Monday, October 8, 2007

Blonde Ambition

The other day I was at a café doctoring my latte when I noticed a woman giving me the once over. I flashed a quick smile (you know how you smile at people when they’re staring, hoping they’ll take a hint and stop gawking at you), which must have been her invitation to ask, “Who colors your hair?”

“God,” I blurted out. I was shocked by my honest, if not obnoxious reply. There was a pause that was in jeopardy of becoming awkward. I stirred my latte, watching the milky foam in an attempt to avert making eye contact with my interrogator.

Then the woman crinkled her chocolate-colored brows that were, I observed, at least two shades darker than her flaxen locks and asked with more than a hint of disbelief in her voice, “Really?”

“Really,” I replied. I could tell by her look – those dark eyebrows were slightly raised at this point – that she didn’t completely believe me. No one ever does. I can’t count the number of times people have asked me where I get my hair colored only to be disappointed or disbelieving when I tell them that it’s naturally colored that way.

I’ve told my hairstylist – a petite brunette with tiny, skillful hands always equipped with razor-edged scissors – about these encounters and she nods knowingly. “People pay mega bucks to have your hair color.”

I can’t help but wonder why. I just don’t get it – the infatuation with blondeness. Is it the sun-streaked, summery look that being blonde (and tan) can invoke that appeals to people? Do people really think blondes have more fun? Is getting highlights or going blonde just the en vogue thing to do? Is it true that gentlemen prefer blondes? Or are women just hoping to harness the magnetism of blonde icons like Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow by going lighter? I’m not sure, but being a lifelong, natural blonde gives me another perspective on all this blonde ambition.

My hair changes colors with the seasons (and with pregnancy - it always turns a few shades darker when I'm a preggo). In summer, my locks are a sun-kissed, light blonde, but in the colder months when I spend more time indoors, the hue is less eye-catching (at least I don’t seem to get as many people asking me who colors my hair) – more of a honey-blonde with touches of red and lighter highlights left over from the summer sunshine. I don’t hate my hair, but it’s never felt special to me either. Maybe it’s because I’ve always felt a little like a cookie cutter blonde – just your typical blue-eyed blonde, nothing original in that. Blue eyes and dark hair is far more striking if you ask me. Then there are all those blonde clichés. I’ve always felt I have to go the extra mile to show people I have substance, that I can be an intellectual. If I say something flighty, which we all do on occasion whether we’re blonde or not, I feel like I’ll forever be judged as the ditzy blonde.

Now that I’m an at-home mom, it makes matters worse. I’ll find myself at a social gathering and during a casual conversation, I too often feel like I have to marble in the fact that I went to law school into the conversation. Of course, I never mention that I despised being a legal clerk and clogging my brain with legal lexicon all day and actually dropped out after only two months. But I feel like I have to prove to people that there’s more to this blonde mom exterior than Sesame Street songs and perkiness. Speaking of perkiness, lots of people have assumed I was a cheerleader in my youth because, they say, I look the part. Whatever that means. The truth is, I can’t even do a cartwheel and was a card-carrying member of the Nerd Club in high school and invested my time in activities like mock trial and Beta Club. (My husband and I actually met on the Mock Trial team and went on to win a national championship. Hence, the brief stint in law school for me.)

In college the stereotypes continued to follow me. Everyone was always asking what sorority I was in. “I’m not in a sorority,” I’d say. Then they’d constantly say I looked like a sorority girl. Again, whatever that means. There was even a time in my life when I tried to change my style so that people wouldn’t make these assumptions. I didn’t go Goth or anything, but I wore darker colors and I distinctly remembering wearing a really ugly ring with an eyeball on it on my right thumb. Trouble was, this new fashion approach wasn’t me. Not to mention, it was quite the opposite of chic. I was trying to change the person I was.

My uneasiness with my hair reached an all-time high when I was in Los Angeles pursuing a childhood dream of being an actress. I met with an agent, photographers, and other Hollywood types who consulted me on how to “make it.” “Well, you can’t be a character actress. You don’t look ethnic. There’s nothing unusual about your appearance,” an agent said as he sized me up. “You’re going to have make the most of your assets. Consider getting implants [as in breast implants] and lose some weight.” I nodded, biting my lip, fighting back the tears. What he was telling me was that being me wasn’t enough, that I could, possibly, be a blonde bombshell with a little help. There’s a ruling school of thought in Hollywood that you can’t just be fat, you have to be really fat so you can play the nice fat guy or the quirky, fat secretary. If you’re just a few pounds overweight, you’d better slim down. In my case, I just wasn’t blonde enough. I needed to be a bigger (especially in the chest), blonder, better me. In many ways that was a life-changing moment. For one, I bagged the whole idea of being a Hollywood actress. I decided I didn’t want to be at the mercy of the scale or a plastic surgeon’s hands. Nor did I want to spend my life kissing up to the powers that be during the hours I wasn’t doling out Evian in some posh Beverly Hill restaurants to make ends meet. But, perhaps more importantly, I realized that being me – boring blonde hair and all – was what I wanted.

About a year after my experience, I went out on the town with one of my best friends, Lili an Irish-Iranian with long, dark wavy hair and elliptical, russet eyes. Just for the fun of it, we decided to wear wigs. I donned a shiny, red wig and rather liked the look. I began to seriously question the notion that blondes have more fun because I had the time of my life painting the town red. But at the end of the night, it was nice to go back to my own hair color. Lili agreed she was happy with her own hair hue as well.

I’ll never completely understand the fixation on blondeness, but my encounter with fiery red hair helped me realize why so many women envy my hair. It’s the same reason I envy the girl at the gym with the sculpted shoulders (it doesn’t matter how much I sweat and lift, I’ll never have sculpted arms) or the fact that my sister-in-law covets my legs while I simultaneously long for her thinner upper body. For whatever reason, women too often don’t feel good enough, pretty enough, thin enough in our own skin. We always want what we don’t have instead of seeing just how beautiful we are. Some women find solace in a blonde crown of glory just as I feel better after I break a sweat in the gym or update my wardrobe. It’s just too bad we don’t recognize that the world would be pretty boring if we were all blonde Barbies with perfect, plastic curves.

Now that I two daughters, I’m consciously trying to keep my envious moments as well as my self-doubt and sometimes, I hate to admit it, self-loathing – to a minimum. Some day I hope to banish them from my life completely. I hope other women can try to do the same. In the meantime, let us all remember the pretty woman inside of us – whether she’s a blonde, brunette, or redhead. It’s about time we invited her out to play.

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