Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The other black hair

The world of officially-recognized Western beauty tends to come in two forms: blond-and-white-because-isn't-that-what-everyone-likes? on the one hand, oh-right-we're-supposed-to-be-including-black-people on the other. Once the requisite number of of-color sorts are accounted for (and that number, often enough, is "one"), the rest of the "beauty" slots get filled by the Dutch and Danish. It's all - sorry - very black and white.

This was also true, when I was growing up, with Barbies and such, so my mother, I vaguely remember, got me a "Hispanic" doll, which was indeed the closest thing. This came up again when looking for the little bride and groom to go on top of my wedding cake. While obviously, the little people did not have to look just like us, it was a bit ridiculous that they came in two varieties: black man marrying black woman, and white man with dark hair marrying white woman with blond. As I had not even begun the Great Ombré Experiment of the summer of 2011 at the time, I kind of wanted a brunette. And, at this one cake-supplies shop in Chelsea, I did locate one, even if the "bride" looked a whole lot like a young Elizabeth Taylor, while the bride, alas, did not.

The message, from girlhood on, is the same: If you're not dark enough to be "of color," you have to try for "white" beauty, a look that can be pulled off "naturally" by some women from some parts of the world, but that requires a great deal of artifice for the rest. To look "done" is to have blond hair and a tiny nose.

(This is not even getting into the awkwardness of being of a race - or size - included in mainstream fashion spreads only when there are protests. This has been written about elsewhere, no doubt needs more attention still, but is not the subject of this post, not because it strikes me as less important - hardly! - but because it's outside my own area of expertise. So if the readers are still arriving from that one Livejournal, no need to remind me of the extent to which "white privilege" extends even to the darkest-haired white brunettes.)

What does this mean, this classification of darker but still socially-constructed-as-white women? It means, for one thing, that countless Western women of Jewish, but also Italian, Arab, Greek, etc. heritage end up conceiving of themselves as second-rate in the looks department, not different enough to demand acceptance as women-of-color, but automatic failures in a societal beauty competition that rewards ethnic features women of the darker white backgrounds tend not to come by naturally. It certainly helps to leave fashion mags behind, and to enter the real world in which men (and of course some women) are attracted to women of all different complexions. This is of little help when you're 12, somewhat more when you're 22.

But let's say you're long past - or have blissfully never had to contend with - the neurotic aspects of this. Let's say you've fully embraced your not-that-white-but-still-white appearance. The remaining problem is that fashion-and-beauty inspiration for women who are somewhere in between on the coloring spectrum is slight. If this sounds ridiculous, remember that part of the issue with the need for diversity in modeling is that women want to know what will look good on them, and diversity helps with that. If I want to know what looks good on me - well, on someone who looks like a 5'10" and stunning version of my 16-year-old self - I'm expected to look at Latvian and Estonian runway models because, hey, I'm white, their presence in mags means I'm represented.

Anyway, that has not worked for me. Where I do find inspiration is in two places: fashion-and-style blogs by or about women who happen to be of my own ethnicity give or take, along with ones by women of East Asian ancestry. Thank you, Internet! Oh, and a couple of French bloguettes who for reasons I'll leave it to Gobineau to analyze happen to have almost my exact coloring (unlike Gwyneth, however Jewish she may be this week) and who, if they spent a little less time shilling for Chanel and the like, I'd be even more enthusiastic about. All I really need to see to get a sense of how to style myself is, dark hair plus pale skin, and that's where I tend to find it, but I'm open to suggestions.

What got me fixated on ombré, I think, is that it's a look that works best on people who look best with very dark hair. It's not about becoming A Blonde or A Redhead (or even, in my failed attempt at getting the ends pink, a... Pinkhead?), because it's abundantly clear what your natural hair color is, as most of your hair remains that color. I don't want to overly politicize something as admittedly unimportant as my choice to make the ends of my hair light enough to dye funny colors, hours (maybe an hour total?) that could have been spent fighting the patriarchy, but I do think there's a way in which this particular look screws with racialized beauty norms. It's having hair that's blond without in any way trying to convince anyone that you're a natural blonde. The criticism the look often gets is that it looks like you had had a proper dye job a long while back, but now your roots are showing. How apt!


