Mavi, the apprentice at Mastercut, had told me about her side business in hair extensions long ago, but we had never managed to schedule an appointment which I could join. Early in December, it was her last appointment of the year and I was eager to make it to this one – especially because it was my last month of fieldwork at Mastercut.

Mavi wrote me on WhatsApp that she asked her customer to come directly to Mastercut, because Felix, the salon owner, had allowed her to do the procedure there. It turned out that Mavi’s customer had been at the salon the day before to remove her old extensions and that today’s appointment was only to attach the new strands. In the kitchen, Mavi explained to me that this customer was one of the first customers she had acquired, which is why she charged her a reduced price for the treatment. However, she also complained that this customer was very picky in spite of the special price.

Mavi got an A5 notebook out of her locker and showed me her price list (see title photo). She explained that the customer pays for the hair itself, the removal of her old extensions, the bonding of the hair into strands, and the procedure of applying the extensions to the head. The prices for one gram of real human hair – the “raw material”, so to speak – differed according to the length of the hair and according to its structure: The longer the hair, the more the customer had to pay for one gram of it. Mavi further explained that she ordered the hair of the customer’s preferred length, color, and structure (curly or straight) from a Turkish website. When she received the ordered tail of hair, Mavi bonded together the strands for the extensions with a keratin glue. This glue wouldn’t do any harm to the customer’s own hair as keratin was one of the main components of human hair, she pointed out.

Not the regular customer

Mavi’s customer, whom I will call Nyla, was sitting in the chair at Felix’s work station when I came out of the kitchen. She was sitting there alone and was typing on her cellphone, giving off the impression of being bored. Nyla’s thin figure was covered in black skinny jeans and a tight black top. Her black straight hair was so long that it easily hung above the backrest of the hairdressing chair. Trough the mirror I could already catch a glimpse of her face which was lit up by the screen of her phone. She had used a lot of makeup giving her face an orange-brown tone. Additionally, her inflated lips and long false eyelashes immediately caught my attention.

At first, I was hesitant to approach her, because Nyla didn’t seem like a person whom I would attempt to establish contact with in my personal life. In the environment of the salon with its stylish vintage interior, the electronic music beats pounding from the new sound system, and the uniquely dressed hairdressers passing by on their way into or out of the kitchen, she seemed out of place to me. Even though the hairdressers were always proud of their “diverse clientele”, Nyla wasn’t someone I would expect to sit in front of one of the mirrors at Mastercut, waiting for her treatment. Her style was just different from the style of the customers I usually encountered at Mastercut – different in the way that her hair, her lips, her makeup, and her eyelashes were somewhat over the top.

A question of conscience

After I had introduced myself to Nyla, Mavi came back with a trolley on which she stored the tools as well as the hair strands for the procedure. She explained to me that Nyla “already brings with her an extreme mass [of hair]” (bringt schon ‘ne krasse Masse mit) which is why they wouldn’t use too many extensions. Nyla, however, explained that she needed extensions – and not just a few – to increase the length and volume of her hair, “because I have very thin hair”. In spite of Nyla’s request, Mavi wouldn’t attach more than 160 grams of extensions. This had to do with Mavi’s ethical standards: she did not want to exploit the customers by selling them more than they needed. For her, it was important to achieve a result that is “as natural as possible” (ein möglichst natürliches Ergebnis), meaning that one should not be able to tell that the person was wearing extensions. Two hundred grams would look “unnatural”, she explained. An approach that Nyla did not seem to share fully.

More importantly even, both by using a specific technique (including the keratin glue) and by reducing the amount of attached hair to a minimum, Mavi wanted to prevent damage to the customer’s hair. She rejected the practice of others who, driven by greedy interests, would exploit the customers by attaching too many extensions. The customer would not only pay more than necessary for the single treatment, but, according to Mavi, too much extra hair would make the customer abhängig – translating both as “depended on” and “addicted to” the extensions. She explained that the weight of the extensions would pull too hard on the customer’s own hair and therefore cause hair loss. This would introduce the vicious circle of creating its own demand (and reversing the original purpose of hair extensions, namely to increase the hair’s volume and length): too many extensions cause hair loss; thin hair requires more extensions. Instead, Mavi’s aim, as she stated it, was that her customers will become “no longer dependent/addicted” one day. Therefore, to Mavi it was a question of conscience to advise her customers well and to even deny Nyla’s demand of having more extensions attached to her hair. She stated: “My conscience wouldn’t let me do that” (Ich könnte das nicht mit meinem Gewissen vereinabaren).

Caring for attachments

Mavi started the procedure by parting Nyla’s hair. She explained that she would attach three rows of extensions: One nearly in the neck, but still covered by some hair if Nyla decides to wear them in a tail; one longer row only slightly above the first; and finally one line reaching from ear to ear. As with the neck line, one had to pay attention that the knots close to the ears would be covered by the customer’s own hair, so that they are not visible in case the customer decides to wear her hair differently or if her hair is scattered by the wind, as Mavi explained.

