Let’s get into these inches

Hair, there and everywhere

For years, black women have propped up the global demand for human hair but the industry remains shrouded in secrecy and shady ethics. Investigating the hair industry, and the beauty standards that shape it, Ore Ogunbiyi encourages us to scrutinise our relationship with extensions and the blurry line between finding freedom in our hairstyling, and denying that same freedom to others.

I love a good wig as much as the next black woman, so I absolutely hate to break it to you, but… your Peruvian hair isn’t from Peru, your 22-inch Brazilian hair was probably made in China, and a significant chunk of human hair in the global market went down someone’s plughole first. How lovely?

For Africans and other black people in the diaspora, hairstyling, and the trends around it, have been significantly influenced by racialisation; but well before white people set foot on the continent, African women (and men too) have always ‘done the most’ with their hair. A look at ancient art and even more recent photographs from the continent show how women have historically braided and tied their hair up in extravagant styles, stretched it with thread and rubber wire, treated it with herbal condiments and decorated their heads with cowries and beads. In short, elaborate and intricate hairstyling has always been a part of who we are. Even as Africans were snatched from the continent to be slaves across the world, they took many of these traditions with them and braided each other’s hair on their days off.

Although hair augmentation predates colonialism, the advent of colonialism and slavery reconstructed beauty standards and the idea of what is considered conventionally beautiful to an almost irreversible degree. These ideas are pervasive and black women everywhere have felt their influence. “Good” hair is visibly long – and not just when stretched. It is straight and not easily tangled. Soft and not coarse. Fine and not thick. As beauty standards changed in favour of Eurocentric features, black people grew more creative about how to meet them: using chemical relaxers, applying intense heat and, ultimately, wearing human hair wigs. 

Wigs and weaves have given black women room to easily create the illusion that we have hair lengths and textures that we naturally don’t, and it helps us blend into worlds where most people do. Cited in Dina Yerima’s essay analysing the practices of Western beauty standards by Black Women, to paraphrase renowned academic Homi Bhabha, mimicking the powerful (read: White) race is one way of earning power in Western societies. For as long as that demand exists, so will the global industry attempt to meet it.

Human hair wigs are not new, particularly the ones designed to mimic European and Asian hair textures. There was a big spike in wigs being worn in Europe in the Elizabethan era. Japanese Geishas and royals in Ancient Egypt have historically worn human hair wigs too. France’s King Louis XIII loved a good 613 frontal (they were called periwigs back then). However, most of the hair in late 19th century Europe came from Switzerland, Germany and France where dealers would cut off poorer girls’ hair at local fairs, or sometimes as a spectacle in a market square. 

For the most part, though, the industry was and still is, shrouded in secrecy. In today’s world, there remains a long process that happens before Rapunzel’s locks find their way into our wigs. In a move away from 19th century patterns, most human hair today is collected from poor women (and men) in India. As a sign of religious devotion (this could be to honour the gods, to seek some divine purification or to remember a deceased loved one), many young women in rural towns have their hair cut off at Hindu temples. Historically, this hair would be burned. But since the 1960s, the donated hair that is collected at these government-controlled temples is cleansed and then auctioned off to factories and distributors. Prices vary, but hair can cost as much as $1500 for 1kg. One Indian hair manufacturer, Nazia Alizaba, tells me that this donated temple hair is the best quality you can get because it’s less processed, as poorer women from rural areas are less likely to treat their hair with henna, strong shampoos, dyes and bleach. 

Aside from donated hair, there is a wealth of well-documented stories of hair being procured in much more unethical and untraceable ways. Women in conflict zones like Myanmar are attacked for their hair, which is forcibly cut and sold off by thieves. Some young women in Venezuela are conned into selling their hair for next to nothing by dealers taking advantage of the dire economic situation there. When supply is low or manufacturers are looking to increase their profit margins, factories may buy their hair from untraceable sources. Nazia, however, claims that the most reliable way to consistently get good quality hair is still from the temple auctions in India.

Most of the value added to the price of human hair is at factories like hers where the hair is sorted into lengths and textures in a labour-intensive process. The hair is washed and sun-dried repeatedly to get rid of the oils used by the donors, and in between washes, workers separate the strands by hand to ensure the cuticles on the strand’s surface are all facing the same direction, minimising tangling. Frontals and closures are knotted by hand and wefts are machine-stitched then combed for half an hour to catch shedding hairs. Before the final wash, the factory workers also have to get rid of lice which Nazia says infests 99% of the hair they receive. There is so much lice that one worker can spend the whole working day cleaning five or six 100g bundles. 

But all of this is just for “virgin remy” hair, the silky gold standard of human hair that lasts the longest tangles the least and goes for the highest prices. About a third of the hair that goes into Nazia’s factory will never end up going to her vendors. Almost 30% of the donated hair is grey and some of the hair has way too many lice to be salvaged. Instead of discarding of it, her factory sells this waste hair – which they call ‘mixed donor hair’ – to Chinese factories that have the facilities to process this hair further with chemicals and steam. In China, it can be mixed with animal hair, hair from combs and plug holes, and even plastic synthetic hair to make eyelashes, hairnets, braiding hair, and – wait for it – ‘Brazilian’ and ‘Malaysian’ hair. Are you looking at your wigs a bit differently now?

