How is race done in the transnational circulation of hair for the production of wigs, extensions, and toupees? Or to put it differently: what happens to race in its many guises, when hair is (com-)modified on its way from one head to another. Based on exploratory fieldwork, this post1 engages with this question, by drawing on material-semiotic approaches to the materiality of race. It follows Emma Tarlo’s exploration of “the making and unmaking of race through hair and the difficulties of disentangling hair from race” (Tarlo 2019, 326).
Let me start with my research which resulted in my master’s thesis with the title “Dis/entangling the strands: An ethnographic study of body enactments in hairdressing practices.” I did participant observation by working as an assistant at an upmarket hairdressing salon in Berlin which I have called “Mastercut”. This means that most of the five months of my fieldwork were comprised of cleaning mirrors, hairdressing tools, and shelves; welcoming customers and preparing drinks for them; shampooing hair and rinsing out dye; as well as answering the phone and scheduling appointments. In this project, my main focus was on body enactments in beautification practices; what it takes to produce “style” and what the body is made to be in different sociomaterial practices of treating hair.
While my fieldwork was located at the salon in the hip neighborhood of Berlin-Friedrichshain, my research soon led me beyond the confines of Mastercut by following different strands in the form of discourses, objects and people. One object took me even far beyond the city boundary of Berlin – yet not physically, as I couldn’t afford the travel costs. I encountered the training head as a source of frustration. The apprentice of Mastercut had to practice coloring techniques on it and she was more than fed up with this cumbersome task of dividing the hair in the right way, selecting a strand, weaving the hair that should be dyed, placing it on a piece of aluminum foil, and applying the dye with a brush. Yet, the training head, a product of science and technology, had an interesting story to tell. Especially its hair took a long journey from Hindu temples in India, to production sites in China, and finally to Mastercut.
In 2016, India was the main exporter in human hair with a revenue of over 230 million US dollars, while China is the main importer. In China, the hair is turned into wigs, toupees, and extensions for a Euro-American market. As the main exporter of wigs, China obtains a trade value of over one billion US dollars by selling to the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany as the main importers (UN Commodity Trade 2018a; 2018b).
Emma Tarlo describes the trade in human hair for the production of wigs, toupees, and extensions as “a backstage business about which little is known to those outside the trade” (Tarlo 2016b) – and this in spite of its long history. According to mainly journalistic sources, most of the hair for the production of wigs and extensions is taken from Hindu temples in the south of India. Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati is mentioned as the biggest trading institution of “temple hair.” It attracts twenty million pilgrims every year who offer their hair in a religious act of purification. The trade in hair earns the temple an estimated yearly revenue of nearly 23 million Euros which makes the temple the second wealthiest religious institutions in the world (Tarlo 2016a, 77–83).
There is an extensive body of literature, especially in critical race studies about the politics of hair styles. However, the trade in human hair has received considerably less attention in academia. Emma Tarlo has written an ethnography on nearly every aspect of hair. Her detailed, but mainly documentary work ranges from the use of wigs and beards in Chinese opera to hair samples in the archives of natural history museums (Tarlo 2016a). The second academic investigation of the hair trade for the production of extensions comes from Esther Berry (2008). From a postcolonial perspective, she conceptualizes hair as a “zombie commodity” to formulate a critique of how women in the Global South are exploited for the beauty of women in the West. While Tarlo’s work is mainly descriptive in nature and draws on extensive ethnographic and archival material, Berry’s theoretically-driven article is mostly based on journalistic sources.
Theoretical Inspirations: Of Matsutake and DNA
My exploration is situated somewhere between the two scholarly endeavors. It takes a step back from an immediate critique and pays attention to situated practices and relations in which reality – for example, a specific reality of race – is enacted. This brings me to the following questions: How do seemingly far-off worlds – like the one of Hindu pilgrims in India and a frustrated hairdressing apprentice in Berlin – come into contact and how are these worlds shaped in the global circulation of hair? How are differences produced, undone or reconfigured in practices of commodifying and modifying hair and how are these differences expressed in the idiom of race? In framing my investigation in this manner, I am mainly inspired by the work of STS scholars Anna Tsing and Amade M’charek.
