When Beyoncé released her latest visual album earlier this year, the whole world wanted to know who ‘Becky with the good hair’ was; the woman referenced in Beyoncé’s song ‘Sorry’. Despite the insinuation that Becky is the woman having an affair with Beyoncé’s love interest, nothing is revealed about Becky apart from the fact that, according to Beyoncé, she has ‘good hair.’
The truth is, there are hundreds of thousands of ‘Beckys with the good hair’ and they are responsible for creating a multi-million dollar (USD 610 million worth of exports in 2014) global industry in human hair extensions harvesting.
The human hair industry is a global trade selling human hair, from men but mostly women, as a commodity. There are plenty of uses for human hair such as food additives and stuffing for furniture. However, the most well-known use is for cosmetic purposes to make human hair weaves and wigs. According to International Trade Centre statistics, India and China were the biggest exporters of human hair, providing 67.5% of the world’s human hair exports in 2014.
From process to power: the global value chain of human hair
Who are the women providing this hair for sale? In order to understand who they are, it’s important to first understand their role in the production chain of human hair.
A typical production chain of human hair would look like this:
Each link in the chain above represents an actor responsible for one aspect of production in the commodity chain. What we are concerned with, however, is not the process but the value of each activity in the process. Not all actors involved have equal power in making the hair and making money from the product and in order to identify and assess these power inequalities, I measure the value of and power in each activity. As we are measuring value and not production, I will refer to the chain above as a global value chain and not a global commodity chain.
Following the trail
The global value chain of human hair is de facto created to be unequal in terms of access and control of the commodity. The links in the value chain above, highlighted in pink, are the ones mainly occupied by women and they are the lower wage and labour intensive activities in the value chain. The low-wage and labour intensive work the women do is what enables the value chain to have such high profit margins.
The links, highlighted in orange, are the higher value add activities such as trading, marketing, distributing and selling to consumers. Without clear data, it is hard to make a definitive analysis but based on the work of investigative journalists such as Scott Carney, Priceonomics, and BBC, the division of labour and activities appear to be unequally divided along gender, with men controlling the higher value add activities and women occupying the lower value add activities.
The main role that women play in this value chain is producing or ‘harvesting’ the hair. The most popular reported process of producing the hair, is in fact the least frequent method. Tonsured hair, also referred to as temple hair, is human hair collected at Hindu temples such as the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Andhra Pradesh, India. Pilgrims cut off their hair as a sacrificial offering to the Hindu deity. While both men and women cut their hair, women’s hair is more lucrative as it is typically longer and of better quality, making for higher value commodities.
This hair is collected by the temple leaders and sold in the human hair market as a more ‘environmentally sustainable’ alternative to burning the hair which causes pollution. However, processing the hair in factories has been reported to be toxic to the workers causing ‘tuberculosis and respiratory tract infections’. This begs the question, is this really the better alternative?
When hair is voluntarily offered in return for financial or other material incentives, the producer of that hair is often a poor woman selling the hair due to limited means to sustain themselves. A local barter travels around different economically deprived areas to buy the hair from the women. Hair can also be collected in waste dumps and at barbershops by poor women, families, and street children in exchange for financial rewards or other material goods such as hair pins and toys.
When hair is not voluntarily offered, emotional and physical violence is used to obtain it. Reports include women being coerced by their husbands to sell their hair, and women, such as Uma, who was held down by a gang of men and had her hair cut off to be sold. These incidents have been reported in India and in other geographies around the world.
Power as access
The higher value add activities in this value chain are not just more lucrative because of the activities themselves but because of the level of visibility, and therefore access, they give you to the consumer. Another key observation from this point is the gender division of visibility between the different actors in the value chain.
The actors working in the more labour intensive aspects of the value chain (i.e. women who cut their hair, and women who process the hair in processing factories) are not visible in the value chain. Trying to buy the hair directly from the woman in Tirumala who has produced a bundle of hair is going to be near impossible in comparison to buying the hair from the hair processing factory owned and run by a man.
