Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"They keep it fresh"

Back in 2005 (!), I was shocked to learn that Japanese hair-straightening refers to the process by which ethnically Japanese women straighten their hair, and not - as I'd imagined - a straightening technique meant to give wavy- or curly-haired women of other ethnicities a stick-straight texture. So maybe I shouldn't have been surprised to discover that "Scandinavian blond" means (or can mean) not Nordic envy on the part of the swarthy, but rather the shade almost-blond Scandinavian woman aim for when making themselves even blonder (or, as I understand people see it in blonder parts of the world, going from brunette to blond, wherein "brunette" is what I might call "dirty blond.") From - where else? - Into The Gloss:

I’m blond, but not naturally blond. All of the Swedes get highlights—trust me. They don’t do their whole heads, but they keep it fresh. I’m so sorry, but Americans cannot do blond hair—they just can’t do the ‘Scandinavian blond’ correctly. I’ve been to so many salons, and it’s never the Scandinavian blond. I never know exactly how to explain it, besides saying ‘Scandinavian blond.’ [....]
When I meet other blondes, I know if it’s an American or Swedish blonde: American blondes are more golden. It’s not a ‘pretty’ blonde. [Oh, it goes on.]
I'm thinking we need a name for this phenomenon: the quest of women who already have Trait X to have it even more than they already do. See also: the many, many, many, many dieters who are already thin but want to lose five (imperceptible-to-anyone-else) pounds.


i said...

I'm going to hijack this thread and take it into a completely different direction, or rather, one suggested by an off-comment of yours. I am dirty blond. Where I come from (Eastern Europe), I am even considered blond. My German husband thinks I am brunette. Fine, so far so good, that's how he sees thing.

Here's the thing: his hair is just the tiniest bit lighter than mine, I mean really, on those hair dye swatches we'd either be the same swatch or right next to each other. And he thinks he is *much* blonder than I am. This came up at the dinner table when we were visiting his parents, and they think the same. (Naturally, my family thinks we have the same hair colour.) I get that I'm not blonde for a German, but how does he get off thinking he is blond and I am brunette? Seriously, he once drew a picture of us, and in it he had yellow hair and I had black hair.

Phoebe said...

Ok, this one's not so complicated. One possibility: traits we have as kids can but don't always stick to our identities. He was probably blonder as a kid, but has only ever known you as an adult. Second: complexion, eye color, features influence who we call a blond, etc. A ruddy blond may be called a redhead, or someone with 'brunette' complexion but light hair (esp if it looks like highlights) a brunette.

i said...

Hmmmm.... so it's not just vaguely racial thinking? But I think you are right... of course, we were both lighter-haired as kids. And I am brown-eyed, while he has grey-blue eyes. So two points for you!

The irony is that where I come from, I am *still* blond, whereas in his homeland, he is definitely not.

Phoebe said...

Yes, well, hair color is relative. My own hair was brown, and then became black once I left the parochial world of Asians-and-Jews... and would probably be brown once more if I moved to Asia or Africa. It's rarely just about matching up actual strands to some color chart - if it were, would redheads be called redheads? Is their hair actually red?

PG said...

At least in the case of the blondes going blonder, the existing cliche seems appropriate: "gilding the lily." Then again, too literally perhaps that would be the dreadful American golden blond dropped on a fairer Scandinavian?

I understand why the already-thin want to drop a few extra pounds -- in modern America, being thin is rare in the overall population but is highly prized, hence "you can never be too rich or too thin." Why be in only the top 10% (of riches or thinness) if you could be in the 1%?

It seems odder somehow that in a nation of blondes, the blondest is queen. Is it due to a societal preference for homogeneity over uniqueness? Or maybe like getting a tan in America, lighter blond is a sign that you spend more time on a sunny holiday (or have the fund to expend on faking that post-vacation look?)

Britta said...

I think a big part is that blond is not a binary description, where you're either blond or not blond and any blondness is considered equally attractive. In Scandinavia, blonder is better,* in part because it is rarer, and also because light blond hair is thought to look better than dark blond. There is a bit of the 'tan' type aspect, since Scandinavians can't impress with their tans, but lighter hair indicates time in the sun (and summer) and health & sportiness.

A huge thing with blond hair is that it changes dramatically with sun exposure and age and even the lighting source, so one's identity with being 'a blonde' might not be only from childhood, but also from 4 months ago after a trip to Mallorca. I think there's a sense too that you're basically keeping your hair at one end of the spectrum it can normally get to except without all the work of hanging out in the sun for months, and so it's less 'artifice.'

