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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  • http://feministing.com/members/samll/ Sam Lindsay-Levine

    These kinds of exploitative transactions always hit me as being really morally thorny. Would the people who have sold their hair thank us if we shut down the entire business and they weren’t able to sell? I never have a good answer – the status quo is repulsive, but the moral calculus is too difficult for me to able to sort it out.

    • http://feministing.com/members/evelyn/ Evelyn

      Another related “morally thorny” issue is whether it is ethical to consume the products of people who themselves are bigots but do not blatantly use their proceeds exploitatively. (i.e. is it ethically responsible to consume Mel Gibson’s artwork despite his sexist and racist ideologies?)

  • http://feministing.com/members/franziakafka/ Franzia Kafka

    The whole capitalist market is like this, isn’t it? I’d say pretty much every “choice” involving consumption that a Western woman makes in her life, from the type of food we buy and where we buy it to the beauty products we use, is going to be or have been at the expense of someone (or some environmental resource, or some animal) in the Southern/Eastern hemisphere, or somewhere less privileged, being exploited for capital gain. When an entire globalized predatory capitalist system is based on exploitation, it’s pretty hard for Western women or anyone else to get away from it.

    • http://feministing.com/members/progsnake/ progsnake

      Everything we do, including breathing and thinking, is depleting some scarce resource. This isn’t because of “capitalism”, it’s because of physical reality.

      • http://feministing.com/members/franziakafka/ Franzia Kafka

        ?? … Uh, not really. “Air” is not a finite resource. Neither is thought. Capitalist economic systems rely largely on finite resources (fertile land, oil, minerals, etc.). Sorry, but, yes, there’s a problem with capitalism as a global economic system. It’s based on extracting profit from places there otherwise could simply be an equal or at least fair exchange, and it thrives on un-free trade: exploitation of workers.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ferriswheel/ Amelia

    Trying to be an ethical consumer is so hard. Once you start thinking about the ethics of buying one sort of thing, you notice the other dreadful things that your money is supporting when you buy stuff. Child labour, unfair trade, abuse of animals, misogynistic advertising or workplaces, destruction of eco systems and extinction of animals… it goes on and on. Very depressing. But good on you for thinking about it and acknowledging the horrible story behind something you used to buy.

  • http://feministing.com/members/belldema/ Bell

    I’ve sold my hair. I kept it long from ages 12 to 21- largely because I liked it, and loved it when everyone used to say I was the girl with the longest hair thay had ever known. It went past my bum. But then I thought it was time to have a radical change, and cut it, and sold it- because I didn’t need it, it was pretty and long, and it could be of use to someone else. I went to the theatre and watched a great play with the money I got paid. I enjoyed it.

    You just need to be an informed consumer- I’m sure there are hair retailers that use hair sold by girls who just live in your city. Don’t take their special night out from them.

  • http://feministing.com/members/badseed1980/ Laura

    Thanks for posting this! I’ve never bought a human hair wig before, but had thought about doing so for costumes and possibly for stagewear when I dance. Reading this made me think about where the hair comes from, and how unfair the whole situation is to the women who provide it, and I realized that I’d rather just stick with the synthetics.

  • honeybee

    The other factor is that no one really produces anything themselves before.

    Buying a Sony TV? 95% of the parts were made by other companies and other employers. Same goes for virtually any non-organic product. Everything is so specialized these days and everything that can be outsourced (to save money, use experts, etc.) is.

    So how do you even begin to understand who is truly making something or profiting from something? Often it can be virtually impossible.

  • http://feministing.com/members/tiggrrl/ Elena Perez

    Earlier this year I was broke (single mom, no child support), and I sold my hair online for $1,000. It was over two feet of hair, and my hair is really thick, and the buyer (in the Netherlands) thought he got a great deal, and my hair is brown, not blond. That 16-inch braid the article says would sell for $50? The website that I used to sell my hair had listings for women with blond hair that went up into 2-3K ranges. Granted, that was for 3 feet of hair, but a 16-inch blond braid would still get someone in the U.S. more like $200-300.

    The nasty irony of it is that poor women are being exploited in the hair trade for two reasons. First, they can be paid less for their hair, and are more likely to sell it due to financial hardship, but secondly, they are far more likely to have the long unprocessed, natural, untreated hair that the buyers want. An economically empowered woman is unlikely to sell her hair, and is also more likely to alter her hair in ways that make it unusable for hair buyers. The population that controls the resource is inherently more vulnerable to being taken advantage of in this way.