Blondness actually took root just after the last Ice Age
Nov 17, 2007 04:30 AM
Nancy J. White
Sahara. Tahitian honey. Summer wheat. The endless shades of bottled blond lure women searching eagerly for something enduring youth, sex appeal, glamour, innocence, fun. All that, wrapped up in a glowing head of hair.
And it's not just us. Through the ages, blond has telegraphed a host of messages, often contradictory: seductress and saint, hoi polloi and hoity-toity, numskull and Nazi superiority.
It's estimated that only one in 20 adult women is naturally of golden mane, yet blondness is deeply embedded in our culture, from Hollywood icons to ad slogans and, of course, the jokes.
How did blondness take root? Is it marketing hype or deep in our DNA?
Canadian anthropologist Peter Frost takes it back some 11,000 years to just after the last Ice Age. Food was scarce in northern Europe, as were men, many of whom died roaming the tundra hunting game.
Back on the home front, according to Frost, the males who survived could be choosy, preferring the blond-haired, blue-eyed women who stood out from their more plentiful dark-haired rivals. Hence begetting more blonds.
"With very intense sexual selection, you get chosen for bright colours. We see this in birds and mammals," says Frost, a research associate at Laval University whose work was published last year in the academic journal Evolution and Human Behaviour. "In a very competitive market, you have to stand out visually."
Evolutionary psychologist Catherine Salmon points to the youthful look of blond hair, which helps to soften features. Since blond hair tends to darken with age, someone with a light head of hair is often assumed to be younger.
"From an evolutionary point of view, what we find attractive are traits linked to fertility," says Salmon, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Redlands in California. "And the best marker of fertility is being young."
In her book On Blondes, journalist Joanna Pitman traces flaxen fever back to Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of beauty and love. The most famous image of the goddess, writes Pitman, was a statue by Praxiteles, who fashioned her as a tall, naked blond.
The colour gold had long signified power, going back to the worshippers of sun and fire. The Assyrians, Pitman says, showed off their wealth by powdering their hair with gold dust.
Venus, the Romans' deity of love and sexual desire, inherited Aphrodite's golden glam. Prostitutes dyed their hair blond or wore yellow wigs. By the late Republic and Empire years, says the author, society women went blond, using concoctions such as goat's fat mixed with beech wood ashes or vinegar sediment.
Their leap to lighter locks may have been sparked by competition from exotic blond slave girls from the north.
The early Christian church not only threw out idol Venus, Pitman says, but nixed women's blond dyes and wigs as the devil's work. In the Middle Ages, Eve was often portrayed with yellow hair, "the first archetypal blond bad girl," writes Pitman. So, too, the repentant sinner Mary Magdalene. But the great blond dichotomy of good and evil emerges. In the late 14th century, Pitman says, The Blessed Virgin Mary was unveiled as blond.
This could be related to St. Bridget's visions of Mary with hair bright like sunshine that gained popularity with the medieval masses. (Bridget, by the way, was Swedish.)
But also in church imagery, the colour gold, the most expensive hue, came to signify the sacred. People of the time were enthralled by brightness and luminosity, Pitman writes, and the church used shining golden light to brighten the drab lives of the humble folk.
"The effect," the author says, "was much like that of the movies."
During the Italian Renaissance, many women went blond. But others considered golden wigs or hair dying as evil vanity and folly, Pitman says.
Blond lost its lustre for several hundred years. Ingredients for the powerful dyes had fallen in price and brightening your hair was considered common and cheap, Pitman says.
Blond bombed even further. The first officially recorded dumb blond was Rosalie Duthe, a Parisian courtesan in the 1770s known for her long silences, according to On Blondes. She was derided in plays at boulevard fairs as a mechanical woman.
An 1883 guide, The Pretty Women of Paris, listed the names and addresses of prostitutes with details of their appearance and specialties. Of the 300 women, Pitman says, blonds outnumbered brunettes about three to one.
In the 20th century, blond came to symbolize a dark under layer of history: Nazi Germany's racial theories of Aryan supremacy.
Hollywood may get the nod for the biggest blond boom, with stars such as Jean Harlow and Mae West, who dazzled during the Depression. And, of course, Marilyn Monroe, forever the icon of sexy, dumb blondness. But there was also perky Doris Day and cool, elegant Grace Kelly.
Blond came to represent California, a beachy way of life, more sun-kissed than bleached. Hugely successful ad slogans "Is it true blondes have more fun?" "If I've only one life, let me live it as a blonde" were seared into the collective unconscious.
Pitman makes a case for the "power blond" of the late 20th century, women such as Margaret Thatcher, Lady Diana and Hillary Clinton whose hair lightened as they rose in status. And add Madonna, ambitiously blond.
The allure of blondness isn't likely to fade away.
After all, the majority of people have black or brown hair.
"The real appeal," says evolutionary psychologist Salmon, "is always to look more exotic."