“Why was there so much secrecy about the human hair trade? How and where was hair actually gathered and from whom?”
Emma Tarlo, Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmiths University in London,largely focuses her practice on exploring the societal and cultural implications of the human body. We spoke to her about her latest book Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair, released earlier this year, which delves into the global commodification of hair, the process of developing the raw material into wigs, and the impact that the hair industry has on the lives of individuals all over the world.
What first drew you to the study of hair? Some years ago, I came across a controversy over the wigs worn by strictly Orthodox Jewish women. They were being instructed by a rabbi to burn their wigs because the hair from which they were made came from Hindu temples in India, where women have their heads shaved in a gesture of thanks to God. I was fascinated by how these two religious traditions had been secretly connected through hair and how this connection was suddenly cut once this link became known. The whole thing got me thinking about detached hair. What was it about hair that made it so disturbing once it was cut from the head? Why was there so much secrecy about the human hair trade? How and where was hair actually gathered and from whom?
Hair is such a vast subject, which can be explored in so many ways. How did you develop the premise for Entanglement?
I decided to write a book in which hair was the guiding thread. My research literally followed the journeys of hair around the world, taking me to India, China, Myanmar, Africa, Europe and the United States. Through hair I met bare-foot peddlers in Asia who collect hair door to door, women who sell their hair in the market in Myanmar, pilgrims who get shaved at Hindu temples, factory workers in China who make wigs, traders, exporters, hairdressers and of course the people who wear wigs and extensions. I spent time at Afro hair fairs, Jewish wig parlours and hair loss clinics in the UK and USA. At one level, many of the people I met were leading very different lives, separated by geography, wealth and circumstances but at another level their lives were connected through hair – hence my choice of the title, Entanglement, which captures this sense of people’s lives being bound together by invisible threads.
“Seeing hair piled up in mounds or laid out to dry like a crop in the sun was disconcerting. We are used to the idea of harvesting wool from sheep but not hair from humans.”
Did you come across anything unexpected on your journey to create this book? One thing that really surprised me was the sheer range of uses to which hair has been put, from industrial oil filters, human hair rope, and embroidered hair portraits to protein supplements in bread and soy sauce. One Indian trader I met had even made his wedding outfit out of human hair! At another level, I was struck by the sheer scale of the hair trade. Seeing hair piled up in mounds or laid out to dry like a crop in the sun was disconcerting. We are used to the idea of harvesting wool from sheep but not hair from humans.
Through this book you have gained insight into many different aspects of hair, and met so many individuals involved in its development as a commodity. Is there any particular story that has resonated with you the most? In Myanmar (Burma) I met an 83-year-old woman crouched in the doorway of her village home untangling balls of comb waste. This is hair that has fallen out during combing. In many Asian countries, long haired women save up this hair and sell it for small amounts of money. The hair gets collected door-to-door and eventually sold on to traders who distribute it to untangling workshops. Once untangled most of it gets sent to wig factories in China. What struck me most was that this old woman and the other people I met in her village had no idea where the hair balls were from or what they were for. They had never heard of wigs or extensions. They were spending every day doing painstaking work for an industry about which they knew nothing.
Knowing all you do now about hair… how do you feel about your own? I think I have learned to respect my hair more. I certainly don’t take it for granted. I have also been collecting my own combings for over four years and am proud to say that I now have over 100 grams worth. This would be worth one euro if sold in India. When I was in Mandalay I regretted not having my bag of comb waste with me. If I had, I would have cast it onto a huge pile of comb waste. I liked the idea of it being recycled back into the industry.
What do you hope readers will take away from Entanglement? I hope that the book encourages curiosity and awareness of other people’s lives. Hair tells personal stories of aspirations, struggles, work, pain, pleasure and ingenuity. It is an inescapably human fibre and it is this human connection that I would like people to retain.
Find out more about Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair here LINK