In her ethnography about the matsutake mushroom, Tsing (2015) engages with the worlds of many different actors between Oregon, Cambodia, and Japan that are entangled in the commodity chain of the highly valued mushroom. She investigates how matsutake, picked and collected by different ethnic groups in the destructed forests of Oregon, is turned into a commodity to be then introduced into a Japanese gift economy. In her account of the matsutake commodity chain, Tsing not only looks at how the mushroom itself changes its form on its way, but also how the actors and their worlds are transformed in the encounters across difference and distance – between precarious livelihoods, commerce and science. Like Tsing, I ask which worlds get entangled and transformed in a “contaminated diversity” presented as “not only particular and historical, ever changing, but also relational. It has no self-contained units; its units are encounter-based collaborations” (Tsing 2015, 33-34). This is to ask for the different human and non-human actors – such as Hindu pilgrims, temple barbers, Hindu gods, the temples as religious and economic institutions, factory workers in China, chemical agents, Yak buffalos, and cancer patients – that form part of the production of wigs and extensions and the emergent and sometimes unexpected collaborations between them.
My second source of inspiration is Amade M’charek’s work on the materiality of race. In her inaugural lecture at the University of Amsterdam, she addresses the topic of global circulations in the context of forensic DNA practices (M’charek 2016). She agrees with Tsing in so far as she also understands circulation as something more than the movement of objects or people from one geographical location to another. Circulations, understood as “performative events,” have far-reaching effects. According to M’charek, they bring about identities and contexts. In this regard, not only the moving entity – in her case DNA – needs techniques and procedures to be transformed or stabilized. Instead, the circulation of forensic practices reconfigures what race is in a particular instance as well as the relationship between science and society in general.
M’charek’s contribution helps to attend to different forms of transformation in the circulation of hair: First, hair itself changes. After being shaved off the head of a pilgrim, the hair becomes part of closely-guarded piles from where it is sorted according to its length by employees of the temple administration and management (Tarlo 2016a). The hair is then sold in e-auctions whereby it is turned into a commodity. From Tirupati it is shipped to Chinese factories, where it is processed in a bath of chemical substances and laid out to dry.
However, it is not only hair that changes on its way. Tsing argues that “the closer we look at the commodity chain, the more every step – even transportation – can be seen as an arena of cultural production” (Tsing 2005, 51). Here is where M’charek’s material-semiotic approach to race in practice comes in: Within the movement and transformation of hair, identities and contexts are reconfigured. Especially at the production sites in China, the work of scientific procedures to modify the hair – that is to make it “European” – becomes relevant in the making of race as a “slippery” (M’charek, Schramm, Skinner 2014) or “relational object” (M’charek 2013). Treating race neither as a biological fact, nor as a social fiction, but as performed in heterogeneous sociomaterial assemblages means that ethnographic investigations should “turn to practice to examine what race is and how it is made relevant” (M’charek 2013, 421).
Un/making Differences 1: Classifying and Modifying Hair
I would like to come back to the training head as a first exploratory case about the making and unmaking of differences in the global circulation of hair. To do so, I am drawing on an interview, conducted with the CEO of a German retail company whom I will call Martina Schuster, as well as on material provided on her company’s website. I will present three versions in which race comes to matter in the production of training heads.
The hair lexicon provided by Martina’s company informs about Indian hair. It says: “In average, it is 30% thicker than European hair. It innately lacks a natural glossiness which is why producers artificially create it with the help of coconut butter or palm oil.” Differences between Indian and European are established in this description of hair in which “European” functions as a default to which Indian hair is compared. At the same time, Indian hair is presented as the Other to European hair. The lexicon describes “Euro Hair” as defined by “fineness, the soft grip, and a natural gloss.” These differences are enacted as hair’s innate quality by comparing hair, analyzing its thickness and glossiness, and writing down the difference in a lexicon. In this first example, Indian hair’s nature is made an object out-there and race is being located in the body – or more precisely, in the hair.
