Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ponytail Economics

For all my rhetoric about beauty-as-commodity, it's chilling to see an aspect of beauty literally functioning as a commodity. In poor regions of former Soviet states, many blond women turn to their hair as a resource, according to this Times piece. There's a huge market (the largest being in America, natch) for hair--particularly blond hair, which is abundant in the region.

There's a number of unspoken notions about beauty embedded into the human-hair industry, and indeed into this article. For one, the unquestioned notion that long hair is desirable; it's not even worth getting into why women might pay hundreds of dollars to cement someone else's cellular matter to their head. (Personally, I'd rather wear someone else's underwear than her hair--the latter seems extraordinarily intimate, don't you think?) For another, the assumption that light hair is preferable. This is practical in part--blond hair is more dyeable than dark, which needs to be stripped of pigment and then dyed in order to be a perfect match for a buyer's own hair. But as one of the hair czars interviewed, Aleksei N. Kuznetsov, says, "honey-hued" hair that changes color in the light is the most desirable hair--that has little to do with dyeability and more to do with what blond hair connotes (more fun, gentlemen's preferences, etc.).

"Why does one woman sell her hair to another? The person with money wants to look better than the person without money," says Kuznetsov in the piece. "Better," in addition to being long-locked and perhaps blond, also means being transformed after three hours in a stylist's chair instead of the nearly three years it would take to grow a 16-inch braid. The industry transforms the waiting game of the growing-out process--the sort that non-impoverished but non-wealthy women such as myself bemoan and cover up with barrettes and headbands when deciding to grow out one's hair--into either a long, drawn-out, passive labor (for the seller) or a non-issue altogether (for the buyer).

Go on, tell me that a lopped-off ponytail isn't a little bit creepy.

This hirsuit surrogacy becomes particularly chilling when you look at other ways in which the region's women make a living: It's estimated that 2/3 of the world's victims of sex trafficking are from former Soviet nations. In those cases, it's sex that's actually being bought and sold; in the case of a blond ponytail, only the symbol of sex is being trafficked. It's also fertile ground for young models to be exported to wealthier nations--another case of women's beauty becoming a sort of natural resource.

And a precious resource at that. Selling one's hair is describe as "a final resource to tap in times of desperation," and once again it's not spelled out why it's a last resort; we're expected to intuitively know, an expectation that is only a responsible assumption if we get that a woman's hair is so deeply personal, so tied to her essence, that to part with it is a newsworthy sacrifice. In fact, some sellers are consciously switching up their style and are just capitalizing on the opportunity, a notion that's squeezed in at the very end of the piece--consciously or not, the writer is urging us to sympathize with the women who sell their hair. The economic desperation is the point of the piece, but it's the understood psychic sacrifice that adds the poignancy here.

I was 8 when I first read Little Women; as every high-spirited girl reader is encouraged to, I adored Jo. That didn't stop me from being furious at her when she sold her hair, "her one beauty," in order to pay for her mother to visit their ill father behind the battle lines of the Civil War. I gave a glance to her nobility, sure, but also privately thought that surely she could have found another way (chop off that little brat Amy's curls, for one). As a third-grader, I understood that Jo was selling more than a part of her body--she was selling her femininity, a choice that made even tomboyish Jo break into quiet tears in the night: "My...My hair!...I just made a little private moan for my one beauty." Louisa May Alcott didn't need to spell out for us why the hair was valued, nor why the choice hurt even a woman as nonchalant toward her appearance as Jo. In the same way, I'm surprised that this story is even considered newsworthy by the Times (though I'm pleased it is); it's just business as usual, right?

Cross-posted from The Beheld, a blog with perspectives on beauty, in development.

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