Also, if a population is fairly homogeneous, minor variations become greater. If most people have dark blonde hair, some people have brown hair, and some light blonde hair, then hair will still be on a light-medium-dark range, with the two extremes being seen as more exotic or desirable, it's just the range has been compressed and shifted over to the lighter side of the spectrum.

On hair color, my college boyfriend and I had a longstanding argument on his hair color, which I called black and he called dark brown

*blonder is only better if it can look natural. Being naturally a platinum blond (think Max von Sydow) is considered highly attractive for a woman, but looking like Donatella Versace is not. If you can't pull off platinum naturally, then one ought to stick to something closer to one's regular hair color.

Britta said...

I have another story on the subjectivity of hair color perception. I remember my father has having black hair, and indeed drew pictures of him using the black crayon for his hair on all my childhood family portraits. I mentioned this casually to my best friend and she looked at me puzzled and said that his hair was kind of a medium reddish brown. Looking at photos now, I can see why she would say that, but in my mind his hair is black. Of course, my dad was blonde through his early 20s, so there are people who think of him as a blond, even though his hair would be considered dark by Scandinavian standards.

i said...

Britta, I also thought my mom's hair was pitch black until not too long ago. At one point I realised it's more of a dark brown, possibly reddish. (Though that may be dye.) Is it because I saw my mom in black and white photos from my childhood?

Britta said...


That might be the case. I think with b&w there's more of a dark/light sense and less gradation. Of course, my grandfather was famous for his "raven black" hair, and in childhood photos of him I would say it looks brown. I think Scandinavians do the opposite that everyone else does with blond hair and calls anyone with hair darker than light brown 'black haired' because it's fun to be a bit exotic.

I've also found this with eye color. My grandmother doesn't consider my eyes blue, even though everyone else does, and they are about 95% of the time, except occasionally they're aqua or, if I wear olive green by my face, greenish looking. If you look really closely, I have a ring of gray right by my pupil, so for her this disqualifies them from being blue. Blue has to be either really bright blue or maybe really light blue and not change color with clothing.

Phoebe said...

I suppose what surprises me about the Scandinavian thing, as well as the Japanese one, is that I’d assumed that blond hair would be valued in places where it’s unusual, but also - mostly - in places where it indicates ethnic membership in some group considered special/desirable/”superior,” depending how racist we want to assume whichever society to be. But if everyone is Swedish, you don’t need to be blond to show you’re Swedish, and you don’t stand out in a crowd if you’re blond. Same deal re: Japan – in the US, a country with a massive history of anti-black racism, straight hair is often valued because it indicates non-blackness, to a lesser extent non-ethnic-ness, complicated, of course, by the fact that many Asians and Latinos have straight hair. But if everyone’s hair is kind of straight, if everyone in the room is Japanese. I mean, sure, the blondest would stand out, and the blondness scale would shift to the point where dirty blond was considered brunette. But what I find surprising is that it has any great significance to be light blond in a country where this might be unusual but doesn’t make one stand out *as Scandinavian*.

Also, my own anecdotal sense of parts of Europe that aren’t Scandinavia and parts of the US where very-white is typical is that looking especially white isn’t valued the way it is elsewhere. Other factors – weight, say – end up mattering much more, and extreme blondness is only especially valued in certain subcultures. (As paired, say, with an artificial tan.)

The question of which artifice is considered how artificial is an interesting one. I think there is often this idea that if what you’re going for is a way you once looked naturally, or one that people in your family/of your ethnicity have, it’s less problematic. When it’s all kind of arbitrary, right? I mean, Elin Kling appears to have used about as much peroxide as Ms. Versace, and has some impressive roots, but because her features are those of someone who might be that blond, because we know her to be Swedish and not Italian, her bleach is somehow more “natural.”

Britta said...


Well, honestly, I was surprised when I saw her picture after reading her statement, because I agree that her hair looks quite peroxided. It looks better on her than Donatella Versace (though that might be for many reasons), but I wouldn't say it looks amazing or even all that natural.

In terms of looks, you're right that looking "Swedish" in Sweden isn't enough to be be automatically considered hot, but there are standards of beauty which make some Swedish looking people hot and some not. Considering only hair, light blonde, rather than dark blonde, is one of those, which is considered beautiful for its intrinsic qualities, like the way it catches the light, rather than for ethnic signaling. Likewise, thicker but not coarse hair is more desirable than thin wispy hair, even though one is not "more Swedish" than the other (and indeed very fine hair is probably more of an ethnic marker). Not considering just hair, light blond hair doesn't automatically make you attractive if you're not in other ways, but all things equal, my guess is most Swedish women would rather have light than dark blond hair.