Amber said...

I had this Barbie, which still didn't cut it due to the curly hair.

Are there any other fashion inspiration blogs for the pale and brunette? This sounds like a promising Google Reader folder.

Britta said...

Ha! I wasn't allowed Barbies, for that exact reason (my parents thought they reinforced an "exclusionist blonde beauty ideal"). They had an affirmative action policy towards non-blonde dolls, which was made extra hard because for some reason almost all my toys were from Northern Europe (where dark hair and dark eyed was indeed considered exotic). I remember getting a brown haired, brown-eyed fake Cabbage Patch doll as a kid, and I had a brown haired brown-eyed cloth doll from Finland (this fact was stressed, and in my young mind made Finland seem kind of exotic). My mother also made my sister and I brown-eyed, "olive" complexioned cloth dolls with short curly hair, (which my sister and I hated because they looked "bald." Sigh) and she made many more cloth dolls from some 1970s Finnish modern doll patterns, which had red or blue hair.
My sister was actually born with dark hair and was a "brunette" for all of 2 weeks before it fell out and grew back in blonde, so she got even more brunette dolls. We did of course have blonde dolls as well, but the number was more around 50/50, or maybe even majority dark haired, but it took work on the part of my mother, and people thought it was really strange that a mother of two tow-headed girls would want dark haired dolls. Although for a long time not great for non-white people, I remember Samantha of the American Girl Dolls being popular when I was little with some of my dark haired friends.

In terms of beauty, what about people like Zooey Deschanel, Katy Perry, and Dita von Teese? They seem to represent dark hair/light skin, though they are in different ways kind of "alternative" to mainstream fashion.

With blondes in public though, 99.99% (actually probably more like 100%) of women who are known as being blonde bleach their hair. I think the difference is not whether you bleach your hair or not, but that going from dark blonde to a lighter shade of blonde is much easier, more low maintenance, and looks more natural than going from black hair to blonde.

Britta said...

Another thought...with makeup/beauty blogs, I can see the need for someone of similar coloring, and also just a general sense of not feeling unattractive, but for actual style inspiration, is coloring as important as height/weight/shape? Face and complexion-wise I probably resemble an Estonian model more than the average American, but it doesn't really help me figure out how to dress since I am 5'5" and slightly curvy, not 6' and emaciated. I can imagine, in terms of "will this thing make me look dumpy" a blog by a short person of different coloring but similar proportions would be far more useful than a blog by some tall leggy person who shared my complexion.

Also, ONE more anecdote (I promise), for my wedding my brother made a wedding cake and got a playmobil bride and groom for the top, but the groom came with brown hair and the bride with black hair, so he had to find an old playmobil woman in the attic and switch the hair to blonde. For hair multi-culturalism, playmobil is pretty good about mixing it up.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Amber, Britta,

There are individual celebrities/beauty icons with dark hair and pale skin, but this is always a quirky/"alternative" choice, signaling either pseudo-goth or too-intellectual-to-primp. So you get a few with naturally blond hair (Olivia Wilde, say) dyeing it dark, while the majority of "brunette" celebs (Natalie Portman, Anne Hathaway) have hair that's very light, but unless they go platinum, we still know them as brunettes, however many highlights they pile on. It's kind of assumed that white beauty means blond hair and a tan (or blonder hair and darker skin than one has naturally), and that opting out of that is essentially choosing not to look as appealing as possible to the most people. Even if Hefner-fiancée coloring is considered not-so-classy a look to go for, and is not by any means something all white women aspire to, it's tough to think of a milieu where beautification for the naturally pale and dark-haired doesn't include a subtle darkening of the skin and lightening of the hair.


