Khin May Phyo, 18, fought back tears as she bickered with the barber over the length of her haircut.
“If you want to make 20,000 kyat [23 dollars], then it has to be cut here,” said Kay Aye Mon, chopping the girl’s waist-length hair at the base of her neck with her palm.
“But if you only want 18,000 kyat, we will cut it here,” the barber said, chopping 4 centimeters lower.
“Can’t I get 20,000 kyat and keep it a bit longer?” Khin May Phyo asked while trying to maintain her composure.
She ended up settling for 18,000 kyat.
In Myanmar, where a fourth of the population of 60 million people lives below a poverty line of 1.35 dollars a day and access to microfinancing is minimal, getting a haircut has long been a popular way for women to raise cash.
“I will give the money to my mother,” Khin said.
Khin, a garment worker, makes 50,000 kyat a month while her mother, a golf caddy, makes 3,000 kyat a day.
The hair is sold to wig factories in Yangon and Mandalay, which export the finished products to the better-off but similarly dark-haired populations of China, India, Pakistan and Singapore.
The price offered for Myanmar hair has been on the rise in recent years as Myanmar’s neighbors become more prosperous, said Pho Khwer, 22, a hair “harvester” at Insein Market in Yangon, where there are at least seven hair-buying shops.
“We usually get 10 sellers a day, but on the weekend, it goes up to 20 to 30, and during the Water Festival, we get even more because many women become nuns,” he said, referring to the traditional Myanmar New Year, celebrated in April.
Buddhist nuns, like male monks, are required to shave their heads upon taking their vows.
Long hair is still popular in Myanmar, a country that has been relatively isolated from Western culture for the past five decades, first by the xenophobic policies of former military strongman Ne Win, who ruled from 1962 to 1988, and thereafter by Western economic sanctions that were only eased this year.
According to Myanmar love lore, hair tops the list of the five key attributes of female beauty. The others are fleshiness, fair skin, good bone structure and elegance.
Given the aesthetic value placed on beautiful, long hair and Buddhism’s preachings against vanity, cutting one’s hair to raise money for a pagoda donation has long been a common practice among women.
About 100,000 women famously donated 2,400 kilograms of hair in 2009 to raise funds to repair 16 bridges on a 26-kilometer road leading to the Alaungdaw Kathapa Pagoda outside Yangon.
But for most women, selling their hair is just a question of necessity.
“I need the money to buy milk formula for my baby,” said Myo Thwin, 22, whose husband makes 4,000 kyat a day as a construction worker in Yangon.
“He doesn’t mind me selling my hair because we need the money,” she said while sporting a bob after selling her hair for 35,000 kyat.
The hair business is not limited to Yangon. In fact, Mandalay, 570 kilometers north of Yangon, is the traditional hub for the trade.
The central city has about 50 hair-buying outlets, which send out their own harvesters into the surrounding countryside.
“We can’t get much in a single village, so we have to visit many to make a good profit,” said Htun Aye, a hair merchant. “Poor women need money, and there is no other way for them to get cash.” The banking system in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma, is one of the least–developed in Asia, and microfinancing is just getting a start.
“The average person in Burma cannot get access to credit,” said Sean Tunrell, an economist at Macquarie University in Sydney and a Myanmar specialist. “The government has so far been slow to respond to this.” In fact, down at Insein Market, the economic reforms introduced by President Thein Sein since he took office in March last year have had little impact on the hair business or life in general.
A few people have nice cars and houses, but we can’t have those things,” said Insein hair buyer Kay Aye Mon. “For most people, nothing has changed, but we are hoping for change in the future.”