On Blondes by Joanna Pitman, Bloomsbury, 2003, 272 pp., $24.95
Blonde women, both natural and contrived, are disproportionately represented in film, fashion, advertising, and television. Blonde women are generally thought of as the most beautiful, not only in northern Europe and North America where many natural blondes live, but also in those parts of the world where blondes are rare. Tens of millions of women—and not just in America and Europe—lighten their hair, while only a few darken it.
Many would dismiss this almost universal passion for blondeness as a recent fashion, or as a consequence of the ubiquity and power of American culture, but Joanna Pitman’s new book On Blondes
Mrs. Pitman, who is the photography critic for the Times of London, reports that brunettes have wanted to be blondes since at least Classical times. The ancient Greeks, for example, clearly thought blonde women were the most beautiful. The poet Homer described the goddess Athena as having gray eyes and Aphrodite, the goddess of love, as having blonde hair. One of the most famous and most visited sculptures of the ancient world was the Aphrodite of Knidos, sculpted by Praxiteles in 360 B.C. She had blonde hair—the Greeks painted their statues, so there was no mistake about this—as did the myriad copies of this statue that decorated the temples, gardens, and villas of the Greek city-states. Pliny the Elder wrote that people traveled great distances to marvel at this beautiful and even erotic sculpture. One man was so overcome with desire for the blonde Aphrodite, that late one night he sneaked into the temple to be alone with the statue: “He embraced it intimately; and a stain bears witness to his lust.”
Praxiteles is said to have modeled Aphrodite after his mistress Phryne, who was said to be the most beautiful woman in Greece. She had long, flowing blonde hair, and she was the star attraction at the festival of Poseidon in which she emerged from the sea god’s temple, disrobed, and waded into the ocean to offer a sacrifice.
The Greek’s longing for blondeness is revealed in Aethiopica, a tale about a royal Ethiopian couple who gave birth to a blonde girl, Charicleia, because they conceived under a painting of the naked blonde goddess Andromeda. This tale represents what may be the near-universal desire of parents to have children with lighter complexions than their own. How many parents, of any race, hope for darker children?
Mrs. Pitman reports that the Romans were no less enamored of blonde hair than the Greeks. They, too, portrayed their goddess of love, Venus, with light skin and blonde hair. The Romans had long known of the fair-haired Celts, and military conquests in Gaul and Britain brought them in contact with even more Celtic and Germanic tribes. The result was a wave of blonde envy among the aristocratic ladies of Rome, an envy no doubt prompted by the admiration Roman men showed for the fair-haired women of the north. Roman women took to wearing blonde wigs, made from the hair of captured or slain northern European women, or dyed their own hair blonde with expensive saffron dyes. Other bleaching agents included such things as sapo (goat’s fat mixed with beechwood ashes), Batavian pomade (a dying soap), lees (sediment of wine or vinegar), and pigeon dung.
This passion for blondes offended the pride and patriotism of some Roman men. Mrs. Pitman quotes the poet Ovid, who castigated Roman women for “using rinses” and dangerous “concoctions” in their quest for blondeness. There were safer ways to seek beauty: “[A]fter our German conquests a wig is easily come by—a captive Mädchen’s tresses will see you through, . . . eliciting admiration galore.” However, he warns women to remember, “The praise (like the hair) has been bought. Once you really deserved it. Now each compliment belongs to some Rhine maiden, not to you.”
The epigrammatist Martial wrote of a Roman lady: “Her toilet table contained a hundred lies, and while she was in Rome, her hair was blushing by the Rhine.” Tertullian, a Carthaginian Christian theologian, complained that Roman women “are even ashamed of their country, sorry that they were not born in Germany or in Gaul. Thus, as far as their hair is concerned, they give up their country.”
It is understandable that women might want to look more like rulers or conquerors, but the women of Rome wanted to look like enemies who had been defeated and enslaved. Surely, only blondes have been envied and imitated even in defeat. Southern belles had no desire to resemble their African slaves, nor did English lasses imitate the features of the subject races of the British empire. Nor did American girls during the 1960s try to look Vietnamese. The Roman preference for blondes seems to have been more than a matter of fashion or a passing desire for the exotic.
During the Middle Ages women continued to dye their hair blonde, despite exhortations to the contrary by clerics, who pointed to the blonde tresses of the temptress Eve (perhaps thereby making blonde hair even more attractive). For the Europeans of this period, blonde hair represented dangerous eroticism, sexual temptation, and beauty, but also sexual purity, moral goodness, and spirituality. In Christian art, angels were usually blonde, as were the chaste heroines of chivalric romance. The French court poet Chrétien de Troyes of the twelfth century filled his Arthurian legends with beautiful blondes like Guinevere and Soredamor, who had flowing hair and blue or green eyes. Likewise, the blonde Iseult from the twelfth-century tale, Tristan and Iseult, was described as “the most beautiful woman from here to the Spanish Marches.” In Roman de la Rose, a thirteenth-century French poem, the hero encounters a bewitching beauty with grey-blue eyes, a straight nose, snowy breasts, and blonde hair—features that represented the pinnacle of female beauty in the Middle Ages.
Mrs. Pitman has found that if European men of the Middle Ages had a passion for fair-haired women, so did the Arabs who were their principal foreign foe. During the Crusades, the twelfth-century Arab historian Imad ad-Din records the arrival of “three hundred lovely Frankish women, full of youth and beauty, . . . loving and passionate, pink-faced and unblushing . . . blue-eyed and grey-eyed,” who had come to offer comfort and companionship to their male countrymen. Mrs. Pitman also cites the account of Ibrahim ibn Jaqub, a tenth-century Spanish Jew who converted to Islam, and traveled in northeastern Europe. He wrote that one of the purposes of his journeys was to purchase blonde prisoners for Turkish and Arab customers. By contrast, European knights did not bring home dark-skinned Middle Eastern brides.