This way of classifying people according to their hair structure and color bears similarities to colonial race science. Cheang points out that hair served as “a natural indicator of racial identity” (Cheang 2008, 27) in anthropometric measurements, according to which physical anthropologists hierarchically classified people (see also Tarlo 2019). These racial categorizations are embedded in the history of the movement of human bodies and parts of it as “‘scientific things’ of racial significance,” as shown by Roque (2014, 208). And these categories find actualizations in new forms of circulation, for example when hair travels the globe as a commodity in the 21st century.
Yet, for the production of the training heads, the classification and movement of hair is not enough. Hair is actively intervened in with the help of chemical agents. In the processing of the hair, established differences in thickness and color are eliminated in an act of what Martina called “refinement.” She explained the necessity of this procedure to me as follows: “To adapt it to our European market, the Indian hair is refined at the production site.” The hair is processed with an “acid chlorine solution” to remove the cuticle (the outer layer of cells), and thereby adjust the hair’s thickness to European standards. Afterwards, the hair is bleached until it reaches the tones required by Martina’s company – with the training heads’ hair colors ranging from white, grey, and light blond to dark brown. In this example, race was first located in the hair, to then remove its “Indian” qualities from it.
Un/making Differences 2: Keeping Hair “Natural”
A second differentiation appears in the way groups of people treat their hair – what one could term “hair cultures.” For this second version of difference enacted, it is necessary to introduce “virgin hair” as another classification in the hair business. Usually, the term “virgin hair” is used for wigs and extensions produced out of European (read: blond, straight, and thin) hair. This means that the hair has not been chemically processed and therefore is kept in its “natural state,” associated with virginal innocence though the naming. This European virginity comes at a price: The only training head with virgin hair in the range of Martina’s company costs 350 euros, compared to a price of 40 to 50 euros for a head with processed Indian hair. This price difference is due to the fact that untreated European hair is hard to obtain: Most women in Europe dye or bleach their hair which makes it useless for the production of training heads. Indians, instead, do not color their hair, according to Martina – at least not yet. She explained: “You never know in how far Indians will conform to our fashion, namely by coloring, bleaching, perming their hair.”
With this remark, Martina shifts the focus away from the hair on the training heads and attends to the hair on the heads from where the hair is taken. If we follow this move, the location of virginal naturalness changes. By contrasting our Western fashion of modifying hair with Indians’ way of treating their hair, Martina points to another difference that does not sit in the hair. Instead, Indian hair is different through the invisible labor that Indian women invest in keeping their hair “natural” (Berry 2008). Here, we can find a discursive practice that locates difference not in the somatic body, but in cultural customs. In this example, the non-European Other is kept in a location of naturalness, whereas “the West” has mastered nature through science and destroyed it in fashion.
Un/making Differences 3: Beautifying Faces
The last difference is both located in the craniofacial structure of the training heads and in diverging understandings of how this face is supposed to look like. Martina explained to me that her heads have to look extraordinarily pretty, because that’s how the beauty industry works. While the hair of the training heads mostly travels from India to China, their face designs originate from Martina’s company in Germany. This is crucial, she argued, because “horrible things” would happen, if her company did not give exact orders to the Chinese factory. She told me of an error by the Chinese producers, resulting in a head that looked like a “bog mummy” because of the wrong color composition of the PVC skin. Martina ascribed the need to give clear guidelines to diverging beauty ideals. She explained:
“So, our European beauty ideal differs incredibly from the Chinese’s beauty ideal. […] We prefer thin people. We prefer tall people. We prefer maybe blond people. We prefer high eyebrows – by now, also thicker eyebrows again. We prefer full lips, an oval-shaped face, high cheekbones, big eyes. This is everything that the Chinese people per se [der Chinese an sich] don’t understand at all.”
A face is never just a face. It comes along with and takes part in producing ideas about gender, modernity, urbanity, and race. This has been shown, for example, by Eric Plemons (2017) in his work on the performance of femininity in facial feminization surgery for trans-women as well as by Claudia Liebelt (2018) in her exploration of how “urban” and “modern” noses and breasts are produced in cosmetic surgeries in Turkey. Similarly, the beauty norms, described by Martina, materialize in the training heads in the practice of molding a facial anatomy and airbrushing lips, eyes and eyebrows onto the head’s front part. Yet, the result is not any beautiful face, but a distinctively European one, as becomes clear in Martina’s diagnosis. This means, that the training head not only is a material representation of beauty standards in Europe, but it takes part in enacting what European is and what it is supposed to be like.
