When I was a church-going kid, I used to kneel at the foot of my bed every night and pray that God would bless me with blonde hair overnight. It was the only thing I consistently asked for. There wasn't any particular celebrity or person that inspired this beauty wish, at least not that I can remember. My 10-year-old self just happened to be very fashion-forward, and she insisted that platinum blonde locks on darker skin was very cool indeed.
At the same time, I couldn't get over the fact that I stuck out at school because of my dark hair and darker features. I was mesmerized by how fair-skinned and light-haired all the other girls were, even though many of them were cruelly racist towards me. Part of the driving force behind my nightly prayer was that I wanted to fit in better with the hoards of white students at my school, even if it meant I would have to sacrifice a part of my identity. That was a small price to pay for less taunting.
When I was 12, I told my mom I desperately wanted to get highlights (it was the '90s and I am not ashamed). She was worried I was too young to take the plunge, but I was in the midst of diligently practicing for a piano concerto competition, so she promised me I could get them done if I won and was given the honor of performing in front of 2,000 people with the Savannah Symphony Orchestra. I was up against high schoolers and college students, so I don't think she really expected me to take home the gold.
Well, I did. When we got the phone call that I had been selected first-place winner, the first thing I thought of was how much closer I was to getting blonde (OK, I was thrilled that I won, too). A week before I was set to go on stage with the Savannah Symphony Orchestra, my Korean auntie did my highlights, and while they were barely noticeable to others, they made a world of difference to me when I looked in the mirror. From that point on, the nagging desire to be totally blonde only grew.
When I got to college, my blonde dream lived on. I was envious of my American History classmate, who touched up her dark roots every few weeks to keep her hair a buttery blonde. I knew she came from a wealthy family, so the monthly expenses weren't really a big deal for her. The cost of upkeep for me, on the other hand, was prohibitive.
I was interested in the juxtaposition of it all — non-white features that had once been mocked by my peers, set against the light locks that donned the heads of my very tormentors. It was almost as if I would be taking control, as if I was saying to them, "If you thought I looked different before, get a load of me now."
It was during these university years that I started to actually embrace my half-Asian, half-Italian bloodline. I was finally in a diverse space where I spent a lot of time working with multiracial students and starting my own projects that celebrated multiculturalism on campus. Where I used to be jealous of white people with creamy features, I now cherished my almond-shaped eyes and black eyebrows.
So even though I still wished to be blonde by the time I got to graduate school, it was no longer fueled by a desire to position myself closer to whiteness. I was interested in the juxtaposition of it all — non-white features that had once been mocked by my peers, set against the light locks that donned the heads of my very tormentors. It was almost as if I would be taking control, as if I was saying to them, "If you thought I looked different before, get a load of me now."
I confided my makeover wishes to an older friend, who tucked her golden locks behind her ear and said, "You should do it! You know, when I was in college I dyed my hair jet-black, just to see what it felt like to change up my look that much. It was strangely one of the most liberating experiences of my twenties."
The only thing stopping me was the cost, especially when my other hairstylist friend said, "Honey, it'll cost you a fortune." She told me I'd have to come in every four weeks to get my roots done. But being the supportive friend she is — and seeing how shattered I was by the dose of reality — she came up with a solution: get a really bold, really blonde ombre. And that's exactly what I did last year.
It took four processes to get it as light as I wanted (and I'll probably go for more), and by the time I arrived at the finished result I nearly cried tears of joy. I had finally achieved the look I've loved for as long as I can remember: dark eyebrows, dark roots, and blonde locks.
I've never drastically changed anything about my appearance, other than a nose piercing that fell out and a few discreet tattoos. So going blonde was a big deal. It was the first time people around me observed a considerable shift in my appearance — and they freely commented on it.
People were staring. Like, head-turn staring. "Welcome to the world of blonde," my best friend whispered in my ear.
At first, I enjoyed the attention. I was feelin' myself, and it was delicious to know that other people were also liking my new look. Friends said things like, "It looks amazing!" and "You look so edgy." I thanked them humbly — and then things took a turn for the unexpected.
