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Author's study of blonde hair is enlightening

By Gretchen Gurujal

Associated Press

It seems so illogical and so unfair. Why should something so easily attainable mean so much?

Well, being blond does indeed matter, asserts Joanna Pitman, whether it is achieved by smothering pigeon dung on one's locks (as did the ancient Romans), lathering with horse urine (practiced in Renaissance times) or visiting the drugstore for some blondness in a bottle (as do many modern women encouraged by ads telling them they're "worth it").

Blondes have a bit of the narcissist and the exhibitionist about them, and their audiences have been all too willing to play along.

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In her book "On Blondes," Pitman names names and bleaching methods, dissecting the racial implications and intellectual suggestions of those lightened strands.

A blonde is not just a blonde in Pitman's dishy, concentrated and strangely studious book. An ash blonde is not necessarily a dirty blonde. A yellow blonde is not a golden or strawberry blonde, and a garden variety of platinum isn't quite the "dirty pillow slip" blonde achieved by Marilyn Monroe.

The one question Pitman doesn't answer: Does it matter if one is a "natural?" Pitman suggests this isn't relevant to the telling nature of blondes throughout history.

"Every age has restyled blonde hair in its own image and invested it with its own preoccupations. Blondeness became a prejudice in the Dark Ages, an obsession in the Renaissance, a mystique in Elizabethan England, a mythical fear in the nineteenth century, an ideology in the 1930s, a sexual invitation in the 1950s. ..."

Most are not "genuine." Only about one in 20 adult white Americans is naturally blond, but one in three American women is blond by design, writes Pitman. Blondness as such is not important as an innate feature; it is a show and the actors and directors are all around.

Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and fertility, set the standard. The much-maligned biblical Eve covered herself with her blond locks in paradise.

Venetian beauties including Veronica Franco also paraded their golden strands. Queen Elizabeth I ruled with it. Many others achieved it by applying saffron, white wine, olive oil, hay seeds, ivy bark, soap flakes, ammonia or other substances. Later, in the early 1800s, hello hydrogen peroxide!

Hollywood's Rita Hayworth didn't let her Spanish roots keep her from the bottle, and Jean Harlow risked having her hair fall out for the sake of not revealing her dark roots. (When it did fall, a blond wig was waiting in the wings.) Margaret Thatcher wore her contoured yellow "helmet" with pride and diplomacy. What besides hair color could bring together such an eclectic cast?

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Although it's hard to shake the feeling that there's something silly about such indulgences in hair hues, it's even harder not to take Pitman seriously and still have a wallop of a good time.

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