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Blonde Like Me

The Roots of the Blonde Myth in Our Culture

About The Book

In this irreverent, unsparing, and witty look at our cultural obsession with blonde, Natalia Ilyin shows us that our apparently modern fixation has truly primeval roots. Highlighting cultural criticism with personal experience, she cites ancient myths, Hollywood iconography, and the daily assault of advertising to reveal why the allure of being a blonde has crossed the boundaries of ethnicity, economics, and age. In essence, she shows us the difference between simply having blonde hair and being a blonde.


Chapter One: The Drugstore Goddess

It started naturally enough. I had the white hair as a child, and the streaming hippie-poetess blonde hair at twelve. But along about that time something started to happen, and it wasn't planned.

My hair got darker, finally ending up "dishwater" blonde, as my Southern grandmother used to call it. I am naturally dishwater blonde to this day, but even then, deep down in my psyche, I was blonde as sun.

The first thing you need to know about blondes is that you don't know any real ones. Not in your neighborhood, unless you happen to live upstairs from a Finnish tango parlor. Real, adult, fully functioning, totally blonde women are very rare, as rare as albinos. Remember this: Real platinum blondes have ruddy skin and give the distinct impression of having no eyebrows.

The day I finished the first draft of this book, I handed it to a messenger and got on a plane to California. After I landed, and was waiting for a bus, what showed up next to me at the bus stop but a real, honest-to-goodness platinum blonde, the second real platinum blonde I had sighted in all the time I had been thinking about blondes. I took it as a good omen. As the bus appeared, I said, "Excuse me, but I just wrote a book about blondes and, well, I just wanted to tell you that your hair is really beautiful. Natural, isn't it?" She turned her head and looked at me, expressionless. "Nice 'n Easy 100," she said, and boarded.

I only know one naturally platinum-blonde woman, and she lives in Kemijärvi with her large, naturally platinum-blond husband. They are a charming couple, in the reindeer meat business. These are not the blondes you know. The blondes you know are highly altered, and, whether they know it or not, they are all imitating the most exalted, terrifying, and annoying female icon of our century.

Even if the waif supermodel of current longing doesn't touch up the lights herself, she stands on the ample shoulders of Those Who Did. She wouldn't be where she is today if it weren't for Marilyn, Doris, and Brigitte. The blonde you think of when you think of blonde is a blonde soaked in hydrogen peroxide.

Do you think you are really a natural blonde? Take the test.

1. You believe deep down that after a week in the sun your natural hair would "bleach out" to a sun-tossed mane. Yes or No.

2. Tell us what actually happened that time in Martinique when you thought you'd just let the sun blonde you right out. Mention that after seven days in the broiling sun you could find only three blonde streaks and those may have been left over from a frosting kit. Mention your remaining dark undergrowth. Do not omit the extra hours spent with your head in saltwater. Do not omit the juice of those forty-three lemons.

* * *

If you want to ask a woman close to you if she is a totally natural blonde, you must make sure that you use those exact words, "a totally natural blonde," allowing no room for interpretation. Of course she might just flat out and out lie to you, because there's a kind of blonde that does that sort of thing. But if she is an honest woman, she will probably respond with the phrase "I was blonde when I was four."

"I was blonde when I was four," roughly translated for the layman, means, "Since I was once blonde, I have the right to strip the color from my hair, and to replace it with a color more akin to the longings of my true soul. I do this not to give a false impression of who I am, but rather to show the real me. I color my hair in order to bring it back to its natural state of blondeness." This is the rationale that works for me.

And so you ask the next question, "Why in the world would a woman go to such effort just to be blonde?" Simply put, she wants to live to tell the tale I tell, she wants to live the blonde life.

Generally, the difference between my day-to-day blonde life and the day-to-day brunette life is not extreme. It is manifested in a gentle rise of the tidewaters of public friendliness. People routinely smile at me on the street for no reason. Subway conductors hold the doors until I am on the train. Taxis stop for me when I'm not hailing them. The owner of the New Wave Diner, where I eat my daily Florentine omelet, kisses my hand every morning.

But it is the peak blonde moment that divides the mousy sheep from the lambent goats. It is true, I have caused minor traffic accidents. More than once, I have been randomly picked from crowds to say short lines in movies. And then there was that perfectly normal-looking guy in a Brooks Brothers suit who dropped to his knees in front of me one day on Wall Street and begged, "Oh, baby, just give me one chance."

These things don't happen because I am a quiet, polite person who can quote the first twenty-four lines of The Canterbury Tales. They do not happen because I pay my taxes and try to do right by my fellow man. They happen because I'm a blonde.