From Hong Kong, which is the largest exporter of human hair, products are shipped all over the world. I-Tips for example, (the small cylinders of individual hairs which are attached to your hair strands) are particularly popular in Europe, but frontals, closures and lace wigs, which are spread much more widely, are popular with black women. 

But how about natural human hair extensions?

In the 1960s, the politicisation of afros by the Black Panthers in the US birthed a natural hair movement that has empowered many Black people to embrace their kinks and curls. In light of this, some hair vendors are trying to change the way black women use human hair extensions. The past few decades have seen black women slowly reclaim, on their own terms, the idea that natural hair textures, in their coily, kinky state, are versatile, work-appropriate and ultimately, beautiful. 

RUKA hair is a British brand that sells human hair extensions designed to mimic black hair, as opposed to European and Asian textures. It was co-founded by Ugo Agbai (left) and Tendai Moyo (right), two black women who know what it’s like to pay premiums at hair salons just for having long, thick afros. It’s taken them years to unlearn the characterisation of their hair as difficult. RUKA was birthed out of a shared desire to be as exploratory and experimental with their hair as they were with other areas of beauty, and to give other people space for that too.

There isn’t as much global demand for afro-textured human hair extensions, which have to be steam processed to achieve the unique curl patterns, though they’re now catching up with the quality of Asian and European textured hair extensions which have been developed for decades. Tendai tried to start a natural hair extensions company before but struggled with supply chain issues, so in some ways, she knew the drill. With RUKA, she was determined to do things differently. She and Ugo are focused on the ethical sourcing of the extensions and partnering with manufacturers who understand their vision. But most exciting to them is the community they’ve been able to build around the products that provide black women with an array of hair solutions. 

You may want your hair thicker, higher or longer – after all black women have done intricate and elaborate things with their hair forever – but until recently we haven’t had many options to do that while still showing off our own hair textures. Black women are not the only people who perm, dye, bleach, straighten or enhance their hair with extensions. “People are going to want extensions and solutions just as women of different ethnicities look for extensions as solutions but our solutions are limited in what they look like,” says Ugo. That was before brands like hers joined the market, selling ponytails and clip-in extensions that mimic 3C-4C curl patterns, giving you room to experiment with different lengths and styles while still celebrating your own natural hair textures. 

Take what you need and do what you want

The ugly side of the natural hair discussion has often policed Black women who still choose to alter or tuck away their hair textures but that’s not what this is. “Within Africa,” Tendai says, “extensions have always been part of the roster of black women and black men’s hair. It’s a part of our styling. It’s a part of our tradition. It’s a part of our self-expression. And so I think, the policing of it, whether it be that you’re policing people for trying to look Naomi-Campbell-straight, whether it be that you police people with afros, all of the policing just kind of needs to go.”

This isn’t another article shouting at you to “go natural” or guilt-tripping you for your hair choices which constantly teeter a delicate line between the imperial and the indigenous. Yes, racialisation and the violence it came with have changed how black women see their hair textures and a whole industry is thriving off the back of it. Yes, we should acknowledge that and understand how we got here. But on the other side of that acknowledgment and understanding, there is a freedom that deserves to be embraced. Instead of negotiating an internal conflict of choosing between extensions that seem more or less natural – or textures that seem more or less ‘black’ – we should be liberated by the choice we have, finding freedom in the options available to us and the potential for the versatility they bring. 

Each day, week, or month where we choose to style and re-style our hair, we are making choices about beauty standards we wish to foreground, but in a space whose frontiers are defined by our shared experiences as black women. In a 2017 essay, Dina Yerima writes that “The postcolonial subject is one whose life is rife with contradictions.” Hair and beauty are no exception. To decenter whiteness from our personal relationships with our hair in the midst of the choices we now have requires us to think about hair textures beyond how “white” they are. Self-expression for black women should be able to exist at all points of the texture and length spectrums without policing, with an understanding (and even an appreciation) that we exist in this weird space within postcolonial contradictions that can’t be easily teased apart or completely undone. 

There is a beauty in being able to talk about our unique experiences of extensions, braids, wigs and everything in between with other black women who share them. There is learning that happens here. For example, the fact that black hair is more sensitive to manipulation is a case for why you might want to keep it tucked away under wigs or woven into extensions. 

For as long as hair and beauty conversations are tinged with shame, policing, secrecy and ignorance, it will always have its limits. There will always be value in learning more about the hair we grow, the hair we choose and the symbolic value of both, particularly for black women who are having to constantly re-learn how to see their hair as beautiful. There is no reason why this can’t be done while also restoring freedom to hairstyling and giving room for preferences that aren’t solely governed by a desire to look white, even when extensions are involved.

Hairstyling trends are increasingly globalised but the phenomenon is more multidirectional than is often recognised. Non-black people take hair cues from us too and there are borrowings across the board. Hair is one of the most versatile bits of the human body and extensions, in all their forms, are likely to remain a part of that conversation for everyone with follicles. The history of extensions, and other forms of hair augmentation, is one that is diverse and shared. The sooner the hair police recognise that the sooner black women may be given room to truly be free in the individual hair decisions that they make. 

Image Credits/RUKA Hair

Ore Ogunbiyi is a reporter at The Economist, a writer and an author. She co-wrote “Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change”. 

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