100% Indian Hair

Every time I drive down La Brea here in L.A., I always do a double take when I cross Pico. There is this huge red sign in front of a store in a strip mall that says, "100% Indian Hair." As a South Asian woman, I find this sign ridiculously strange and wonder just what exactly would happen if I walked into the store. Would they turn me away? Would they kidnap me into the back room for a hair hijacking? Should I start collecting the hair out of my drain and bring it in for some extra money to pay for grad school? What is it about my kind of hair that makes beauty shops so excited about advertising that they have "100% Indian Hair?"

I am reminded of a former African-American co-worker of mine every time I think of hair weaves. I remember the first time she told me she was getting hair extensions in her hair, how she was so excited and ecstatically told me, "I'm paying more money for my extensions because it's real human hair!"

I was mortified. "Whose human hair is it?!?!"

She thought about it for a minute. "You know, I don't know. I just know it's human hair."

I was seriously grossed out by this thought. I likened it to using old nail clippings and glueing it onto someone else's nail. You see, in the process of getting hair extensions, one gets long strands of hair, sometimes fake, some times real. These strands are then placed into people's hair to give the appearance of longer, fuller hair overnight. The hair can be braided in, glued in, sewed in, or clamped in. People pay a lot of money to get this hair placed into their own. But the thing that they don't know is where this human hair comes from.

Why Indian hair? Because our hair is the best. No, for real, that's what the research shows. Indian hair is thicker than European hair and thinner than Chinese hair. Once treated, it is less prone to breaking. The best kind of hair is long and untreated, with all the cuticles in the same direction. It is collected in plaits. Where, oh where, can you find such hair?

Well, the web research show that plaits of hair in India are cut off for weddings or offered to god at religious temples. This hair is then collected by "hair factories" that buy it for 15 rupees (25 cents) per gram. This one hair retailer based out of Chennai says, "Indian women donate their hair as an offering to their god as a sign of modesty. It is their understanding that it will be sold by the monks for a substantial sum of money that will be used to finance schools, hospitals and other publicly favored facilities."

I have some serious problems believing this. First of all, I don't remember an Indian wedding I’ve attended or a Bollywood movie I’ve seen where the hair was cut off the women. Secondly, women in India are ridiculously vain about their hair and will spend hours going through the ritual of soaking their hair in warm coconut oil and shampooing twice. A woman would have to be desperate and really in need of the 15 rupees per gram to cut her hair. Thirdly, supposing that women cut off their hair at the temple as an offering to a god. I'm not so sure that they'd be happy in knowing that their hair is really going around the world to be weaved into someone's hair for $50 a plait.

OK, here comes the speech. The thing that disturbs me about the whole hair trade is the "south corrupts the south" mentality, i.e., women of color in the United States are the ones benefiting from the exploitation of woman of color in South Asia. How can women consciously get human hair weaved into their own without knowing where the hair came from? Or that it came from the exploitation of other women of color? It's the same way people of color will go to Wal-Mart to buy their clothes without consciously thinking of the people of color who created the clothes in sweatshops. Where's the solidarity, people?

I'm all about looking good and spending the money on making that happen. I'm also totally aware that I have cream of the crop hair that is the envy of all, and whatever I say will be met with, "What do you care, you have 100 percent Indian hair." I also understand that there is a whole culture of getting hair weaves that I am not a part of, and that by telling people not to get hair weaves anymore, I am inflicting my cultural values on theirs. I get it. But I do think that, as one woman of color to another woman of color, it is important to know the truth about 100 percent human hair, that this hair was actually alive and had a life before it entered into a weave.

As for me, I'm going to start collecting the hair off my pillow and see if I can make some money with my 100 percent Indian hair.

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