The tools used for making the extensions

The tools used for making the extensions

While she was separating strands of Nyla’s hair along the line of her parting, Mavi explained that she was using the “Brazilian technique”, which she had learned at her former work place, a studio for hair extensions in Berlin Charlottenburg. Instead of gluing the strands into the customer’s hair or using small plastic rings to attach the strands, she used an elastic brown string. This way, you don’t have a “foreign body” (Fremdkörper) in your hair and thus it just feels like your own hair when brushing them or running your fingers through them, Mavi told me. She wrapped the elastic string around the bonded end of the strand together with the previously separated strand of Nyla’s own hair. In order to finalize the attachment, she tied the two ends of the string into two knots and cut the ends of the string with nail scissors that hung on a thread around her neck. The attachment was complete and the strand was now part of Nyla’s hair. They became her own.

Before starting with the next strand of hair, Mavi had to make sure that the previous attachment was a good one, in the sense that it had to last longer than just for this moment. She had forgotten her stencil that would separate Nyla’s hair strand from the surrounding hair. Therefore, after attaching each strand she had to make sure that “baby hair” (Babyhärchen) hadn’t gotten caught in the twine, because this twirled “baby hair” would become matted after a while. Later, Oliver, another hairdresser at Mastercut, cut a new stencil out of an old magazine. It was a small circle with a hole in the middle through which the strand of Nyla’s hair was threaded to prevent other hair from getting twirled.

Mavi further pointed out that “you can use them [the extensions] a couple of years, if you treat them well” (Bei guter Pflege kann man die mehrere Jahre verwenden). The customer had to care for her extensions like she cares for her own hair – with hair care products and by combing them with a special brush. What made the hair Mavi ordered for her customers durable enough to be reused several times was the fact that they were not covered by a layer of silicone, as she told me. This was the case with Indian hair extensions: they were covered with silicone “to make them look nice”. However, this procedure would break the hair’s outmost part, the cuticle (Schuppenschicht). The result was that “they look good for three months and afterwards they look totally lifeless”. Her “hair trader” (Haarhändler) did not get Indian hair of which the ordered tails is put together of hair from different persons. Instead, her hair trader’s hair from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan had “an intact cuticle”, because it was processed chemically only to clean it. Moreover, each tail was from one person only. Therefore, even after several treatments, the hair looked lively – if the customer took good care of them.

Even though the concept of care is usually applied to health-related contexts, Mavi’s side business with extensions can be described as a form of care in so far as it delineates “an affective state, a material vital doing, and an ethico-political obligation” (Puig de la Bellacasa 2011, 90). This, however, does not mean that Mavi did not also have financial interests. During the appointment with Nyla it became obvious that the customer was her main concern – not making her dependent/addicted. When explaining her work ethics, she clearly stated that she did not want to exploit her customers by selling them more than necessary. This claim to run a fair business involved related domains of care.

First, Mavi took care of the product she was selling, i.e. the hair extensions, which did not yet belong to Nyla’s body. She did not order the Indian hair which would lose its lively appearance after a few months, but bought tails from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan that would endure many procedures – given that the customer cared for her hair, too. Second, she was concerned with the customer’s own hair in so far as she did not want to harm it or even cause hair loss. This was her “ethico-political obligation”. She used a technique that wouldn’t damage the customer’s hair and kept the weight of the extensions at a minimum. Lastly, Mavi also cared for the connection between Nyla’s hair and the extensions which used to belong to a Turkmen or Uzbek woman. Her aim was to make the extensions part of Nyla’s hair – at least for a certain amount of time before the extensions have to be removed and attached to the hair roots anew. This form of caring for the attachments consisted of material ways of doing the extensions and of Nyla’s look. It was noticeable in Mavi’s meticulous attention to preventing “baby hair” from being matted and to the knots not being visible in any situation.

In pursuit of artificiality

Mavi wanted to achieve a “result as natural as possible” and not make her customer addicted/dependent. Nyla, in contrast, could be described as addicted to all sorts of body modifications. During our conversation, she told me: “Well, I just love the artificial” (Ich liebe ja so das Künstliche). She repeated this desire to look artificial several times during the head-to-toe interview (Hardon and Idrus 2015) and explained that attending to her body through several modification practices turned into a hobby for her. She deliberately used the term “hobby” in order to point out that she was beautifying/artificializing her body neither to please others – “definitely not for the people … to please them” – nor to boost her self-confidence. “It all just became part of my life”, she explained and added: “It makes me happy”.

While I often made the observation at Mastercut that both hairdressers and customers wanted as a result a “natural look”, Nyla clearly rejected an endeavor of this kind. She wanted to look artificial. But artificial in a specific way which was on peculiar terms with naturalness. In order to achieve this specific artificiality, she invested a lot of money, time and work into her body as a project. What was artificiality for Nyla then? And how did she achieve it?