There's a difference between having blonde hair and being a blonde. A woman with light hair is not necessarily a blonde. Being African-American, Latino, or Asian doesn't keep you from being a blonde. Your gender, whatever you choose it to be, doesn't preclude you from being a blonde. Blonde is a hair color. But a blonde is a symbol.

Hair language is a valuable tool. Learning it will keep you out of trouble, or get you into trouble if it's trouble you're looking for. When a woman decides to be a blonde, she is deciding to stand for something, but what? Tina Turnerness or Marilyn Monroeness? Pamela Anderson Leeness or Barbara Waltersness? Lisa Kudrowness or RuPaulness? If you look at a woman's hair, it will tell you everything about what she believes herself to be, deep inside.

If you can identify the hope that leaps up in a woman's heart when a soignée European colorist pulls her head back, runs his hands through her hair, slants his eyes, and says, "Darling, you could be...a blonde!," then you have got the dossier on a woman's deepest desire for herself.

* * *

This is not to say that the blonde life doesn't have its low moments. I had one recently. My friend Laurel decided we should take a film class. She thinks I should get out more.

There were thirty people in the class: beautiful nineteen-year-old art girls and silent nineteen-year-old art boys; a Native American guy who could repeat all the words to "Highway 61 Revisited"; Peter, the craggily handsome tofu magnate; and Chantal, whom Laurel and I decided we liked because of her intelligent eyes.

I originally had my eye on Peter, his being in the upper range of my demographic, but backed off immediately when Chantal-of-the-Intelligent-Eyes was spotted having pizza with him during the break.

So I turned my full wattage on the professor. He was tall and brilliant and downtown and lithe, and I spent the next few class sessions working my blonde hair to full advantage in his presence. I answered questions insightfully, and threw furtive, moist looks. Really made a darn effort. Nothing. Not a word, not a look, not a moment. I worried that he was the kind of professor who dreams of watching Pre-Raphaelite twenty-three-year-olds wander about in misty autumnal orchards. But I did not give up.

We watched a film by Tarkovsky -- the film where everybody is whispering in Swedish about how boring it is to lie about in a very attractive seaside vacation house while the postman slowly rides around on his bicycle joking about Hegel, and young girls with towels on their heads get chased by geese.

After all this I went home, slept, and dreamed. When I awoke, I felt I had had a vision. I wrote our lithe professor a long E-mail about the movie. To my deep satisfaction, he E-mailed me back and asked me to review my ideas in the next class. He wanted the other students to reap the benefit of my deft insights.

At the next class meeting, I recapped my views, jumping nimbly from filmic metaphor to filmic metaphor as across stepping stones on a pond. "Tarkovsky believed," I said finally, "that salvation of the Self and of our world is only possible if the imbalance between our patriarchal societal constructs and our deep need for the greater spiritual consciousness of the mystical feminine is resolved."

I said this in a halting voice, with a certain amount of appropriate and totally feigned shyness. Silence fell. I felt that the other students were overcome by my observations. I also felt that I had given a real shake to the autumnal apple tree. But then Peter broke the silence. Turning to Chantal, he shook his head wearily. "That blonde is nuts," he said. I thought he said it quite loudly. But Laurel swears she barely heard a thing.

As I said, it was a low point. But I bring it up because it reminded me that there are two kinds of people in the world: the kind who look for symbols and images and metaphors, who find a reason for life in all the subtle ways that humankind makes meaning, and then the people who think that everything in life is like the train schedule for the New Haven line. Read across, read down, and there is your answer.

If you are the train schedule type, I am sorry. But I offer hope. If you look at a blonde and see only a blonde, stop yourself immediately, and remember where you put down this book. It will help you nudge open a few doors.

But if you look at a blonde and she is a blonde who talks -- maybe a good game, a smart game, a game you don't understand completely; if you're tempted to call her crazy, and can't map her motivations; if her behavior is erratic, nonsensical, unscheduled -- buddy, this is not the time to read across and down. Here's your chance to find out what blonde means, to dream one of the dreams our culture has for itself. Take a deep breath, toss out that train schedule, think metaphor, and come with me.

* * *

Today I went to the drugstore down the block in order to avoid working on my huge and complex never-to-be-understood-until-I-am-long-dead book, which is tentatively titled: "What All the Images in Advertising Mean Deep Down and How They Are Making You a Slave to Consumerism and Various Other Plots." It's my update of Casaubon's "Key to All Mythologies."

