He wanted to fly to Cedar Rapids or Moline and get a hotel room. He would bring his scissors and a female friend to film the process. He said it could be just the three of us and that no one would need to know. I’d drive to the hotel with my own camera-bearer and cutlery, in this case men with swords. He would trim the ends of my hair then wash and dry it. Without brushing, he would grab great snarls of hair, hack them off, fling them to the floor and leave me with a half-inch pixie cut and a thousand dollars.
It’s not exactly sex work, and it’s not exactly not. I had posted my hair for sale online in hopes of paying for a writer’s workshop, and the man I nicknamed Skeezy replied.
I knew what I was getting into. In June 2010, I was fed up with people telling me to donate my hair and listed it at thehairtrader.com. I had done enough research to know that the human hair market is, at this level, not wigmakers or Victorian hair artists but hair fetishists. It’s a niche market, but it is a market.
In the month before the site went down, I received four innuendo-filled offers. I insisted to my friends that I was okay with my leap into … whatever, but I also insisted that the sellers at least pretend they weren’t interested in that. In the end, I didn’t sell my hair or even enter serious negotiations.
A year later, with a monetary goal in mind, I decided to give it another try. This time with buyandsellhair.com, which could be considered the primary website for hair sales, functioning much like Craigslist.
There are currently more than six hundred ads on buyandsellhair.com, with three-to-five more posted every day. According to a customer service representative named Sandip, about forty percent of the members post ads—mostly women, mostly brunettes. More than three-quarters of the hair on the site sells, typically for between ten and fifty dollars an inch. He guessed that hair like mine could sell in less than a month.
The language of hair selling is bizarre. Browsing the ads, I saw flowery words—“tresses,” “locks”—and an emphasis on the quality of the seller as well as the hair. The almost-universally female sellers list age, how often they wash and how deeply they condition their hair, that they take prenatal vitamins full of hair-promoting folate, that they don’t smoke or do drugs, that they are vegetarian or vegan, that they, and presumably their hair, are healthy. And virgin. “Virgin” means that the hair hasn’t been treated with chemicals or heat. It’s untouched, unsullied and expensive.
I used all the right words, though compared to other ads mine was fairly tame. Healthy, young, great highlights, virgin. I asked a friend to take pictures of my hair. I wore my favorite boots and hot jeans—surely my hair would sell better if it fell straight to an attractive rear end—and did my best to look salable. I wasn’t just putting my hair on the market. I was selling myself.
When I saw the pictures, I was shocked. My hair gleamed. It poured over the back of a kitchen chair and pooled in the seat like a river of light. Coiled into a bun, its highlights leapt out at me, pale gold to dark, and when it hung loose, I finally understood its true length. I spent the next few days extremely proud of my hair. It was long because I ignored it, but now, it became an accomplishment. My realization was not unique. Most of us don’t see our own hair. It’s tucked behind ears and under scarves, tied out of our faces and reserved for those who look at us.
In my case, there was a series of potential buyers, mostly scams and stingy offers but also a very nice man who agreed to send $800 via Paypal, gave me an address in Michigan and then evaporated—Flaky.
And Skeezy, of course. He wasn’t the only man who wanted to cut my hair, only the most ambitious. Others limited themselves to requests for pictures, ostensibly to verify that the hair was still attached to my head—cut-to-order hair brings a better price than off-the-rack—or to better see the quality. After the second request for pictures of my hair thrown over my head to show the underside, I realized that the pictures were pornography, though I doubt most people would know it when they see the pictures.
I stopped demanding discreet, polite fictions and started asking for honesty: “If, on the other hand, the pictures are less to evaluate my hair than for something else, I’m still willing to provide them,” I wrote to one picture-seeker. He didn’t reply.
The fundraising project took on a life of its own. David Dunlap, an art professor, learned about my attempt at hair sales and he offered to buy twenty strands for a dollar each as art. I spent an evening playing Rock Band while a friend tugged twenty long hairs from my scalp. A little later, I decided to participate in Public Space One’s annual silent auction. I planned to use the money for a writer’s workshop—why not sell individual strands of hair, pieces of me, with individual sentences, pieces of a story? One afternoon, another friend singled out fifty hairs and plucked them. After each one, she said, “I’m sorry,” and I replied, “It’s okay,” and glued it to an index card. I also sold $1 U-Pluck-Its at the Public Space One auction’s closing party. I laughed a lot about it.
My ad on buyandsellhair.com expired in September. Neither of the two serious offers I got, Skeezy and Flaky, resulted in a sale. In the end I made thirty-seven dollars selling my hair as art and none selling my hair—or myself—as a sex object. I’m satisfied with that.
Seeing my hair through so many other eyes gave me a better idea of what it looks like through my own, and adjusting to the many ways people wanted to claim it made me realize that it really is mine.
The next time a stranger asks if I’d ever cut my hair, I can answer, “Honey, you couldn’t afford it.”
But if they have $1,000?
Then maybe I will rock that pixie cut.
Catherine Krahe lives in Iowa City. She plans to save the world by telling stories and planting trees.