Pandemic Diary—On Being Blonde, Age, Beauty Standards, etc.

On being blonde: Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote this essay in the NY Times about the social status of blonde. As always, her knowledge and wit combined with her empathy and writing skills, transform her subject into a clarity of self-examination and a philosophical treatise on beauty and social status. She’s masterful at cracking and conveying her subject to the masses. Every time she opens her mouth, I learn a ton. She, Jamelle, and Roxane are the only reason I have a NY Times subscription. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t bother. 

I have so many stories about being blonde that I could fill a book. I think more than a few of us were slow to catch on to what being a blonde actually meant. I had many clues but like so many things in my life, those things went right over my head until it dawned on me that what they were saying was actually more than they were saying. 

This shade—I’ll call it shade for lack of a better way to describe it and I like the pun HA!—started when I first got my period and my hair quickly darkened. You may say that all kids’ hair darkens as they age—yes, but with mine it was quite dramatic and quick, like within a month or two, and it was commented on regularly throughout my family and school. Although in school not even being a blonde could erase the unwarranted poor white trash status my family name had acquired. The nuance of a blonde was there—if I wasn’t a blonde, I wouldn’t be a favorite or cute or pretty or popular or in or anything really anymore. I wouldn’t have that special blonde status. I was made to feel less than if I didn’t have blonde hair, especially in a family filled with notorious blondes then I couldn’t possibly live up to their status. I, of course, was naïve and didn’t know or understand what any of this meant. I should’ve been clued in when, as a kid, I told them I wish I had dark hair and skin and I was reprimanded. Combined with telling my cousins in front of my aunt and uncle I had a crush on Will Smith when The Fresh Prince first aired—the looks on their faces and how they reacted to me differently during and afterwards should have been another clue. When I dug in and said I had a thing for Dwayne Wayne of A Different World…well…from that point forward, I liked to provoke them with my rebellion, like the time I hung up a Samantha Fox poster and told them that Samantha Fox had great breasts—combined with my middle name, I’m sure you can deduce the ridicule I endured. Each and every statement became lessons in the enormous amounts of vulnerability and acts of courage it took to survive in such an oppressive familial environment for any person, especially a child. 

My mother told me that her mother, my grandmother, lightened my mother’s blonde hair when she was a teenager while my grandmother dyed her hair black—was this her own rebellion from that onerous blonde status family? While my grandmother’s act may have been a courageous act of rebellion, don’t think she was some kind of saint—the woman definitely committed acts of racism at times that shocked even me. My grandfather’s hair was blonde until his turned gray and white. I recall many people commented on the fact even to this day that one of my aunts was born very dark with dark hair and skin. All this innuendo was subtle, but again, the nuance was there and one wonders if my grandma thought of it when she dyed my mom’s hair blonde? Perhaps she was afraid and didn’t want them thinking my mother wasn’t her father’s child since being blonde was a thing apparently in those families? I have no clue and she’s no longer here for me to ask those questions. Ironic that the same aunt grew up embracing the blonde status and unknowingly exhibiting small acts of prejudice against those women without blonde hair or status; the same aunt that spent hours upon hours tanning, which is probably yet another discussion under beauty and social status we should have. She even urged me to lighten my hair when I was twenty from a dark blonde and brown to a very light ash, almost white, blonde (I was told repeatedly by family to put lemon or Sun-In hair lightener in my hair as a child when it turned darker). I recall her saying it would get me more job offers and dates. I was a naïve young’un—I had no clue what all this meant and she was and will always be the one person in the family that was the most compassionate and accepting towards me. She was more like my older sister in age and my idol and my favorite aunt and she was beautiful and popular and I admired her so much, so, of course, she was without fault. Again, I think we were both young and naïve and ignorant and had no clue about the enormity of our actions.

I occasionally embraced my blonde status aloud with something like I like being a blonde, which makes me cringe knowing what I now know and having become enlightened to how certain people have weaponized it socially as a construct akin to whiteness. I never bestowed myself any awards for being blonde, but was sometimes granted that privilege regardless. I, however, also embraced my blue and green and orange and pink hair to my family’s and employers’ horror—employers do not like odd color hair and will reprimand you for it. When I did go completely dark, I didn’t like it because it clashed with my skin tone so I started gradually easing back into my natural color, whatever that is, with some multi-colored highlights, and I do like highlights and lowlights, of all colors. 

