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Ethics of Hair and My Journey Back to India

Summertime goes hand in hand with travel, memories shared and even a brief break from business to unwind and also have enough time to reflect on a journey as a woman in business. Like many of you, I got my work ethic from my mother, but beyond that from an early age she tried to instill in me a love of traditions and the simple beauty of our native India. Like our own daughters often eye-rolling and “yes Mom”ing us, I had to find my road. A road that brought me here to the United States, but along the way found my footing ironically enough in a business that gives so much back to where I started from.

And yet, as I grow older I find myself sharing sage wisdom of my own with my daughter and also find India calling me home as often as I can get away. This summer my daughter got her first ever paid job babysitting for a neighborhood family and I found myself both proud and reflective that this was the moment her career in whatever she dreams to be, begins. So in planning this year’s trip back to India for business and to see family, I endeavored to take her with me.

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The journey back is always long, but has become a well worn ritual. It always feels like it takes so much longer to get there than it does to fly back, part of that I think is the expectation. Before we could settle into “vacation mode”, we paid a visit to our factory. It’s one of the first stops on the journey that the hair we use in all of our products is made after being purchased direct from the temple. Even when I was a little girl, hair was a massive business in India that has been flourishing for almost half a century by now. My own road in life and business may have taken me away from India, but my life’s mission in hair ironically brought me back.

Every time I return home I find something new to love about India and this time I wanted to experience with my daughter the South Indian state of Kerala. Known for its beautiful beaches, backwaters and wildlife, it’s also a known retreat to experience Ayurmedic healing. Despite the fact that Kerala is the spiritual birthplace of Christianity in India with the arrival of St. Thomas, it is a beautifully diverse region with people of many different faiths, backgrounds and experiences.

Arriving in Kerala with my parents in tow, my daughter was thrilled when I revealed our accommodations during our stay: a 3 bedroom houseboat located along the scenic backwaters. Beautifully constructed of natural materials, we were greeted by our skipper (captain), his assistant and our personal chef. After exploring the boat and offloading our luggage into our rooms, our journey began. 

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Local farms border the backwaters, benefiting from water access not just for irrigation but for commerce. With the help of our personal chef we handpicked banana leaves that would be used to serve our dinner later that day, a tradition in India. The lazy journey on the water was anything but as we caught our own jumbo prawns, gathered fruits and vegetables.

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The foliage was lush, the people were warm and welcoming and everywhere in the marketplaces was such abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables. India is known around the world for its spices, but in the markets and farms we visited along the way I discovered so many local Kerala spices I’d never even heard of before.

We stopped at one point close to a coconut grove, which dot the landscape of Kerala to gather a nectar called toddy. Toddy is a sap collected from the coconut or palm flower bud, normally tapped first thing in the morning. Freshly tapped, the toddy is called Neera, a naturally sweet non-alcoholic drink acclaimed for its health benefits. It’s also an incredibly versatile ingredient, being used as a cooking base or even when fermented to an alcoholic drink.

Our boat ride continued onward, into local villages and we wound our way through grassy green town squares into the cool interior of churches to marvel at the architecture. While I may not be a hairdresser myself, over the years I’ve certainly come to have an eye for hair and the women of Kerala had just about the most beautiful naturally curly hair I’d ever seen. Curly hair is very common in South Indian people, ranging from tight curly to kinky curly coils. Their hair routine involves traditional oiling of the hair with coconut oil, followed by a cold water rinse, but leaving the oil in the hair to help moisturize, protect and prevent frizz. It’s also from the heads of these beautiful women of Kerala that our Perfect Locks unprocessed curly hair comes from. It’s hair that has never been touched by chemical straighteners. 

Hair is one the largest exports of India, now the world leader in supplying human hair for wigs and hairpieces for women all over the world who suffer from alopecia or hair loss through chemotherapy. The ethics of human hair has become a more well known talking point in the professional beauty industry these last few years and it’s about time. Being from India, many beauty professionals and salons owners I’ve come to know over the years are shocked and appalled to find out just how vast the black market of unethically gathered hair worldwide is. Women in prison, teenagers and even young girls are victims to unethical traders and gatherers as well as gangs in the poor countries of Southeast Asia. Only in recent years with the government of India cracking down on illegal exports and imports have things started to turn around, with control going back to the temples themselves.

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One temple located in Tirumala every day has between 60,000 and 85,000 pilgrims arrive to take in the sights, and feel connected with their faith. About half of these pilgrims choose to undergo the ritual of tonsure, sacrificing their hair in exchange for good health or other divine favors. In Hindu faith, the hair isn’t JUST hair, it’s an extension of the body, directly connected to your being. Giving it up, means giving a pure part of yourself, a divine act of sacrifice but one that goes far beyond anything you may receive in exchange. 

Each of these temples is responsible in a trust to provide for their respective communities. Every year countless tons are auctioned off directly at the temples, with the proceeds of the sales going to build schools, provide for children, the poor, the sick and the elderly. Even after the sale, the benefit continues as the hair is then shipped to factories often in the same region, where the hair is made into all manner of hair pieces, extensions and wigs. That sacrifice of their hair, also provides jobs and feeds families. 

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Kerala as I mentioned is a center for Ayurvedic medicine and there is nothing more out of this world than experiencing an authentic Ayurvedic massage. This ancient and traditional practice of medicine stems from nature, perfected over centuries. Only in the last few decades has Indian Ayurvedic medicines and techniques gone worldwide, ranging from Yoga to massage techniques. I was treated to an Abhyanga massage, an herbal-oil body massage meant for rejuvenation as well as total relaxation. It is designed to penetrate oil deeply into the skin, relax the mind-body, break up impurities, enhance the ability of nutrients to reach cells, and allow for the removal of stagnant waste. It is an experience I highly recommend to every woman in business and was a reminder to myself to make more time at home for rejuvenation.

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Later that day, we at last sat down to a traditional Kerala dinner, prepared with everything we picked up along the way. The local fare of Kerala is simple but rich and filling, consisting of fresh caught fish, rice and lentil gravy as well as local grown vegetables. 

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As our hosts entertained and served us, stories were told, and laughs echoed across the waters, I found myself reflecting on the road that led me away from India. Earlier that day when we were visiting the very villages and towns that our hair comes from, I saw the schools, smiling faces, and healthy children. Half a world away when our hairpieces, extensions or wigs bring comfort and confidence to women struggling with hair problems or even hair loss, that hair lovingly donated also is making a difference right here, right now. Choosing where we buy hair from ethically may not mean much at home in the United States, but it means a job here where jobs are needed. Choosing ethics or over cost saving means buying hair from a system that benefits all and doesn’t come at the cost of women, our sisters on this planet. They say that “you can never go back home again”. I do, and every time I give something back to where I was born and so do you.

Have a wonderful summer and I look forward to sharing more of my trip to India with you. 

XOXO,

Priyanka

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Priyanka Swamy, Founder of Perfect Locks LLC

Priyanka Swamy

Author and Founder of Perfect Locks LLC

Priyanka Swamy, the visionary founder of Perfect Locks LLC, is a passionate advocate for empowering women and promoting cultural diversity. With an unwavering commitment to ethical sourcing and quality craftsmanship, she redefined the hair extension market and created a supportive community that celebrates individuality. Priyanka's dedication to sustainability and social responsibility continues to inspire positive change within the industry. Her journey with Perfect Locks remains an inspiration, unlocking the true potential and confidence of countless individuals worldwide. Connect with Priyanka on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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