no longer an option for me.

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