Most people know what I mean when I tell them my natural hair color is Avril-Lavigne-circa-2002. It's a dirty blonde that needs some serious highlights, as Elle Woods would say. Aside from my extended family, there were very few girls at school with blonde hair when I was growing up. My hair was something I felt set me apart. When I started college, though, blonde hair wasn't unique or special: it was everywhere.
The stereotype of the blonde woman as perfect is a pervasive one. In movies and on TV, she's the sorority sister in pearls, the impeccable socialite, the chic housewife. It seems that there are implicit responsibilities that come with having blonde hair -- for women, anyway -- that we must be soft-spoken, agreeable and sweet. Spending time around soft-spoken, agreeable and sweet blondes, I remember feeling a disconnect between the person I was and the person other people expected me to be. Perfect blondes don't bomb their midterms, get blown off by the most gorgeous guy in school or hurl expletives at their mothers.
Maintaining blonde hair is costly, too -- prohibitively so for most women. "In general, blonde is the priciest hair color there is because it requires the most frequent, expensive upkeep," writes Andrea Pomerantz Lustig in her new book How to Look Expensive. Paying for highlights was no problem as a well-compensated high school babysitter, but it was a challenge as a college student earning minimum wage at the school gym.
I wouldn't say I directly imitated her, but Ashlee Simpson planted the idea in my head: to set myself apart, I could simply dye my hair dark. The lure of a change so drastic and personal yet technically temporary was irresistible. I had always identified with other blondes, even fictional ones. Gwyneth Paltrow. Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Christina Aguilera. Barbie. My roots were coming in, making my hair look greasier than super-sized fries, and I knew I had to make a choice. I had had blonde hair my entire life. Who would I be without it? One box of brown hair dye later, I thought I had my answer: exactly the same.
As early as the next morning, everyone seemed to have an opinion about my new hair. "Oh! You, um, changed something," said my professor when taking attendance. There went my excuse for answering questions incorrectly. Not-my-boyfriend didn't say he didn't like my dark hair, but his one-word replies to my text messages said it for him. "I don't know why you did it," said the woman who promptly stopped calling me to babysit. Did changing the color of my hair make me appear untrustworthy, or even unstable? Is hair color an unwritten contract in relationships, working or otherwise, or does a transition to the dark side simply make people uncomfortable?
Light or dark. Blair or Serena. Pick a color and stick to it.
I only had dark hair for a few months, but I got the impression during that time that I was more approachable to others. More of the gym patrons lingered to chat with me, which I didn't expect. Still, I didn't feel like myself as a brunette and gradually went back to blonde.
In 2008, Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics debunked the "dumb blonde" stereotype in Psychology Today: "It's not that blonde women are dumber than brunette women; it's that younger women are "dumber" (less knowledgeable, experienced and mature) than older women, and blonde hair is a reliable indicator of extreme youth." While it certainly might seem like a drawback to have a hair color commonly associated with ineptitude, I have found the opposite is true. It is easy to exceed low expectations. Ivanka Trump, a blonde herself, knows that to be underestimated, often because of her last name, is an advantage in the business world. "Maybe it's not the worst thing for people not to see you coming," she told New York magazine in 2005. "If people want to underestimate me, I'm fine with that."