Wilson, M. (in press) Pale Perfection:  White Women in Pursuit of an Aryan Ideal.  In Jhana Sen Xian (Ed.) Skin Trading.  Women, Class, and Skin Color.
 

Racism has a lot to do with appearances -- literally. As a White woman, this thought occurred to me after an African American teenager -- someone I did not know -- spontaneously complimented me on "my pretty eyes." I have eyes that are a hazel, greenisn-brown shade, and rarely do others comment, for good or for bad, on their appearance. So perhaps for no other reason than simply being unfamiliar with hearing such a compliment, I ungraciously responded with a big "No." But then pointing to another White woman standing nearby, I added, "Now, she has pretty eyes. See. Hers are blue." Unimpressed, the young Black woman shrugged, and said once more, "I like your eyes," this time emphasizing the "your." And again I was about to argue the obvious error of her ways, when she turned and walked away.

For a moment, I stood there stunned. Someone had just told me that my eyes were pretty while standing nearby was a blue-eyed wonder to whom nothing was said at all. A part of me was thrilled, but then another reaction began to set in that was full of guilt and self- recrimination. Was my response possibly racist? After all, when I told that young African American woman that someone else's eyes were prettier simply because they were blue, was I not also implying that her eyes (and those of all of her ancestors and descendants) could never be pretty simply because they were brown -- or at least not likely blue?

This brief exchange, which happened a couple of years ago, made me realize something about myself that I didn't particularly like. While having conducted research and even co-authored a book (i.e., The Color Complex) on the politics of skin color among African Americans, I never stopped to analyze the hierarchy of feature preferences among Whites. Apparently, it was a lot easier to put "other" under the microscope than it was to examine the predilections of my own kind. Nor did I ever consider what implications the existence of such preferences might have on larger race issues. I, who in theory should have known better, had apparently internalized a rather narrowly defined standard of beauty dictating that blue eyes are better than brown-- and also, that blond hair is better than brown. I had to admit that my feature preferences were about as far from non-White as non-White could be.

Given my own very Waspish upbringing on the east coast of Virginia, perhaps it's not so surprising that I learned early on to covet Aryan-like features. I recall my older sister and I discussing how unfair it was that the only one in the family to get our Dad's bright blue eyes was our brother, and clearly they were wasted on a guy. My sister and I also had what is politely termed "dirty blond" hair -- a shade that at least turned gloriously blond in summer -- but again, it was our brother whose locks remained naturally platinum throughout the year. During adolescence, when our barely-hanging-in-there blond tresses faded to a distinct shade of mousy brown, we despaired. As summers rolled around, in particular, we began to take whatever steps were necessary to return our hair to its previous golden state. There were various methods to consider. The first usually entailed pouring sticky lemon juice on our heads while sunbathing. Inevitably, the results were disappointing. This was followed by the use of some over-the-counter product like "Sun In." Although the natural looking blond hair promised on the box never quite seemed to materialize, still it helped a little. When the sunbathing season was over, it was then time to consider donning one of those ridiculous looking tiny-hole-covered-plastic caps through which strands of hair were coaxed for that home grown streaked blond look. This technique, although spotty, at least had the advantage of allowing several months to pass before attention to the situation was again needed. Eventually, however, the quest for lighter colored hair led us to a complete dye job, at which point it was solemnly understood that touch ups would be required every four to six weeks to avoid the "dark roots" problem. It was a costly and time-consuming decision but ultimately considered a necessary one if unfortunately cursed like we were with the mousy brown shade. Most of the other (White) girls in our neighborhood took similar measures to lighten their hair. In addition, many of us had mothers who regularly dyed their hair blond, albeit they had it professionally done at beauty salons. This blonding was never anything we analyzed at the time; it was just something we did because we thought it made us look prettier.

Today, though, I reflect more deeply on why and where my desire for blond hair (and blue eyes) originated. According to Marina Warner, author of From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairly Tales and Their Tellers, blondeness has long been associated with women who were idolized and adored. Dating back to the ninth century, Homer first described the Goddess of Love's tresses as being xanthe, or golden. From the fifteenth century onward, the Virgin Mary was frequently portrayed in artwork as being a blond, even by Italians such as Botticelli who painted Aphrodite rising from the sea wearing only blond hair. Many Black Madonnas, including the statue of Monstserrat in Spain, are similarly portrayed with blond hair. John Milton's classic seventeenth century work Paradise Lost also describes Eve --
the ultimate Western symbol of femininity -- as possessing "golden tresses." Even in most fairy tales, the "fair" maiden nearly always had blond hair. In fact, throughout much of Western literature, blondes have been overly represented as angels, saints, and goddesses.1 Such was the media influence of its day.

