Hang on to Your Ponytails: Time and Money are Better

A few years ago, an acquaintance who'd just come from her hairdresser's salon, where she'd gone for her regular color-and-highlights appointment, told me of the disturbing experience she'd had. A mother and daughter, along with an aunt, were having their long hair cut off in order to donate it to Locks of Love, a charity organization that provides wigs for women and children suffering hair loss due to cancer therapy or alopecia. The mother and aunt sat gamely as the stylist sliced off their two-foot-long ponytails, but apparently when it came time for the girl, whom my friend estimated to be about twelve, to part with her hair, heartbreaking drama ensued. The young lady wept and said she'd changed her mind--she didn't want to cut off all her hair, after all. Both mother and aunt began arguing with her, first in joking tones, then in words designed to make her feel ashamed and guilty--here she was, healthy and strong: Didn't she want to help children who were suffering? Ultimately, the girl relented, allowed her long hair to be shorn, and left the salon sobbing and shuddering.

I was appalled. Her mother's intentions may have been good (at least initially), but she might have been less hasty about hacking off her daughter's hair--if not her own--had she spoken to my friend Christine.

Christine is the CEO and creator of Hip Hats, a popular line of natural hairpieces with soft, fabric skullcaps (as opposed to classic, scratchy wig foundations); they're worn under scarves, hats, sports caps, and so forth. Anyway, Christine, like many wig manufacturers, purchases all the human hair she uses for her products from India and China. Human hair intended for use in wigs must be very uniform, virgin hair; it needs to be thick, healthy, and undamaged by chemical services; it must also be a certain length. Bleaching, coloring, and curling, if required, are performed on the hair swatches after they're cut. Christine states there is no shortage of hair in the world: in fact, there are countless Asian women (and, I don't doubt, men) blessed with fast-growing, straight, highly marketable hair, and they provide plenty of it to the world of wigmaking.

The price of wigs and specialty hairpieces like Hip Hats mostly reflects the labor involved in making them, not the cost or misperceived scarcity of the hair itself, which exists in abundance.

Discussing this trend of people chopping off their hair as a way to help cancer victims, Christine was characteristically straightforward: "Their intentions are good," she remarked, "but much of the hair they chop off is simply unworkable and useless. Money would be a better donation."

She's right--and I would add that celebrities and newspeople like Ann Curry, who stage on-air shearings and then encourage others to do likewise, are not helping matters:

Forget collecting pennies for Unicef or washing cars to raise money for hospitals. One of the most popular ways young people are contributing to charity these days — everyone from Girl Scouts to bar mitzvah boys — is growing their hair long and donating it for wigs for children and women with serious diseases.

It’s not just teenagers. Biker clubs have organized cut-a-thons. Professional athletes have held public shearings. The NBC news anchor Ann Curry lopped off the actress Diane Lane’s mane on the “Today” show last year.

But although charities have been highly effective at stirring the passions of donors, they have been less successful at finding a use for the mountains of hair sent to them as a result. As much as 80 percent of the hair donated to Locks of Love, the best known of the charities, is unusable for its wigs, the group says. Many people are unaware of the hair donation guidelines and send in hair that is gray, wet or moldy, too short, or too processed, some of which is immediately thrown away. Even hair that survives the winnowing may not go to the gravely ill, but may be sold to help pay for charities’ organizational costs.

At the headquarters of Locks of Love in Lake Worth, Fla., the hair deluge — up to 2,000 individual donations a week — can be daunting for the small staff of six employees and 10 to 15 volunteers.

“We created this monster because people get so much from it,” said Madonna Coffman, the president of Locks of Love. “They get the attention. They get a warm and fuzzy feeling. They feel they’re going to help a child.”

Locks of Love sends the best of the hair it receives to a wig manufacturer, Taylormade Hair Replacement in Millbrae, Calif., which weeds through the selection still further, rejecting up to half.

“We hate throwing it away but ultimately we have to clear the place out,” said Greg Taylor, the president and owner of Taylormade. “There is a disparity between the hundreds and hundreds of braids and ponytails and the number of hairpieces we’ve produced.”

I have lost a beloved friend to pancreatic cancer; recently, another friend went through chemo for breast cancer and lost her hair, something none of us could prevent or help her with. And I know as bystanders we're often moved to help, to do something--to make a big, dramatic gesture--by an overwhelming wave of sympathy and fighting spirit. It seems so mundane to simply write a check to a faceless organization, damnit--I'm going to cut off all my hair, and my girls are going to do likewise!

If you really want to make a difference, though, or simply help the victims of this multi-tentacled beast we call cancer, go ahead and write a check. Perhaps there's a local children's hospital who could use some new books, toys, and DVD's. Volunteer to read stories to patients well enough to have visitors, or dress up as Santa at Christmas, or spearhead a teddy-bear drive. If you're able and willing to really dive in and help, it's always best, in my opinion, to look right in front of you--chances are there's a Mom at your kids' school who's sick, injured, or suffering through the energy-draining experience of cancer (or other) treatment; perhaps you and some other parents can take turns bringing her family home-cooked meals or driving her kids to school.

In other words, think lots--not locks--of love.

Crossposted at litbrit.

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