What Your Hair Says About You (and How to Change the Message)
Hi. My name is Lauren and I'm a blondaholic. I've been blonde-free for going on six months. I know it's not the color that's to blame. I know plenty of people can handle highlights, show restraint, enjoy small amounts of the ivory (or ash or golden) stuff, whose lives are enhanced by it. But not me. Moderation is not within my capacity. Overdose is always imminent.
I remember the turning point. It was a late-fall day nearly two years ago, and I had just spent almost three hours getting highlights at a chic New York salon. I felt out of place among the socialites and CEOs there, but I enjoyed a mind-boggling professional rate from my days as a grooming editor at a national magazine. Here's where my habit took hold: Every three months I'd put on my most presentable threads and visit a brilliantly talented colorist for foils. And, for reasons I hadn't reflected on, I always begged her for more than the last time.
"Don't you think it's time to just go for a single process?" I'd ask, trying to hide my desperation. She'd respond by gathering around the other lab-coated stylists and presenting them with my question. It was always met with frowns. "Your natural color is too dark. It will look brassy." "You'd have to come in once a month for maintenance. You don't even make it as often as you should for highlights." So I'd convince her to at least bump up my dose, and she'd send me off with incrementally more wheaty strands in my otherwise boring, fade-into-the-background, medium mouse brown.
That October day, I probably walked out with more blonde streaks than not. But I couldn't see them. I went to the drugstore the same night and bought a box of single-process dye described, no kidding, as "Bleach Blonding." And I used it.
Natural blondes make up approximately 2 percent of the world's population. They are as rare as albinos. But you can't toss a cat without hitting a golden ponytail these days, because the bottle-amplified ilk are everywhere. Sales of at-home blonding kits held steady last year, while in-salon lightening saw an unprecedented leap, according to every stylist I spoke to. No matter that celebrities seem at the moment to be exploring their dark sides. For every Cameron there's a Scarlett, a Gwyneth, and a Nicole. We are a nation that loves to be blonde.
The impulses that lead us to lighten up are as varied as the summery shades available at your local CVS. Natalia Ilyin, author of Blonde Like Me, a memoir of blonde addiction, says that for some the color signifies innocence, youth. For others it's the platinum seductress, she says, and still others are looking to be a sun-blonded mom or moon-blonded goddess. And there's a shade for every purpose under heaven.
"Once the marketers can get a woman thinking, 'What I am is not quite right,' they've got her by the narcissism," says Ilyin, who was studying symbols in graduate school when, she says, "I realized I had a cult symbol right on my head." So maybe you're at the salon, or strolling the aisles at the drugstore, and you're thinking, "What do I want to be? More innocent? Nurturing? Sexy?" "You read the names of the colors on the box, like Glamour Gold and Beach Baby Blonde," says Ilyin. "And you decide, here's how I can pump that up in my persona."
I started getting highlights after college, and I was always conservative about them, looking for a natural, summery, all-American blonde. But then I got married (which I'd never intended to do), and I suddenly felt distinctly conventional. Appearance and identity are linked, for better or worse. So it was during our turbulent second year of marriage—as my husband and I attempted to figure out what being married meant, and how we were expected to behave—that I decided to rebel against my good-girl image and change my look. I bought some very snug pencil skirts and fishnet and crochet tights, tore open my blonde-in-a-box, and made myself into what I imagined was a Hitchcockian heroine—all snug sweaters and chignons. My husband didn't care for it. Others did, not that I was looking. But it was fun to dress like I was on the make when I knew I'd be spending the evening reheating roast chicken for two.
Plum Sykes, author of Bergdorf Blondes, the literary ode to expensive dye jobs, adds, "When you achieve that white blonde, it's noticeable from anywhere in the room. Carolyn Bessette Kennedy was the perfect example. You couldn't stop looking at her. It was like a halo."
Carolyn was the iconic blonde of a generation, one in a long line of glamour girls, many of whom had lit up the silver screen. But the appeal of the towhead is much older than Hollywood, according to Peter Frost, PhD, a Canadian anthropologist and expert in the evolution of skin and hair color. He believes women had to compete for men in Europe during the Ice Age, and the brightness and rarity of their hair may have given blondes the edge in survival. "The less common the haircolor, the stronger the male preference for that color," he says.
I love it when I can excuse my own strange impulses as evolutionary urges. Especially to my dubious husband, who, a few months into my peroxide dependence, moved out of our apartment. It wasn't because of the hair. But off he went. At that point I was using a trick an enabler/stylist friend had told me about: For more dramatic results, leave the stuff on for double the time recommended on the box.
Many women hit the bottle now and then without harming themselves or their hair. But for the obsessive among us, highlights are the root of the problem: Though you might start with a reasonable dose, it's easy to lose perspective. "At a certain point, there are so many highlights, the client simply doesn't see them anymore," says Marcy Cona, haircolorist, and creative director of color and style for Clairol. "The color relies on contrast to have any impact." Sometimes intervention is the only hope. Cona has staged them in her salon, surrounding the client with stylists who gently explain that the contrast underneath was why the hair looked so good the first time. "You don't talk about going darker. It's the worst thing you can say to a blonde addict. You just try to get her to tone it down in steps."
"It doesn't usually require 12. Just six months or so of slowly reintroducing lowlights until you're back to the beginning. More often than not, they'll relapse," she says. "And we'll intervene all over again."
After a year of progressively lighter hair, I looked in the mirror and didn't like what I saw. Bleached out and strung out, I decided to go cold turkey. I called an old friend and stylist I'd been avoiding since I'd stepped off the precipice. When she saw me, she contained her horror and gave me a stain that would restore my natural color without hurting my hair. After a few more visits, she said, I'd be back to my brunette self.
Six months on the wagon and I feel as if I'm there. The chaotic year of being a confused-about-who-she-was bleached blonde has passed into a new one of relatively solid-ground brunettehood. My husband's back in the picture, too. I love how he calls me Sister of Mercy, after an old goth-pop band from the '80s. He used to call me Blondie, but I never really liked that. As any New Yorker will tell you, too much sunniness can be oppressive. It feels good to be in a warm, dark, all-natural groove. At least for now.
Lauren Iannotti, a former O staffer, is the articles editor at Marie Claire.