I recall one time when I was a kind of dark blonde-brunette with honey-colored highlights and lowlights, I asked the white brunette hair stylists to give me a few light blonde highlights—not many, but a few and (the blonde or white highlights make it easier to use and hold other color highlights like blue and pink or green on them) she spent the next half hour trying to talk me out of it, which made me all the more determined to do it as I had gotten lots of grief for using different colors many times before from the conservative prudes in my life. I’m not sure if this stylist had an extreme prejudice towards a blonde status or the fact that I liked to embrace other multi-color highlights on my own (maybe she had an ego in regards to her work?) or if she just didn’t have the talent to pull off what I wanted? She finally did highlight my hair and it turned out it was the latter. I called her back and asked her to fix some very obvious places and she said she didn’t have the time after I spent almost $300 on her. I never went back. 

Perhaps she did have a prejudice and she failed on purpose—I dunno. She didn’t seem as openly communicative after I made the request and purposely inflexible even when I tried to explain to her why. I got pushback a lot on all colors. Embracing multi-colored hair and being blonde was not without its problems and prejudices—I was called and known as the dizzy dumb blonde girl that looked like she smoked weed all time with her head in a book (romance novel to be specific) for years. It was any one of a number of labels a woman gets when she’s opinionated, independent, embraces and exhibits questions and curiosity towards everything and anything different and odd—and I didn’t smoke weed all the time. Someone told me later that it was my small squinty eyes that made me look like I was constantly stoned. Well, okay, what was the dumb label for then? 

You may ask why all my arbitrary blonde and hair color stories and what that has to do with blonde? Because being blonde is a construct like being white and we need to talk about it and how it affects the beauty and social status of everyone, especially the marginalized. Being vulnerable and sharing stories is how we empathize and relate to others and lots of us have forsaken that and embraced the zeal of judgment and disdain and the scourge of censorship and oppression in some anti-culture crusade that is tearing the very life and liberty from our democracy. This is me being vulnerable and committing my act of courage. 

The talk about beauty and social status is much needed and the aim to undo the prejudice and social stigma that we feel as we age has me meandering into my fifties noticing my own vanity. When I was in my twenties, I always did things for myself, occasionally rebelling but with an eye and ear to what other people thought because therein derived my confidence and my self-esteem. As I fully embraced myself, faults and all, I no longer looked beyond for that assurance and courage but within. I had everything I needed as long as I was genuine, honest, empathetic, and opened myself up to learning and being wrong—adapting, if you will, to the world around me. When I became a portrait and fashion photographer, I became more aware of the violence of beauty standards and hated that I had become a part of a system I often rebelled against for being such a construct of everything normal and standardnormal and standard to who?!? Yet still even now I’m spending money on skin care creams that have a product’s contact with skin must be of limited frequency or duration label—what does that even mean? Something vague and extensive for legal liabilities? I also occasionally color my hair now that it is going gray white (?!?). I have many different colors I’m excited to try—I only hope they’ll stick as I’ve heard that gray hair doesn’t keep color long. Well, damn. 

I recently sent a link to that aunt about the creative ways women can go gray because I was excited to try them out and share it with someone. I asked my mom later if that aunt said anything about it (we don’t really talk since Trump)—mom said that aunt wondered why I sent it to her and that gray wasn’t for her. Well, okay, what color is her hair now, I asked mom? Well, it’s a lot lighter and she told me she got mad at the hairstylist for making it too dark. Perhaps it was like that scene on Grey’s Anatomy where Dr. Richard Webber, having a midlife crisis, colored his hair after his wife left him and Burke, Sloan, and Shepherd made fun of him while Addison was telling them to leave him be. Later it was commented on that he needed highlights. Maybe it was like that? 

Or not. 

© 2023 Matilda London/Pamela Gay Mullins

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