Re: body-type... The issue here is always that on the one hand, brands what to show you how their clothing will look on you, but on the other, they want you to think that you'll look like a skinny supermodel if you buy their clothes. Blogs can shake things up to some extent, but they often end up covering the same three groups of people: off-duty runway models, fashion editors (too short/old to be models, but no less emaciated and somewhat more expensively dressed), and the kind of 16-25-year-old girls and women who get excited about putting pictures of themselves in different outfits online. Street fashion and personal-style blogs absolutely show more range than do fashion mags/ad campaigns (same thing, really), but typically the best any of us can expect is someone with the official model build plus our coloring. Which is still something - I can get a better sense even when it comes to clothes of how something will look on me from a model whose coloring is not radically different from my own.

Britta said...

This post has suddenly taken on a more sinister tone in light of the Norwegian terrorist's beliefs. He used things like popularity of Nordic looking models, overrepresentation of blondes in the media, high sales of blue-eyed contacts, etc. in part to justify his belief that Nordic beauty is highly desirable and must be preserved at all costs. Looks like these sorts of biases have greater effects than just the self esteem of those who don't meet the ideals.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


True enough, and this had crossed my mind as well. Of course, this issue is always sinister on some level, only right now it's especially apparent why. It's always struck me as bizarre that we (Americans, at least) are taught about how evil the Nazis were for, among other things, their violence committed in the name of blondness, yet it's utterly uncontroversial to say how attractive German/Dutch/Scandinavian people are, as though this is some kind of objective fact, and not a social construction mixed in with some especially creepy aspects of not-so-distant history. I guess it's forgotten that prior to 1930s aesthetics, blondness was valued in the West, yes, but so too was "exotic" beauty - basically any colonized people and, at home, Jews. While that was Orientalist/colonialist and creepy in its own right, the notion that only the whitest of white women are attractive is, in the West, probably not much more than a century old. That in 2011, the same ethnic traits are still standard on runways, in ads, etc. is, if you stop and think about it, bizarre.

In any case, since writing these two posts, I've noticed that in Heidelberg, you see a ton of dyed-blond hair, generally highlights on women (and young girls) whose natural hair color is dark blond or light brown. I guess this fits with what you commented responding to CW in the post above - this bit of Europe is not all that blond. Nor, for that matter, is Belgium - they may speak something that sure sounds like Swedish to Americans, but the Flemish look... French. In other words, it seems that any political ideology that's about blondness into adulthood is not only racist, sinister, etc., but also doomed to fail. You're left with a few not especially large countries, each of which (I've been to the Netherlands but not Scandinavia, unless the Helsinki airport counts) probably has its fair share of brunettes. Furthermore, given that it's entirely possible, as the manifesto-murderer notes, to change one's hair and even eye color artificially, if the goal is (for reasons I still fail to understand, and that heaven knows I'm not endorsing!) a world of blondness, isn't it more efficient to just subsidize peroxide, rather than through some mix of eugenics and genocide, getting rid of most of the world's population? Or... might it be that blondness-obsession, in politics, is just a convenient proxy for excluding whichever group, be it Jews, Muslims, etc., the aesthetics just being a bizarre stated justification?

Anonymous said...

What about those with medium to light brown hair? Blond hair is obviously celebrated and very dark hair is not as celebrated but can still be a characteristic of exotic foreign beauties or attractive culturally edgy urbanites. Mouse brown hair, however, is primarily represented as a trait of the plain and mousy.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"Very dark hair" may have once been a trait of "exotic foreign beauties," but these days, unless it's an Asian or Latina woman... not so much. And who are these "attractive culturally edgy urbanites"? Goth/alternative types? White women who think it's bourgeois to dye their hair blond/get a spray-tan? I've lived in big cities nearly all of my life, and am not sure what you're getting at. White women with very dark hair - in towns large and small - are white women for whom it's too expensive/too much of a bother to get highlights. Meaning, they (we) are lumped in with the "mousy" category, a category that's expanded to include us as "white" has expanded to include people of ethnicities for which the dark end of the hair-color spectrum is darker than medium-brown.