Documentary film-maker Storm Theunissen, 32, from north London, set out to answer this question, and discovered a disturbing trade in everything from fingernails to ear wax…
Potential value: £9,600
As a woman, my fertility is potentially my most valuable physical asset. In the UK it’s illegal to sell your eggs, but you can donate them and receive up to £750 in the form of compensation to cover your time and trouble. It’s obviously not enough for the two weeks of self-injecting hormones and invasive harvesting surgery though because there are still few women willing to do it over here.
In the US, it’s a different story. I met up with one British donor, Shawna, in her early 30s, who told me that she’d sold her eggs six times in America, netting around £35,000.
But it’s a competitive industry and only the best-looking and most brainy people get top dosh – around £9,600 per cycle.
Intent on finding out what I could get for mine, I cast around on the internet for a US-based egg broker. Yet, despite being told in the UK that as a fit and healthy 32 year old my eggs were practically in their prime, most US egg brokers turned me down for being too old.
I finally found one who agreed to fly me to California where I would meet a doctor and undergo the medical procedure for retrieval.
It turned out, however, that my fee was nowhere near £10,000. Instead, I was told it would be £3,500, but as I listened to past donors telling me what a wonderful thing I’d be doing, helping a childless couple start a family, I figured it was worth it.
Despite my own mother’s reservations, I was determined to go ahead – that was until my American doctor handed me an enormous box of hormones and syringes, and the enormity of what I was doing hit me. I felt terribly scared, wondering what on earth I was thinking. But when my broker told me that the couples who so wanted my eggs saw me as their very last chance of parenthood, the agony of the decision before me was unbearable. This wasn’t a journalistic experiment – this was real life – my life, and other people’s lives, I held in my hands. I couldn’t do it. I live with the trauma of that decision every day.
Money actually made = £0
Hair & nails
Potential value: £2,040
“With 15 inches of long brown hair, I decided to visit a hairdresser who specialises in harvesting human hair to make wigs for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. From my internet research, I imagined I’d be offered at least £1,000. So, sitting staring at my shiny locks in the mirror, I was shocked to hear that I’d only get £50 – especially since it took 12 years to grow my hair to this length. I decided I just couldn’t go through with it for that amount, even if it was for a good cause.
There had to be another way to make money from my hair. And there was. But from an altogether different part of my body. A thorough Google search uncovered specialist auction website for people who like to buy pubic hair (I didn’t even like to think why).
The going rate seemed to be £30 for just a few grams! All I’d need to do is cut some off, put it in a pretty box and send it to my buyer. And they don’t just stop there, they’ll bid on anything so long as it’s marketed in a sexualised way, including fingernails and underarm hair.
I spent a hilarious evening trying to take seductive photos of my armpits and fingers to maximise their marketability. Just a week later my efforts paid off.
While no one was tempted by my underarm hair (a complete shock, I know!) I did get a request from Matt, 42, who bid 65p for my fingernail clippings.
He asked if I’d send him videos of me giving myself a manicure too, which I offered to sell for £20. Given that I have a manicure most weeks, that’s a potential£1,040 a year – not a bad little earner. But sadly, without explanation, Matt backed out right at the last minute and I never heard from him again.
Money actually made = £0
Potential value: £5,060
Ever heard of a virtual tissue bank? Me neither. These are companies that source icky fluids – from tears to pus (yes, pus!) – for pharmaceutical companies to use in research.
Although there isn’t a publishable price tag for this gross merchandise, I managed to glean, from some sources at UK tissue banks, that 1 gram of earwax could go for £1,600, and 1tsp of mucus for £180. Blister fluid can go for £1,750, tears for £245 per ml, saliva £1,125 per cup, and urine £160 per litre.
However, in reality, they proved virtually impossible for me to sell. Most UK companies get their samples from US donors as the laws in the UK are very strict about the marketing of body parts (and excretions) for personal, financial gain.
Money actually made = £0
Potential value: £1,000
As it’s illegal to solicit for sex in the UK, I decided to see if I could “rent” my body out at a strip club instead. A top-end, central London club agreed to give me a trial. They told me an experienced dancer could earn up to £1,000 per night – very good earning potential.
Despite practising a few dance moves in the mirror at home, when the time came for my audition, I was terrified. Thankfully, my fellow strippers at the club were really friendly and one of them, Red, a gorgeous girl in her early 20s, taught me how to pole dance.
When it came to my first topless performance, in front of 50 men, it felt like an out-of-body experience. I was so busy worrying about whether I was wrapping myself around the pole convincingly, I almost forgot to be embarrassed.
But the profit wasn’t as it seemed. Most strip clubs charge you £60 for the privilege of dancing there and then you don’t actually get paid for a pole dance. Instead, you make your money giving nude lap dances. As a novice I’d only be able to charge a measly £20.
Determined to see the job through, I agreed to give it a go. My customer was chosen for me, and we were assigned a private room.
Yes, I was terrified but, surprisingly, not for my personal safety. The girls in these clubs are very well protected, and fortunately my “customer” was kind and very respectful of the “no-touching” rules.
Afterwards, I was on an adrenaline high. Being surrounded (and encouraged) by fellow strippers had almost normalised what I’d done. It actually felt like fun. It was only four hours later, at the end of my shift, that the shame of what I’d done kicked in and I ended up sobbing in a nearby alleyway on my way home.
Money actually made = £20 (they waived the £60 charge)
Going through the motions of that personal lap dance made me realise that you really can’t count your worth in mere money. No one should be coerced into selling their eggs, hair, nails or body and I hate the thought of women having to do this just to cover the cost of university fees or to pay the rent.
So from now on, if I want to give the gift of life, it will be through good deeds. Altruism is the only way.
* Follow Storm’s journey on What’s My Body Worth, on August 13, 10pm, More 4.