The first weekend after the dye job was done, I went out with a few friends. A new Mediterranean restaurant had just opened up, so our plan was to go there for dinner and drinks, and then bar hop until we were pooped. I styled my hair, put on some eyeshadow, and tacked on my favorite dark brown lipstick. I was boldly living out my newfound juxtaposition.
As we were walking in to be seated, I couldn't help but feel like everyone's eyes were on me. People were staring. Like, head-turn staring. "Welcome to the world of blonde," my best friend whispered in my ear.
At a bar later on that night, three different guys hit on me in the span of two hours. That's never happened to me before. I'm usually so invisible I'm lucky to not get trampled on by people trying to find the bathroom. That, or men tell me I'm the perfect girl to bring home to their mother. (A stereotype about brunettes confirmed by research conducted at the City University of London, which found that 81 percent of men found darker-haired women to be more intelligent than their fair-headed counterparts, and 67 percent viewed them as "self-sufficient" individuals who would make good partners.) I politely told these guys I was unavailable, and although they graciously accepted their fate, I caught two of them continuously staring at me the rest of the night. It was bizarre. Out of all my friend groups, I've never been that girl, the one who gets approached and offered free drinks. I chalked it up to blonde beginner's luck.
But I learned over the next few days that this wasn't a one-off occurrence. People just kept staring everywhere I went. But I didn't exactly mind — as opposed to the stares I got in middle school, this time, they were looking at me because of something I had intentionally done to my appearance — not because my natural features made me stand out.
People's eyes scan the dark roots, my olive skin, and the blonde tresses, trying to figure out "what I am."
Then, the borderline inappropriate comments started rolling in, and I was thrown off.
"You look good enough to eat," an acquaintance said. OK. Gross.
"Now you're a fun girl!" someone else said.
"You look so exotic," another person remarked. (As much as I hate being called "exotic," I'm afraid I'll hear this word for the rest of my life, regardless of my hair color, as it's a common descriptor of multiracial individuals.)
It got me thinking about all the stereotypes we have about blonde women. There's the most classic (and perhaps the most annoying): Blondes have more fun. We also tend to think of blonde women as being more feminine, sexier, and easy-going. A Polish study found that men generally find blondes to be more "youthful" as well. I wasn't trying to cultivate these characteristics when I changed my hair, but strangely, I was starting to think that my new state of blonde was having some kind of an effect on me.
My new hair inadvertently set me off on a strange streak of dressing up and putting on makeup more often. I also started buying more "sexy" clothes, like skin-tight bodysuits, low-cut tops, and cutoff denim shorts. This was way out of character. If someone were to describe me in one fell swoop, "sexy" and "easy-going" wouldn't exactly be at the top of the list. I'm usually a yoga-pants-wearing ball of stress. Yet here I was, giving myself a makeover. My boyfriend asked what the inspiration behind the transformation was, and I told him the truth — I hadn't the slightest clue. In an attempt to simply achieve an uber-cool blonde look, I'd inadvertently changed up my entire style.
Now that some time has passed, and I've been blonde for about five months, I'm still not sure where all that gumption came from. Perhaps I simply felt like I was fashionable for the first time in my life, like I had a permanent accessory on my head, and it deserved to be matched with thoughtful outfits. Some of my friends attribute the change to my new blondeness. I put it down to the sheer fact that I finally have the look I've always wanted, regardless of what the stereotypes associated with it are.
As for the reactions my hair elicits in public now, the shock has worn off amongst my friends and acquaintances. But every time I go somewhere new, I still get the same lingering glances. People's eyes scan the dark roots, my olive skin, and the blonde tresses, trying to figure out "what I am." I wear it all proudly, and let them pass their own judgments about the contrast they see.
And although I get even more "exotic" remarks than I did before, I can more or less tolerate them now. At least I'm no longer trying to box myself into white standards, wishing my Asian features were less prominent. However dark, blonde, or bodysuit-clad I am these days is all for me.