Skip to main content

Neal Lester comments on hair theft

June 09, 2011


Some people have too much, and some have too little.

It can incite passion, or compassion: a lover’s touch, a gift to a cancer victim who has lost her tresses.

It’s swept up and thrown away at the beauty shop – or, recently, stolen.

Recent news stories have recounted the theft of thousands of dollars worth of human hair from beauty salons and beauty-supply stores all across the United States. Robbers even killed one supply-store owner in Michigan to get to his stock of hair. A salon owner in Houston said she lost $150,000 in human hair in one robbery.

When hair becomes a hot topic, that means just one thing for Neal Lester, dean of humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: His phone will start ringing and his e-mail inbox will be crammed with urgent invitations. Reporters want to talk to Lester about hair.

So far, he has talked the theft of human hair, in the context of his research specialty – the race and gender politics of hair – with CBC Radio in Canada, the BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, SLToday out of St. Louis, and Phoenix’s Fox 10 News.

Lester told the New York Times that “the growing demand for human hair extensions and the high prices had made thefts inevitable. “It’s sort of a sign of the times. Folks are being entrepreneurial, and weaves and hair extensions are expensive, so it’s not surprising that people sell hair the way they sell things on Canal Street, like knock-off purses.”

The current popularity of hair extensions, according to various Web sites, is largely due to Victoria Beckham, who seemingly coaxed her hair to great lengths in mere months. Ezine Articles notes that when the former Spice Girl “first got together with her now husband David Beckham it was a time when public interest in the couple was at a all time high and they were both photographed all the time and would be found on the cover or most newspapers and magazines.

“With this sort of publicity everything about the couple was scrutinised. At that time pictures of Victoria were on the front of every paper or magazine with many different hair styles on view. Some days she had short hair, the next she had long and it was obviously these styles were created thanks to hair extensions. She even spoke about them and explained they were created with natural human hair which caused slight controversy as to where the hair came from.”

Lester said that the new attitude about hair treatments such as extensions is that “you don’t have to convince someone that it’s real” – the fact that you have the extensions is enough.

Human hair has become a hot commodity because it is expensive, not easily traceable – there are no bar codes or identifying marks on it – and it is a fast-growing trend, Lester said.

New York Times reporter Timothy Williams noted that “The hair can cost as much as $200 per package and the average person requires at least two packages. Women spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to have the extensions attached.”

Much of the stolen hair comes from India, where women have their heads shorn as a Hindu religious rite. The website says that the Venkateswara Temple in southern India collects a ton of human hair every day from the 50,000-100,000 pilgrims who visit the site.

“The practice of tonsuring doesn’t provide any money for the women offering the hair, instead they hope to be repaid with blessings. The temples sell the hair to wig and hair extension companies around the world. The profit the temples make from the hair is used to fund charity programs and improve local infrastructure such as improve roads to the temple,” the Website states.

According to, only 25 percent of the human hair sold in India is from the temples. “The rest comes from salon floors or hair brushes.” The site says that the women are paid very little for their hair, and that some women are even forced to cut their hair so it can be sold.

The high cost and growing popularity of hair extensions is just one aspect of the story of hair, particularly for African Americans, Lester noted.

For women today, the ideal hair is straight, long and light-colored, the type of hair that will float in the wind. In the era of slavery, straighter also was better, Lester said. “Those whose hair was straighter – more like the owner’s – perceived themselves to be and were considered more valuable.”

Many African-American woman today spend hundreds of dollars and endure hours in the salon and endure harsh chemicals to have their hair straightened, and spend even more money to have the extensions woven in. “By and large, straight hair remains the ideal for African Americans and non-African Americans,” Lester said.

Hair is a topic that covers many “isms” – sexism, racism, ageism – and is fraught with peril. Should an elderly woman be allowed to have long hair? Is that man’s comb-over a bad idea? What does it mean if you have pink hair, or a Mohawk? Why is straight hair so coveted?

If it’s ok that people know that hair extensions are just that – human hair that’s been braided or glued to someone else’s head – why are they so coveted, and so expensive?

It’s only hair. Or is it?