I wandered around hoping that someone would appear in the detergent section and offer to take me away to a small, breezy isle near Venezuela. Nobody showed. So I went over to the hair-care aisle.

There I gave myself up to comparing and contrasting the packaging of various hair-color brands, wondering whether the $9.98 box would give my hair more luster and sheen than the $7.96 box. I was drawn to a particular package. A long-haired blonde basked in Photoshopped sunlight as a little breeze played with the tendrils around her face. The type in the upper left-hand corner read "Lightest Summer Wheat Blonde."

I felt a familiar tug at my heart. I wanted to be that blonde, that blonde in that breeze, in that sunlight. I knew the box contained the same old two ounces of peroxide, but I didn't care. I wanted to own that lightness, that summer, that wheatness, that blonde.

* * *

In an office on the thirty-first floor of a gray building overlooking Fifth Avenue sits Max, a twenty-seven-year-old marketing manager who spends sixty hours a week thinking up hair-color names alongside his depressed and Zolofted brunette boss, Janet, who worries about shelf presence and hasn't had a date since 1986.

A small army of hair-color namers is working in America today. And they're all trying to name their hair colors something that will make you tuck their box under your arm, lower your head, and charge to the checkout counter.

I wonder if Max and Janet have any idea that the blondes they invent are drenched in mythic symbolism. The words these two choose have been used to describe the power of the female from the beginnings of Western civilization. Does Janet blow through a copy of Turville-Petre's Myth and Religion of the North right before the marketing meeting, just to brush up on the blonde's role in Celtic heathendom? I would guess not. I would guess that the names they pick for blonde resurface in the culture the way saltwater lakes give up their dead. Sooner or later, certain words and mythic personalities bob to the top.

Next time you're at the drugstore take a real look at the names on those hair-color boxes. Together, they describe a fragmented whole: They describe what our culture considers the mystery of the mythically female. They paint a picture of the Heroine with a Thousand Haircolors.

The ancient goddess religions show their faces in the clichés on a drugstore shelf: They show their pretty faces, and they show their faces of greed, hunger, and desire. Ten thousand years of images stand right behind the idea of blondeness.

In the West, the power of woman must wear a mask in order to fit into the mainstream -- in order to fit into the box provided. Whether that box is a television set or a movie screen or a magazine layout or a hair-color container, one of the most used masks in America is the mask of blonde. And one way to get hold of the image of the blonde is to sort her into categories, the way they sort seed pearls. To this end, I went back to the drugstore with a small pad and a pen.

As it turns out, the most popular blonde on the drugstore shelf is the Golden Sunlight Blonde. She commands a good half of all the shelf space in the blonde hair-color section. The runner-up is the Summer Wheat Blonde. She is followed by a gaggle of related blondes that make up a third category including Winter Wheat Blonde, Misty Starlight Blonde, Palest Moonglow Blonde, and (slouching from doorway to doorway), Warm Sherry Blonde and Champagne Blonde. Stepping smartly along behind all the rest, pushing a pram, is the sweet and doddering Pastel Blonde, and in that pram are the Innocents: Whisper-soft Blonde and Lightest Sun-kissed Baby Blonde.

Three kinds of blonde exist in the hair-color universe: Sun Goddesses, Moon Goddesses, and Innocents. There are a few half-breeds about -- Innocents with Moon Goddess streaks, Sun Goddesses with Innocent highlights. But generally you'll be able to point them out on the street: She's a Sun, she's a Moon, she's an Innocent.

All blondes start out as Innocent Blondes. Some try to stay that way. But when they start coloring their hair, most women go one of two ways. Either they try to match their current hair color, or they try to show something about themselves. And that "something" can change. If, at the moment that you buy the box, there's something in you that wants to nurture life and culture, your hair will go Sun Blonde. But if at that particular moment there's something in you that wants to defenestrate the cat, you'll go Moon Blonde.

With the help of ammonia and peroxide, one month you can be a sun-wheat-and-growth blonde, drenched in honeyed tones. The next, you can be a sun-gold-and-purity blonde, diamondlike in your cool brilliance. After a particularly bad patch, you might spend some time as a champagne-colored moon-haze-and-liquor blonde, and then punch in at the office one day with hair the color of a towheaded toddler. In our time, women use their hair to telegraph their feelings about their innocence, their loss of innocence; about their sexuality, their eroticism; about getting older, about the prospect of death. The part of your personality that wants to say something very large speaks through the blonde you choose. The words of the goddess that want to come out of your mouth often get tangled in your hair.

