Several months ago, a high school acquaintance took a minute to recognize me when I ran into her at a Brooklyn supermarket. The blonde girl she remembered was now something of a brunette. “Did you dye your hair?” she asked, aghast to learn that my natural color was drab beige.
I started highlighting my hair when I was 13, nudged towards the salon by my mother after my hair suddenly darkened during pre-adolescence. She planted the seed that it washed out my complexion and I wanted to look like Cher in Clueless anyway, so I was happy to sit while a hairdresser painstakingly separated one strand from another with tinfoil and painted them with noxious-smelling goo.
I was delighted with the end result: my hair hadn’t been so blonde since I was in Kindergarten, long before I had braces and whiteheads. I was well-aware of the “dumb blonde” and “sexy blonde” stereotypes. But what excited me most that first time was an association with the corn-silk blonde curls captured in baby pictures and fetishized by my mother.
I kept up the highlighting routine every three months or so for the next 12 years. It wasn’t until I moved to New York after college that I accidentally went back to my pre-adolescent roots. Highlights in New York City were prohibitively expensive, so I got them infrequently. My hair was dirty blonde by the time I was 24 and back to drab beige by 26, at which point I just went with it.
Now, five years later, friends (brunettes and red-heads included) are loudly advocating for me to go back to blonde. I hate the cliché that a dramatic haircut or dye job helps people embrace less superficial changes. But I’m also drawn to the strange power exercised by blondes.
Throughout history, blondes have been associated with sex appeal, vapidity, youthful innocence, envy, sanctity, racial superiority and immorality.
From Greek times through the Renaissance and into the 20th century, blondness has always been charged. Homer’s depiction of Aphrodite rising from the sea naked but for her long golden tresses was later reimagined in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
By the third century A.D., Christians had decided that Venus was evil. In the Middle Ages, a blonde Eve is portrayed as a beautiful but dangerous temptress, while Virgin Mary’s blondness symbolizes holiness, virtue and purity. Not coincidentally, Queen Elizabeth’s blondness symbolized virginity. For the prudes in Victorian England, blondness was terrifyingly seductive.
Later came Nazi Germany’s adulation of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan race. Still later came Hollywood’s sexual ideal in Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Brigitte Bardot. Alfred Hitchcock turned blondes into victims. The 1980s introduced power blondes like Margaret Thatcher, pure-of-heart blondes like Princess Diana. Now we have Fox News’ blonde talking heads and Ivanka Trump.
Why this continued obsession with blondness?
“Blonde hair always catches a man’s eye and people’s attention in general,” said renowned celebrity hairstylist Oscar Blondi, whose clients include Kelly Ripa, Naomi Watts, Sienna Miller, and Katherine Heigl.
“It’s the sunshine color,” he went on. “You see a blonde woman in the street and want to know more about her. There’s always a question mark and mystique.”
A friend and colleague who highlights her dark blonde hair thinks of herself “as a brunette because I don’t like thinking of myself as a blonde, and yet I think I look better this way. No matter else I change I still get to have blonde hair and fight for it."
Another friend said: “My life became more interesting the moment that I went blonde. I dyed it when I was sixteen or seventeen, first a sort of understated beige color, then an ill-advised period of platinum (against my mother's objections), and finally a shade of pale buttercup.
"I've suffered breakage and coarseness and bleach headaches and lost brain cells on this stupid, expensive journey, but I can't imagine ever being a different color. I'm sure it's entirely in my head, but I remember, when I first crossed over, that I felt like a weight had been lifted somehow.
"I think it is true that people respond differently or more viscerally to blondes--it's literally like walking around with the tip of a highlighter pen on your head. But I can barely remember what life was like before, thank god, so it's difficult for me to compare my experience.”
My colleague told me she found power in being blonde. "It's youthful and sunny, but as a blonde you also get the chance to defy expectations of those (particularly men) who stupidly think you're going to be less smart or serious than a brunette. It can be extremely effective in dealing with men.
"I can also admit that I'm chasing my youth. I'm approaching 40 and dying my ash, but greying hair blonder--brighter is better--makes me feel like I'm still in the game.
"The two years that I couldn't get dyed because of pregnancies were some of the darkest in my life. I felt drab and sad and old and unattractive. My doctor can talk about hormones all she wants, but I swear it was my hair.”
Stylist Mirjam Bayoumi, a brunette and a Swede, has been coloring Swedish expats' hair in New York since 2008. “Most natural blondes are born pretty blonde, but after you hit puberty it starts to get a little darker," she said. "Then you kind of want to achieve what you saw as a child, so you start doing the highlights, and then you recognize yourself."
Princess Madeleine of Sweden gets her hair colored by Bayoumi whenever she visits New York.
The stylist says her Swedish clients want to be blonder in New York than in Sweden, "because they want to stand out even more. They notice they get more attention here from men."
Despite these endorsements of blondness and the allure of a Swedish hairstylist turning my drab brown mop into a flaxen halo, I’m not quite ready to commit to a dramatically new ’do. I’m at peace with my drab brown mop for now, though it may not take much more to push me over the edge.