For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
It’s only hair, the dealers with the scissors say. But everyone knows that’s not true.
Take Prak Sohka, for example. The 42-year-old lives in the countryside of Cambodia, some 170 kilometers away from the capital city of Phnom Penh. She says her hair has won many beauty contests and that she cares for it with a mixture of coconut oil and a special blossom.
Prak has a photo in the apartment that shows her at the age of 18 with long black hair. Shortly afterward, she says, a woman approached her and offered the equivalent of 40 euros for Prak’s hair. It seemed like a fortune to her at the time. Then it took another five minutes until the hair was gone and only a few strands were left on Prak’s head.
Hair As a Source of Income
In India and China, the market for human hair has long been a billion-dollar business. To meet the great demand, other Asian countries have also started getting in on the trade. Cambodia is one of those, a country in which, according to World Bank statistics, 4.5 million people live below the poverty line, meaning they have to get by on less than $2 a day.
An advertisement in a shop selling real hair in Phnom Penh
In Cambodia, especially in the countryside, hair is seen as a renewable raw material they can sell to pay for their children's’ school fees, food and the mortgage on their home.
Photojournalists Louise Pluyaud and Benjamin Filarski spent time reporting in Cambodia in February, just before the coronavirus struck. They met with women in villages who had already sold their hair two or three times. Women familiar with the shame and the rumor that cutting off your hair can create bad luck.
They also met with the women who scout the large markets of Phnom Penh for shocks of human hair, for which they pay up to 500 euros, because of the boost it gives their self-confidence. They also hope the hair extensions will make them more successful in their careers.
Empowerment or Humiliation?
The photojournalists also met with the merchants who sell the hair and wear T-shirts with words like "Never stop growing” on them and signs with slogans like "Be more beautiful for a better life” hanging in their shop windows. But is this empowerment or humiliation?
Hair isn’t just hair, as Pluyaud and Filarski found out. It's also money. And the hair trade also has to do with dignity. What does it mean when women buy other womens’ hair in order to live up to a beauty ideal, with the result being that the other woman, the one who doesn’t have money, is no longer able to live up to that ideal herself? Is it a sign of the humiliation of women by Cambodian society because it leads to women more or less mutilating each other? Or is it empowerment given that women earn money that makes them more independent from their husbands and families?
Pluyaud says that the women who sell their hair aren’t victims - that they know what they’re doing. "They use what they have to create a better future for themselves and their children,” he says. It allows many of them to accomplish things they would like to do. But he says the situation is different for the women buying the hair. They often feel pressure to meet certain standards that society imposes on women in Cambodia.
The following photo gallery provides stories of the women who sell their hair and further information about the major hair markets in Phnom Penh:
This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe about injustices in a globalized world, societal challenges and sustainable development. The features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appeared in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of SPIEGEL International. The project is initially planned to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.