Renaissance Italy and England continued to admire blonde hair. When Italian painters depicted what they conceived to be the highest female beauty, they chose blondes, as in Botticelli’s “Venus” (1486), Carpaccio’s “The Two Courtesans” (1495), and Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” (1538). Venetian ladies devoted their Saturday afternoons to blonding their hair (they could choose from at least 36 recipes for bleach), and a contemporary noted that just as “the women of old time did most love yellow hair . . . the Venetian women at this day, and the Paduan, and those of Verona, and other parts of Italy practice the same vanity.”
Mrs. Pitman writes that the next 200 years were an anomaly in an otherwise blonde millennium, as dark hair came into fashion, at least among the upper classes. This may have reflected the rise of France as the preeminent power. The ideal beauty now had dark brown or black hair with a fair complexion. During this period, natural blondes actually sought to conceal their true color by wearing wigs or dying their hair. Women from poor families could not afford these artifices, and the aristocracy and upper bourgeoisie associated blondness with lower-class promiscuity.
During the Romantic age of the nineteenth century, blonde hair began to win back its ascendancy, helped in part by the publication of fairy tales. In France, the Baroness d’Aulnoy and, in Germany, the Grimm brothers crafted stories based on the ancient folklore of the common people, in which the heroines were blue-eyed blondes with rosy cheeks and milky-white complexions. The growing prestige throughout Europe of German culture also encouraged a greater appreciation of the Nordic look.
More encouragement for blondness came from the poetic and artistic fascination with the early Middle Ages. Artists and authors revived the Arthurian romances, Germanic mythology, Scandinavian epic poetry, and the history of the ancient Germans and Celts. Sir Walter Scott wrote Ivanhoe (1819) to celebrate the virtues of the ancient Saxons. His hero and heroine, Ivanhoe and Rowena, both have blue eyes and fair hair. In Coningsby (1844), Benjamin Disraeli, who later became Prime Minister, praised the Saxons for their pure Nordic features: “You come from the shores of the Northern Sea, land of the blue eye, and the golden hair.” In his next novel, Tancred (1847), he ascribed England’s greatness to its predominant “Saxon race.” “All is race,” Disraeli wrote; “there is no other truth.”
In the twentieth century, blonde hair has reigned supreme as the pinnacle of beauty. During the Second World War, even Germany’s enemies shared certain Nazi ideals. As Mrs. Pitman notes, “The top wartime box office female film stars in all three [belligerent] countries were blonde”—Kristina Soderbaum in Germany, Lyubov Orolova in Russia, and Betty Grable in America. Soviet art, both before and during the war, uniformly portrayed Soviet citizens as blonde and Aryan-looking. “Stalin’s ideal [Soviet] citizen was definitely an Aryan,” writes Mrs. Pitman. American soldiers decorated their Quonset huts and B-29s with posters of Betty Grable and other Hollywood blondes, as well as with Varga girls (known later in Playboy magazine as Vargas girls), most of whom were blondes. (Alberto Vargas painted stylized watercolors of beautiful women for calendars and posters).
Regrettably, Mrs. Pitman devotes little space to the last several decades. The triumph of multiculturalism and anti-white ideologies has failed to displace blondes from their pre-eminence in fashion, film, and even pornography. The blonde continues to be sought after by men worldwide. In Brazil, for example, the two provinces in the southeast that have large German ethnic populations supply the vast majority of models for the local fashion industry.
Mrs. Pitman notes that even in so successful a country as Japan, light skin and Caucasian features are at a high premium. In the streets of Tokyo every fourth or fifth woman seems to lighten her hair—some going all the way to full blonde—and even men are beginning to dye their hair. As one blonde Japanese 20-year-old explains, “It’s a form of rebellion, rejecting my Japaneseness in order to look more Western, to look better.” It is fashionable for Japanese women to have their epicanthic folds removed surgically, to take the “slant” out of their eyes and make them look rounder and more Caucasian.
Although Mrs. Pitman does not mention this, Africa and the Caribbean are large markets for hair dyes and skin bleaches, even for crude, caustic products that harm users. Likewise, most of the women who appear on Mexican television could almost be mistaken for Norwegians.
Mrs. Pitman, herself an attractive English blonde, draws few lessons from her illuminating study but she does ask a few tantalizing questions. She notes that many whites who are not natural blondes dye their hair in the hope of “passing,” and wonders: “Are those who blonde themselves still subconsciously seeking to distinguish themselves from darker and less powerful ethnic groups?” Mrs. Pitman concedes that non-white women have often turned themselves blonde but never permits herself to wonder whether at some level they may wish they were white.
Mrs. Pitman disapproves of the “racialist . . . belief that the blonde and fair-skinned should not marry a member of a darker race.” Yet how else are Nordics, whose hair color ranges from red and brown to blonde, whose physical traits are generally recessive, and who make up only a small percentage of the world population, to survive in a world of mass migrations? Mrs. Pitman’s book suggests that blonde women will continue to be sought after as wives by successful men of all races. Without strong sanctions against miscegenation, the natural blonde will disappear.
We would do well to remember the wisdom of the English racialist G. P. Mudge who wrote in the aftermath of the terrible European Civil War of 1914–18: “England still contains a large percentage of the tall, well-built, blond, blue- or grey-eyed type. . . . This is the type that must at all costs not only preserve itself against extinction, but must multiply until all the needs of the Empire are met.” We might not today wish to define our target population quite so narrowly, but if we substitute the term racial reawakening for “Empire” we find an almost perfect expression of the pressing duty of our age.