If you’re looking for a compelling weekend read, I cannot recommend highly enough American sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “The Enduring, Invisible Power of Blond,” published by the New York Times.
It’s about blondness as a social construct: Who does and doesn’t count as a blonde is, she argues persuasively, not just about hair colour but also status and, more specifically, race: “I’d bet that if you envisioned a blonde at any point while reading this, the woman you pictured looks more like Reese Witherspoon than Beyoncé.”
(I was more picturing a white bottle-blonde—Madonna—but point taken.)
Opining on these topics is apparently fraught:
“Commenters complained that their blond children are simply prettier with light hair—and they characterized their adulation as a natural, understandable obsession with youth. People who were born blond and now have dark hair were among the angriest. They insisted that being a ’natural blonde’ should matter more than their actual hair color. When pushed on what makes that matter, they got even angrier.”
All of this drama got McMillan Cottom briefly kicked off TikTok.
It will at this point either be mysterious to you why I’m writing about this for a Jewish publication—or abundantly obvious. I suspect the split on this will fall along gender lines, with Jewish women immediately seeing the connection.
McMillan Cottom isn’t writing about blondness in general, but rather the specific understandings in our society about natural blondness. Very few adults are natural blonds (with the possible exception of in Finland, based on my experiences passing through the Helsinki airport). But lots of children are blond. Lots of white children, that is (with, as always, exceptions.)
The idea that having once been blond makes you more entitled to blondness in adulthood is fascinating (to me, at any rate), even if it requires no less peroxide than is needed on someone born with jet-black hair. Maybe it’s this idea that getting highlights is, for ex-blonds, an anti-aging treatment? Maybe everyone’s subtly racist? Why not both.
Oh, and Jews come up in McMillan Cottom’s essay, when she writes about some of the non-trollish feedback she received, including a note from a woman who “remembered being a dark-haired Jewish child who concluded that she could never be good enough.”
All the exhausting discussions about Jews and whiteness could save a bunch of time if they stuck to the simple matter of hair. White Jews, or white-passing Jews, or whatever you want to call us, tend to have the same skin colour range as white people.
And while sophisticated adults can point out that there’s no such thing as looking Jewish, and can cite the undeniable fact of Lauren Bacall, I can guarantee that in classrooms and playgrounds, Jewishness is not infrequently conflated with being a brunette.
(Nazis, also extremely interested in the category of blondness-in-childhood, or so I remember reading once in a library book in Heidelberg.)
This was, at least, how it went when I was growing up in the 1990s, in settings where most children were white, and a few of the white ones were Jews. Jewish vs. Christian was crudely assessed via Hanukkah or Christmas, brown hair or blonde.
Hair colour and—she says, haunted by a sea of empty John Frieda Frizz-Ease containers—texture.
Has any of this changed since my own childhood?
Re: blondness, probably not. This latest generation of children, the ones being thrown all those books about how to be a Woke Toddler or whatever, all venerate Elsa from Frozen and covet her long, platinum-blond braid.
But the relationship between Jewishness and blondness, as understood by elementary schoolers, probably will change, as intermarriage diminishes Jewish ethnic specificity. The highly specific experience of living in late 20th century North America and physically resembling Anne Frank probably did have its moment. And luckily for me, unlike Anne Frank, I now get to think about my hair in an entirely different way: is that really another grey strand?