Referring to the work of Anna Tsing and Amade M’charek, I have argued that an anthropological investigation of the hair market can offer insights in the making and unmaking of differences and in the co-shaping of seemingly remote worlds. This requires an ethnographic approach that follows the practices involved in the circulation and (com-)modification of hair. As an exploratory case, I have chosen to examine the production of training heads to point out how racial difference is enacted in sociomaterial practices. Race appeared in different guises: (1) as the color and structure of hair that was compared and adjusted to European standards, (2) as different hair cultures – that is, different ways in which groups treat their hair, (3) and lastly as the craniofacial structures of the training heads.
At this point, I would like to come back to M’charek’s suggestion that circulations bring about identities and context. I propose to think about the training heads as enacting a racialized form of “Europeanness” that is brought about in conversation with Indian hair, its naturalness as well as Chinese beauty ideals. In contrast to M’charek, Schramm and Skinner’s (2014b) conceptualization of the “phenotypic other” to Europe, the training head with its thin and light hair, its white skin, and its “beautiful” face materializes a “phenotypic European self.”
Berry, E. R. 2008. “The zombie commodity: Hair and the politics of its globalization.” Postcolonial Studies 11 (1): 63–84.
Cheang, S. 2008. “Roots: Hair and race.” In Hair: Styling, culture and fashion, edited by G. Biddle-Perry and S. Cheang, 27–42. London: Bloomsbury.
Liebelt, Claudia. 2018. “Reshaping ‘Turkish’ breasts and noses: On cosmetic surgery, gendered norms and the ‘right to look normal’.” In Beauty and the norm: Debating standardization in bodily appearance, edited by C. Liebelt, S. Böllinger and U. Vierke, 155 – 76. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
M’charek, A. 2013. “Beyond fact or fiction: On the materiality of race in practice.” Cultural Anthropology 28 (3): 420–42.
M’charek, A. 2016. “Performative circulations: On flows and stops in forensic DNA practices.” Tecnoscienza 7 (2): 9–34.
M’charek, A., K. Schramm, and D. Skinner. 2014a. “Technologies of belonging: The absent presence of race in Europe.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 39 (4): 459–67.
M’charek, A., K. Schramm, and D. Skinner. 2014b. “Topologies of race: Doing territory, population and identity in Europe.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 39 (4): 468–87.
Plemons, E. 2017. The look of a woman: Facial feminization surgery and the aims of trans- medicine. Durham: Duke University Press.
Roque, R. 2014. “Race and the mobility of humans as things.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 39 (4): 607–17.
Tarlo, E. 2016a. Entanglement: The secret lives of hair. London: Oneworld.
Tarlo, E. 2016b. “The secret history of buying and selling hair: Globalization hit the hair trade centuries ago, and the business is still thriving.” Smithsonian.com, November 14, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/secret-history-buying-and-selling-hair-180961080/.
Tarlo, E. 2019. “Racial hair: The persistence and resistance of a category.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 25 (2): 324–48.
Tsing, A. 2005. Friction: An ethnography of global connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Tsing, A. 2015. The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
UN Commodity Trade. 2018a. “Wigs, false beards, eyebrows etc, of human hair, 2016.” https://comtrade.un.org/db/ce/ceSnapshot.aspx?gt=ss&cc=670420&px=H1&y=2016.
UN Commodity Trade. 2018b. “Human hair, worked, wool, animal hair, for wig making, 2016.” https://comtrade.un.org/db/ce/ceSnapshot.aspx?gt=ss&cc=6703&px=H1&y=2016.Footnotes
- This post is based on a presentation, which I gave in the context of the Workshop “Re/launching Beauty and the Norm”, organized by Claudia Liebelt and Sarah Böllinger at the University of Bayreuth, 13 October 2018.