WHAT'S UP WITH BIG HAIR?

bb.big hair rgb2.jpg

In the latest instalment of Applied Fashion, Rebecca Willis untangles the pros and cons of hair extensions ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012

You can learn a lot from what you don’t find on the supermarket shelves. Hair products, for instance, are obsessed with volumising, thickening and lifting, but it’s impossible to find a single one that offers the flattening, thinning or drooping options. Well, there was one “for dull, lifeless hair”, but I’m pretty sure it is promising to cure that condition rather than cause it. (The word “for” is ambiguous – where were the marketing people in that meeting?) Pedantry aside, though, the message is clear: the beauty industry is trying to defy gravity over every inch of our bodies, including our hair. 

Big Hair is having a moment. It has been for a long time. I’m not averse to a bit of back-combing myself, in an attempt to get some “root lift” (no, not the kind that makes houses subside). I ask my hairdresser, Nando, whom I occasionally remember to visit, to explain the craze for hair extensions. He tells me that for a woman who’s had thin hair all her life, they can be a dream come true – like a breast enlargement only without the bloodshed. But that raises a lot of questions. What is the dream of big hair about? Why this desire for our faces to be haloed like a Renaissance saint?  

It’s partly, and simply, that thinning hair is associated with ageing, in both men and women, and also – even in the days before chemotherapy sealed the deal – with illness and disease. Thick hair goes hand in hand with health and our old friend, youth. When you decode our vanities, it seems they are all haunted by the quest for immortality.

To the same youthful end, big hair alters the proportions: of the head to the body, and of the head itself. Anyone who has ever tried to draw or paint a child will know that the eyes and other features are set much lower in the head than in an adult – that configuration is what makes us go aaah! when we see babies and kittens. Scientists have shown that women whose faces are “neotenised” (that is, have baby-face characteristics) are perceived as more attractive; big hair helps create that lower-eyes illusion. Also, like the oversized handbags and sunglasses favoured by Hollywood waifs, it makes the body seem smaller in relation to the head – as a child’s is. (It is a curious sign of the times that these women pare down their actual bodies, and then add body to their hair: big hair is mass without weight, eye-catching as a hot-air balloon.) Then there is the issue of height – in a society that fetishises elongation and tallness, high hair does the same job as high heels, but at the other end. 

I read recently that Britain is the third-largest importer of human hair in the world. (China and America take the first two places on that strange podium.) A lot of it is used in the hair-extension industry, estimated to be worth £60m a year, and endorsed by the so-called celebrities who fill our television screens. Websites such as BuyHair peddle extensions in every natural human colour – and some parakeet ones too – and explain the various methods of attaching them, a salon procedure that costs up to £2,500 when done “well”. Does that qualify as money for old rope?

It makes me distinctly queasy, and not just because I associate the roots of the hair with nit checks. I know full well that hair is dead, not living tissue, and that as we grow it anyway, it might as well be harvested. But for me the whole business of real-hair extensions conjures up images of organ trafficking, of human beings as farm animals. 

Hair extensions are a 21st-century version of the elaborate powdered wigs and hairpieces worn in the late 18th century, some of which were modelled over a cage frame or horsehair pads for extra height. Then, as now, hair that has been laboriously tended emitted a social signal. Whether you’re Marie Antoinette or Cheryl Cole, big hair says: I have time, money, and people to look after me, and therefore – to paraphrase L’Oréal – I must be worth it.

I suppose I just thought we had evolved a bit more during the last three centuries. While I was wrestling with my aversion to hair extensions, I read in Susan Brownmiller’s book “Femininity” (1984) that, throughout history, impoverished women “under the laws of supply and demand” were encouraged to view their own hair as wet nurses viewed the milk from their breasts. “Hair and milk were exploitable commodities that could serve the upper classes, an exploitation less stigmatised…than the selling of sex.”

Hair extensions may be the follicular equivalent of a boob job for some – and who am I to trample on another woman’s dreams? But I can promise, cross my heart, that, having somehow managed without a wet nurse, I won’t be sticking someone else’s hair on my head. However well-endowed it might make me feel. 

Rebecca Willis is Intelligent Life's associate editor, and a former travel editor of Vogue 

Illustration by Bill Brown