The artificiality Nyla pursued should be well-crafted – “Of course, I want only the very best” (Ich will ja auch das Beste vom Besten), she stressed, when explaining to me that she ordered online a hyaluronan product by a well-known brand for having her lips plumped. This well-crafted artificiality was also apparent in Mavi and Nyla’s shared concern that the knots in Nyla’s hair should not be visible. Thus, it should not be seen how specifically Nyla’s body had been modified. Instead, artificiality should be recognizable as an extreme result. Artificiality was her long and voluminous hair, not the knots in the hair. It was her plumped lips – well-plumped lips that looked well-formed and not like she had injected the product herself.

Additionally, in order to look artificial, for Nyla, her face did not have to be – it mustn’t! – be a face without proportions or harmony. She wished to have her “hooknose” (Hexennase) surgically changed into “a cute snub nose” (‘ne süße Stupsnase), because she had the feeling that “my nose does not fit to my face, right now”. She explained that when she was wearing lipstick, it looked as if her upper lip was touching her nose. “In the end, it has to fit” (muss ja passen), she said with a gesture of her hand towards her face. Thus, the artificiality Nyla pursued was not an artificiality that is discernable in disproportions, but comes together harmoniously: inflated lips need a “cute snub nose”.

Lastly, artificiality wasn’t just the opposite of a natural look, as one could tell from Nyla’s plan of having her breasts augmented. Yes, her breasts should be bigger than now, but that didn’t mean that she aimed for protruding “balloon-like” breasts (Ballonform). This would be an unnatural artificiality. Instead, she preferred her future breasts “drop-shaped” (Tröpfchenform) – that is, having a form like breasts that haven’t been surgically modified. So, in some way Nyla’s artificiality also imitated what was regarded as natural forms and proportions. Artificiality as not being diametrically opposed to naturalness, hence, used “natural forms and proportions” by pushing them to the extreme.

Caring differently

While the appointment was proceeding, Nyla seemed to become unsatisfied with Mavi’s work. The prospect of a result that wouldn’t meet her expectations of much more volume in her hair, made her get more and more emotional. When Mavi went away to get something, Nyla stood up to examine Mavi’s work in the mirror. She took a few steps back, threw her hair back behind her shoulders and looked at herself by bending over backwards and glancing over her shoulder. She told Mavi that she was worried that her hair wouldn’t look voluminous enough. While Mavi already was about to finish the second row out of three, still more than half of the strands lay on the trolley and on the shelf in front of Nyla. Nyla expressed her fear that the strands were too thin and that subsequently not all of them would fit on her head. She held one strand between her fingers and let it hang down, looking at the hair critically.

Nyla examining a strand of hair extensions

Nyla examines a strand of hair extensions

Nyla lamented that her previous extensions did not thin out in the strands’ ends that much. She was unhappy with the extensions that were about to become part of her hair – of her look. The strands just were too thin in the ends, she argued while frowning at a strand of which she was holding the ends in both her hands, stretching it before her eyes. Additionally, they seemed shorter than the promised length: “It turned shorter… The hair looks like sixty centimeters”. Mavi soothed her by explaining that it was only natural that hair was thinner in the hair ends. Additionally, she praised the quality of the ordered hair: “This was a very good tail!”

Contrary to her own words, Mavi also seemed to realize that she miscalculated the size of the single hair strands. She asked Nyla to pick the thickest strands from the pile of hair in front of her. Nyla did as she was told and examined each strand for its thickness and length. She placed those which she regarded as the best on her lap and absentmindedly ran her fingers through the selected strands as if a cat had made itself comfortable there. Nevertheless, Nyla still wasn’t relieved. Putting her hand on her chest, she expressed her discomfort again: “Gosh, that really bums me down now!” (Das zieht mich jetzt voll runter!). Nyla also cared. She cared for her look and the prospect of not getting the favored result affected her deeply.

While Mavi – through her work ethics – mostly cared for the customer’s hair as well as for the attachments between hair and extensions, Nyla’s concern was somewhat different. Above all, she cared for her artificial look right now – not taking into consideration the possible consequences of too many extensions causing hair loss. Caring for this look, she was mostly preoccupied with the quality of the extensions which were about to contribute to her preferred appearance. She selected every single strand individually and caressed them like a pet. Nyla’s emotional response to the possibility of having not all extension in her hair as well as Mavi’s constant attempts of soothing her thereby show how caring for a specific look not just involves time and money, but also the emotional labor of negotiating different concerns.

Starting another attempt to ease the situation, Mavi suggested that she would take home the thin strands, bond them again into thicker ones, and attach them to Nyla’s hair in another appointment – all for a reduced price. Nyla agreed with discomfort. While this looked like a good compromise at that moment, Mavi told me a few weeks later that she got into a fight with Nyla about the extensions.

 

References

Hardon, Anita, and Nurul Ilmi Idrus. 2015. “Magic power: Changing gender dynamics and sex-enhancement practices among youths in Makassar, Indonesia.” Anthropology & Medicine 22 (1): 49–63.

Puig de la Bellacasa, Maria. 2011. “Matters of care in technoscience: Assembling neglected things.” Social Studies of Science 41 (1): 85-106.

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