Power as control
Power in this value chain is also determined by the control one has to ‘brand’ the quality of the hair and its corresponding value. The ad hoc process in the way hair is collected makes it difficult to authenticate hair and its origins. Reporting to the New York Times, a human hair buyer, Sergei V. Kotlubi, refers to the process of buying human hair as “fishing. You never know what you will catch.”
In an industry where the commodity is not obtaining the hair but obtaining the right kind of hair, the actor in the value chain who has the power to determine what ‘right’ is, holds a lot of power in the trade. The woman selling her hair does not have the power to decide the value or quality of her hair. Instead, another actor in the value chain, the dealer or the manufacturer or the retailer, are the ones who authenticate the hair.
The aesthetic of beauty, the aesthetic of poverty
‘I see their eyes gleaming with happiness, when they see so much hair…their joys, you can’t see how joyful they are because they think their beauty is enhanced by wearing this hair phenomenally.’ – Benjamin Cherian, Founder Raj International
From my personal experience growing up in African migrant communities in London, I’ve always assumed that the main consumer group of human hair were Afro-Caribbean and African communities.
However, reading through existing literature and media articles, the profile of the consumer is just as ambiguous as the producer. The consumer is mainly presented as a) from Global North but more specifically b) white and/or c) economically wealthy. It is also reported that there is a huge demand for human hair wigs and weaves in ‘Africa’ (no specifics, as usual) but without data, we cannot define more accurately the profile of consumers, their socio-economic characteristics, their spending habits and the reasons why they buy human hair.
We do know that consumers buy the hair based on qualities ascribed to the hair type. These qualities include the process of production, for example, Remy hair which is a style of human hair renowned, ‘for the way it’s collected, in a single cut, which preserves the orientation of the hair’s shingle-like outer layer, and thus its strength, luster, and feel.’
A second distinguishing quality is the geographic origin of the hair which are in fact exoticised representations of the subaltern. Chinese hair is distinguished by the ‘dark and silky’ quality, Peruvian hair is distinguished by the ‘thicker and wavy’ texture and so forth.
The desire for this aesthetic is a complete reversal of other global beauty trends which are typically centred on Eurocentric beauty standards. The global phenomenon of skin bleaching to achieve whiter skin tones, the fetishisation of tanned (read olive) skin tones as opposed to tanned (read black) skin tones, the glorification of smaller noses and wider eyes are just a few examples. The market for whiteness is the biggest one there is.
My hypothesis for the reversal of this trend in the human hair industry is related to labour. The hair produced is through cheap and exploitative forms of labour. If the workers in the value chain were paid higher wages or received better workers’ rights as status quo in most developed countries, the profit margin gained by the more powerful actors would reduce and so would the incentive to participate in this industry. As the manufacturer, Benjamin Cherian explains, “The demand is huge, but I don’t think that anyone outside of India would ever be able to do this. We survive because of the cheap labor. No one in Italy, or California, could prepare the hair for less.”
The human hair industry is structurally designed to function on this inequality and sadly there are regions where exploitative labour has been normalised in our global consciousness. It is physically and symbolically feasible for the consumer to detach the exploitative labour and the narrative of poverty from the final product, if the product is made in Mongolia and not Madrid.
This is reiterated by the fact that access to human hair can only get us as close to the commodity as possible but never to the human whose labour produced it. The growing trend of selling hair through e-commerce sites, such as Ali Baba, allow us to directly reach the manufacturers and dealers but anyone further down the value chain remains erased from the narrative of beauty sold in the packaging.
In search of Becky
When researching this value chain, I realised that Becky is not just the producer, the woman whose existence in this value chain is justified by her ‘good hair.’ Her existence is a reminder of the liminality, insecurity and invisibility still prevalent in modern day patterns of work, framed by gender, racial and geographical inequalities. Lack of data, or perhaps the allure of the neo-liberal choice without consequence, prevent us from knowing more about them other than the hair they produce.
However, I’m convinced that there is room to dig deeper. Can we connect the labour and the product, the producer and the consumer to develop alternative value chains that empower the poor and vulnerable workers? Should we do this? I am challenging myself, in the next post, to re-imagine a different and more equitable human hair industry. Do you have any thoughts/ideas? Let me know in the comment section below 😉