Monday, November 22, 2010

Rich white woman hair

Women! Between the $250 million-per-year hair-extension industry in the US and "[t]he $1.8 billion business of superfluous hair removal," how very, very vain is our sex. Don't you know that money could be given to charity?

Something about these two articles - on poor Russian women selling their Slavic locks, and on better-off American women giving bikini waxes for a year so as to write about it for Slate - didn't sit right. These particular beauty procedures are ones I know little about - I've got my share of beauty complaints, but excess body hair and insufficient head-hair are not among them.  (Over-sufficient head-hair, according to the hairdressers I've had to instruct not to "thin it out.") And I'm sufficiently weirded out by other people doing beauty-stuff for me that I don't even like getting haircuts, let alone manicures, let alone anything more personal.

At-home is another story. I recently spent $30 each on jumbo bottles of the only shampoo and conditioner that allows me to let my hair air-dry. What do I mean by "allows"? Surely the fashion police wouldn't arrest me if I went the wash-and-go route with Pantene. What I'm getting at, I suppose, is that the line between self-hatred and narcissism isn't so clear. Aside from women vilifying those whose routines are one notch more high-maintenance than their own - and a tiny subset of hippies who use one vegan soap as shampoo, body wash, laundry detergent, and tofu marinade - there's no real discussion of what constitutes "too much." High-maintenance is what she does, not what I do.

In other words, yes, if you add up the total spent on hair - body or otherwise, by a population or by yourself - you might feel ashamed and skip a weekly trip to Sephora. If you know what really went into making your moisturizer or peek-toe booties, you'd cringe. (Or your veggie burger, or your iPod, etc.) But we're left at the same place - faulting women for vanity, rather than society for expecting women to make an effort with their appearances, or society for considering it inherently dumb to care about physical appearance above and beyond the effort put in by the average hetero man, his level of concern being the standard by which others must be measured.

That is, at any rate, part of it. The waxing article, which had potential, falls victim to what accounts of a set amount of time spent dabbling in a service industry, with the end goal being to write a book about that period, typically do: It's hard to sort out which aspects of the job are objectively objectionable, and which are only problematic for someone whose real job is being a writer (one who mentions having a second home in her bio, at that), and who finds the very fact of serving for pay humiliating. I don't doubt that waxing body hair for a living has its challenges, but when Virginia Sole-Smith laments that she had to hear about clients' personal lives without offering up tales of her own - "We were taught to avoid sharing personal information about ourselves whenever possible" - I'm hearing nothing that anyone in any number of industries doesn't already know. (Teachers, for instance, know that while students can sometimes claim personal reasons for lateness or poor performance on an exam, the teacher doesn't have the option of coming in 15 minutes past the start time because he's so stressed about whatever it is he has to do later in the day.) She doesn't like the one-sided conversation, yet finds it "exploitative" when the waxing session reaches "the moment when your client shuts off from you, closing her eyes to 'relax.'" She's surprised that not everyone tips 20%. I mean, I'm not exactly The Hardened Worker here, and I was blown away by the naivete.

The Russian-blondes story, meanwhile, has something of a missing-white-girl aspect to it - yes, it's bad to be so poor that you have to sell your hair, but most desperately poor women in the world aren't blonde and don't even have the option of catering to Paris Hilton wannabes. But there's something particularly moving about women whose only possession is their golden hair having to part with that, the very symbol of their purity and innocence. That, and the market for these particular hair extensions isn't black women, whose relationship to the hair industry is typically understood as more complicated than a mere matter of vanity (except on this one NPR show this one time, when the guest verbally rolled her eyes at the fact that young black girls are reluctant to learn how to swim because it would mess up their hair), but white women. Rich white women, incapable of producing full heads of blond hair on their own, who have to pay Ukrainian maidens for the braids off their backs. Cue "Sex and the City"-inspired urbanites, dressed too young for their age. Rich, white, and unsympathetic. If only they'd learn to accept their flat hair, the women of the former USSR could twirl away into eternity.

It will at any rate come as no surprise to anyone who follows the fashion industry that the parts of the world where poverty and pallor intersect are especially sought-after. For the women whose hair says model but whose face or body don't, hair-selling is apparently a way to capitalize on the fact that the coloring valued by the Nazis continues to be in style.


Britta said...

