FOR MANY TEXAS WOMEN, there are three basic stages of hair color: original (natural childhood hue), blond (official state preference), and eventual (late-in-life silver). Some lucky ladies experience a natural overlap between numbers one and two; the rest of us can lighten up, thanks to the wonders of chemistry. As a lifelong Texan who has now experienced the entire hair spectrum, I have come to believe that blondness is even more Texan than Big Hair. It’s a pretty complicated topic, so let’s examine it with a fine-tooth comb.
I began life as a brunette, but in my early thirties—twenty years ago now—I started going gray. And not with any dramatic streaks, à la Cruella DeVil. No, it was merely an overall creeping blahness. (My older sister still has lovely dark-brown hair. Itch-bay.) For years I referred to myself as “prematurely gray,” until one of my young sons—who happened to be studying prefixes and suffixes in English class—asked if I really needed the “pre.” That did it; I could have dyed on the spot. I didn’t dare try a do-it-yourself kit lest I emerge with locks the color and texture of beef jerky. Luckily, I was blessed with the friendship of a talented stylist, Lisa Gilliam, who transformed my fading tresses into a marvelous ombré of light brown, titian, and gold. Her fee was well worth it, because so many women commented, “Your hair looks great!” (Naturally, half of them then added, “Do you color it?” Heck, no, I’d think, Lisa does, and say no with a clear conscience.)
Over the next few years, as my original color became a pigment of my imagination, I found I greatly enjoyed being a blonde. I definitely wasn’t having more fun—I was a mother of two working full-time—and I got used to hearing dumb-blonde jokes (I couldn’t object, as I knew where they came from: irked brunettes, as I used to be). But it was a kick nonetheless. Brunettes were usually stereotyped as serious and studious, but a blonde could be sexy or wild or icy or ditzy or—okay—cheap. “Blond” is a word that, like “Texas,” is just crammed with color.
So just when did the glorification of blondness begin? Well, for humanity in general, with Aphrodite—at least according to an exhibit on blondes that debuted in 2003 at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Hard to argue against the goddess of love, who has traditionally been portrayed as not only light of hair but also light on clothes. “Ladies fair”—a phrase that meant “comely” as often as “blond”—were the medieval ideal, and in literature and legend, queens and heroines were often blondes (Guinevere, Goldilocks, Little Nell). In the fourteenth century, noble ladies of the European courts first attempted to bleach their hair. The results were unfortunate, even fatal, as their potions included nasty poisonous elements such as mercury, sulfur, and lye. Absurdities in color and style—and concurrent excesses in makeup and fashion—peaked