Likewise, high cheekbones, angular features, etc, are all considered attractive and correlate with features we might think of as stereotypically "Swedish," but they're not valued in Sweden because they're ethnic markers but because they're the standard of beauty.*

To the extent there is Swedish valorization of looking Swedish in particular, I think it's because Swedes are considered to be extremely good looking by their neighbors who presumably look similar, including other Scandinavians and Germans (I don't know about the Dutch), as well as people elsewhere in Europe. (IME I've found that "Are you Swedish?" is generally meant more as a pick up line than "Are you Norwegian?" would be, even coming from Norwegians.) In that sense, if Swedish = hot, then Swedes want to look Swedish not because of ethnic pride reasons, but because they want to be hot.

*I mean, why, along with blond hair/blue eyes, they're the standard of beauty is a question, but they definitely pre-date any immigrant or foreign presence in Sweden.

Phoebe said...


"Likewise, thicker but not coarse hair is more desirable than thin wispy hair, even though one is not "more Swedish" than the other (and indeed very fine hair is probably more of an ethnic marker)."

See, this has been my impression of homogeneous white communities/regions. That certain things that signal whiteness/"Nordicness" elsewhere are valued, but others are not. So blondness, yes. Small-nosed-ness (but not snub-nosed-ness), yes. Tallness, yes. Hair not frizzing, yes. But pastiness, no. Flat-butt-ed-ness (how's that for a word?), no. Pale eyebrows and eyelashes, no. Not-so-defined features, no. As in, it's generally not, in my experience, that the most X-looking people will be considered the most attractive.

Sweden, though, may be an exception, because you're right that looking Swedish (as vs. just Scandinavian) is considered special basically everywhere. I always thought this had something to do with an impression people have of Swedish culture, wrt sexual liberation. Like, the woman isn't just a robust blonde, but one who will frolic naked at a commune.

Britta said...


Oh yes. Swedish women are considered to be totally sexually adventurous and ready to have sex at the drop of a hat, I've found, even among some Swedish men(!). There was a lot of explicit Swedish porn made in the early 70s, so that might be one reason. I also read some journal article comparing West German and American attitudes towards Swedish women's sexual habits, and the argument was that Sweden, as one of the first Democratic Socialist nations, is a projection of fears and desires of changing social mores by Germans and Americans.

I've found that saying that you're Swedish is often taken the same way as saying "I'm really good in bed" is. (I get this a lot because my first name is Swedish, and even telling people this fact when they ask where my name is from can take the conversation to flirting, as though even mentioning the term "Swedish" in reference to any part of your identity is hot. Also in high school, somehow at the beginning of my sophomore year the whole school thought I was a Swedish exchange student, and boys who never once looked my direction were suddenly taking interest in me, which disappeared when I explained that I was a US citizen.)

Moebius Stripper said...

Ok, that editor's note "clarifying" what Ms. Kling meant by American blonde not being 'pretty' is some top-rate spin/backpedalling, Itellyouwhat.

Phoebe said...

Oh, and PG,

I don't think the never-be-too-thin thing holds, b/c one can absolutely be too thin. Past a certain point (long before runway-model slimness), most adults will look sunken and ill. There are absolutely women who are a size 6 who, if they got the size they'd need to be to fit into a 2, would get fewer dates, lose lots of beauty privilege, etc.

Phoebe said...


Hadn't seen that, but it's hilarious. Note also Kling's postfeminist remark.

Moebius Stripper said...

...and I'd missed *that* gem of academic word salad. That interview just keeps on giving.

On the topics of not updating our early perceptions of self and others and being too thin: my extendeduction family is religiously and politically diverse, so at gatherings we steer clear of such volatile topics in favour of something safer. The safest subject, apparently, is the issue of whether I have an eating disorder. We can, and have been known to, spend entire meals debating the subject, which remains unsettled to this day. When I was a 5'8", 110lb teenager, this concern-trolling could possibility be defended to an extent, but 20 years and several pounds later, I fall fairly clearly into the category of "thin but not emaciated." Meanwhile, my brother, who is taller than me and weighs about as much, has never been the subject of such talk. Gender plays a role, to be sure, but part of it is that he wasn't super-skinny as a child, as I was.

Moebius Stripper said...

uh, *extended* family. Silly autocomplete.