* * *

When I was seven or so, my mother kept an old trunk as a permanent fixture on the screened back porch of our house in Virginia. It was our dress-up trunk, and held all her old cocktail dresses, pillbox hats, and high heels; some embroidered taffeta ball dresses from the relatives in San Francisco; and one or two moth-eaten mink stoles with glass eyes and snouts and tails. The neighbors got used to seeing two or three children walking down the sidewalk dressed like operagoing dowagers from Pacific Heights.

One day I decided that the dress-up trunk looked particularly inviting, with its soft old silks and deep velvets and bright satins. I climbed in to luxuriate. As the trunk lid closed, I heard a serious click, and, though it dawned upon me that I was locked in the dress-up box, I felt that someone would find me eventually, and promptly went to sleep. After a while, my grandmother noticed that I wasn't around, and began to search for me and to call my name. It was her calling that finally awakened me and caused me to sit up and bump my head and wail, attracting her attention. I remember the look on her face when she opened the trunk to find me howling in taffeta. I didn't know why she looked at me that way, I only knew she hugged me to her, and rocked me as I wailed.

We blondes are locked in the dress-up trunk. All those pretty colors, all those people to be. Like the waters of Lethe, they lull us, and we pass our lives away pretending to be people we are not. Fifty years ago, average women did not have the option of playing someone else, of coloring their hair. A hundred years ago, a woman was disparaged if she "painted," if she wore makeup. No makeup and no hair color and no one to be but yourself.

But now we want to be someone else, sometimes an alter ego, sometimes our "perfect" Self. We'll have the eye-lift and the chin implant and the breast enhancement. We color our hair and wear our makeup. But whom do we choose to look like? And what do our choices tell us about ourselves? These are the questions I asked myself in the drugstore, standing there with the boxes.

Copyright © 2000 by Natalia Ilyin

Reading Group Guide

Touchstone Reading Group Guide
Blonde Like Me
Discussion Questions

1. Blonde Like Me appears to be a book about hair color. But it is really a book about identity. What are we trying to tell the world when we go blonde? Why do so many women choose to go blonde? What are you trying to tell the world when you cut, curl, perm, color, or grow your hair?
2. Fashion is a system of signs. We signal what we are thinking of ourselves and others by what we wear. Quick takes: say what high heels mean, what black leather means, what white lace means, what flat shoes mean. Why do these articles of clothing mean anything? Ask each person in the room to describe what she or he is wearing. Do you all agree? Is that person sending the signals that he wants to send? Is she aware of what she is saying with her clothes?
3. Changing your hair, wearing makeup, even picking out certain kinds of clothing can be a form of self-expression, but can also be a kind of mask. Think about some of the masks you have worn. Did you put them on voluntarily? Were you trying to conform to a cultural standard? Were you trying to avoid something unpleasant?
4. If a woman is trying to tell the world something through her hair color, makeup (or lack of it), and clothing, what might she also be trying to tell herself? Can changing the outer you also change the inner you? If the world treats you differently, do you become...different?
5. On a lighter note, Natalia Ilyin points out that there are different kinds of blondes as well as subsets of those blondes. The possibilities here are endless. What are the distinguishing features of an East-Side-of-Manhattan blonde? A Connecticut blonde? A Texas blonde? A corn-fed Midwest blonde? A Santa Barbara blonde? How are they different? Think of the blondes you know and start making up classifications for them. Then think about why you are classifying them that way!

About The Author

Natalia Ilyin has taught courses in American mythic images at Cooper Union and Yale University. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (February 22, 2000)
  • Length: 192 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684852140

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Raves and Reviews

M. G. Lord author of Forever Barbie Natalia Ilyin takes a premise as wispy as a strand of baby blonde hair and weaves it into a surprisingly rich and entertaining tapestry.

Judith Viorst author of Imperfect Control and Necessary Losses Mix one part Robert Graves, one part Fran Lebowitz, and one part peroxide, and you get this scholarly, slyly funny, and deliciously readable exploration of the ultimate, and not-so-ultimate, meaning of blondeness.

Bruce Jay Friedman Funny -- and helpful to those of us who have spent much of our lives trying to puzzle out the insufferable appeal of blondes.

Ilene Beckerman author of What We Do for Love and Love, Loss, and What I Wore Natalia Ilyin forever puts to rest the theory of the "dumb blonde." This very witty, very wise book reads as if Mae West, RuPaul, Princess Diana, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and I all had Freud on the couch and were trying to explain to him why he should "lighten up."

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