I wasn't so sure of the point of the last article either. Was it, "oh, those poor blonde Russian women have to sell their hair," or "it's lucky they're blondes and have such a great asset to sell?" Also, I'm wasn't sure what the point of the article was in general. Why not something about the hair selling industry in general? Why is blonde hair so special that it requires its own article?

Anonymous said...

Dammit. I read the Russian blondes article and did not even catch the point you noted here (which is right on, IMO). And I work on inequities for a living.

Damn gender blinders.

PG said...

I thought the Russian hair article was interesting because I was already aware that the majority of hair in the international market comes from India and usually has been given up for free. I've been thinking about this lately because my mom told me recently that one time when I was sick as a baby and she honestly thought I might not make it, she promised God that if I got better, she would give my hair at an Indian temple. I got better, but she never got around to handing over my hair, so... I'm going to get my head shaved in March.

But anyway, I found the article engaging because it had such a different process: people treating their own hair as a market commodity rather than as a religious one. I didn't really think of the blond hair as symbolic of innocence and purity, I suppose because there's so much fake blond hair out there that the color doesn't really carry that association for me outside a Disney film.

As for customers' desire to close their eyes and pretend to be elsewhere at the moment of getting the hairs ripped out of their labia, if the writer couldn't grasp why this happened, she's too stupid to work in a salon.

Matt said...

hair-selling is apparently a way to capitalize on the fact that the coloring valued by the Nazis continues to be in style.

My understanding was that it wasn't blond hair qua blond hair that was desired, but blond hair qua hair that can easily be died to match the recipient's natural hair. As such, there's no nazi edge to the story, I think. (Actually in Russia there are somewhat more blonds than in the US, but not so many that they are a majority, and people dye their hair all sorts of colors.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


That the hair is blond matters because of societal notions of "natural" beauty and its superiority, particularly when it comes to women's hair. Rather than questioning the fact that certain hair colors and textures are valued over others, it's fashionable to criticize women for straightening or bleaching their hair - all the more so gluing on the straight, blond hair of a woman who came by it naturally, while celebrating the natural beauty and low-maintenance attitude of women who already have the hair type in question. I'm thinking in particular of how black and Jewish women are viewed, but this goes for other "ethnics" (the Kardashians? J-Lo?) as well - rather than noting that the further a woman is racially from mainstream society's beauty standards, the more time and money she'll "need" to spend to look acceptable, we call non-white or less-white women high-maintenance and associate natural Nordic/Slavic good looks with inherently healthier attitudes towards physical appearance. Rather than viewing a bare-bones daily hair routine as the result of (dare I use this term I myself dislike) privilege, we... I feel as though I'm dancing around the point here, but what I'm getting at is, we're supposed to pity the hair-sellers, even though as exploitation of poor women around the world goes, this is fairly innocuous, because the natural possessor of "good" hair is presumed lower-maintenance and less shallow/spoiled/whatever than the woman who requires what look like torture implements to tame her hair into submission.

Daniel Goldberg,

Not sure which point in particular you mean, but thanks!


Re: blondness as innocence, I'm thinking not just of an old trope, but also of the much-discussed fact that every news story of an abducted or otherwise victimized young girl is that much more visible if the girl in question is a photogenic blonde, as opposed to male or of color, but also above and beyond simply being middle-class and white. Elizabeth Smart, Rachel Corrie, even "Foxy Knoxy" - as much as we all (or all women, at least) know rationally that most of the adult women going around with golden locks got their artificially, it's supposed to be more shocking when a blonde is a militant/activist/whatever, more tragic when one is kidnapped. The blondness itself is deemed crucial to the story.

As for the tuning-out, I always sort of figured this is what hairdressers, at least, would prefer, and that the chit-chat is something they do because with many customers it encourages a bigger tip, loyalty, etc.


It may be less "Nazi beauty ideals" than I suggest, but the angle's definitely there. The article also mentioned the influence of Paris Hilton - the "extension" look, for white women, is hair-color-specific. That, and what's being "matched" isn't necessarily the natural hair color of rich white women. If you think about it, the sort of women looking to pay up for extra volume probably overlaps with the portion dyeing their hair, and you don't get too many blondes going brunette. Even if I didn't know that this was a look that went with blond hair, I'd have guessed that women who dyed their hair blond were among the more enthusiastic consumers of hair extensions.