The notion that blond women might also be simmering reportedly first appeared -- at least in this country -- during the late nineteenth century, after a troupe of peroxided erotic dancers from England came to tour. 2 Gradually, the stereotype that blonds were sexually charged, and not just virginal, began to take hold. Later, Hollywood also did its part to fuel the fantasy of blonds being hot with the introduction of such bombshells as Mary Pickford, Jean Harlow, and Marilyn Monroe. In more recent years, there have been dozens of other top blond stars, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan, Melanie Griffith, Daryl Hannah, Kim Basinger, Ellen Barkin, Elizabeth Shue, and Sharon Stone. But it was the brilliant campaign slogan "Blondes have more fun," that first appeared in the sixties for Clairol hair products, that really promoted the image of blonds as superior, fun-loving kind of women.3

The power of this more recent image of blond haired women is reflected in the findings of one social psychological study on first impressions. When White male and female research participants were asked to form judgements about different White woman, stereotypes emerged as a function of their hair color. That is, when a woman was brunette, she was judged to be intelligent, ambitious, and sincere, but when she was blond, she was judged to beautiful, delicate, dangerous, and unpredictable.4

Interestingly, the association of danger and unpredictability with blond hair may have been shaped by Hollywood, as well. The casting of such blond beauties as Lauren Bacall as the femme fatale in the film noire classic The Big Sleep (1946) may have led some viewers to re-evaluate their notions of blonds as calculating. And there have been other murderous blonds since then including Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992).

Yet blonds are also sometimes stereotyped as stupid and shallow, as reflected in the recent rash of dumb blond jokes. According to cultural critic Camille Paglia, however, such jokes are best be understood as a way of rectifying the many social advantages conferred on women with "blond ambition." That is, such put downs serve to be put blond women who might otherwise be too powerful back in their place. 5

Despite the mixed bag of reactions to those with blond hair, it seems a lot of White women still want to have light colored tresses. I searched the psychology literature, first to see if any research had been done on base rates for blond hair as well as blue eyes in the White population, and second, on how widespread the desire for these particular features, either alone or in combination, was. The results of my search were disappointing. While a few articles have been published on the harmful effects of a White standard of beauty on persons of color, few empirical studies have been conducted on the pursuit of a specifically Nordic ideal.

With regard to base rates, I did come across a 1993 study on representations of hair color in the media that included some comparison data for base rates of blond hair in the White population. This study found that 26.8 percent of a White college sample self-reported that they had natural blond hair.6 I also discovered a 1989 Gallup poll indicating that 30.2 percent of the American population has blue eyes.7 To assess the reliability of these two findings, I conducted my own mini-survey using a sample of introductory psychology students at DePaul University. In a simple paper-and-pencil measure, I asked participants to racially identify themselves, to indicate their natural eye and hair color, and if either was altered, to report in what direction the feature was changed.

Out of an initial pool of close to 200 students, 80 identified themselves as White and/or of being of European ancestry. Among this group, 25 percent said that their hair was naturally blond hair, and 32.5 percent said that their eyes were blue. Because these figures approximate the reported base rates of blond hair and blue eyes in the two studies cited above, presumably they roughly generalizable to the population of Whites in this country. My data also indicated that only 13.6 percent of the students in my sample have both blond hair and blue eyes.

I next turned to evidence supporting the contention that some features are pursued more than others. With respect to hair color, the data was clear. Most participants who changed the color of their tresses moved in the direction of lightening them, not darkening. Specifically, among the 25 percent who reported having chemically altered their hair color, 48 percent dyed it blond or blonder, and only 8 percent dyed their hair a darker color than it already was. With the exception of a few who dyed their hair blue or purple, the remainder either colored their hair red, or enriched a brown color that they already had. The data further indicated that only one person (or 5 percent of the total sample) in possession of naturally blond hair dyed it brown. This number, although from a very small sample and therefore potentially unreliable, is at least consistent with the "3 to 5 percent" offered by my own hairdresser when asked to guess what percent of her natural blond clients requested their hair be dyed darker.8

With regard to eye color, my survey identified 13 participants who wore tinted contact lenses. A cross tabulation performed on natural eye color and contact lenses color found that not a single person who used tinted lenses did so for the purposes of darkening their eyes. Most (83.3 percent) of those opting to wear blue contact lenses had eyes that were naturally hazel, brown, or green to begin with, and who were seeking to further lighten them.

The preference for changing darker colored eyes to blue is further supported by sales figures from International Lens Incorporated, a business that sells contact lens directly to doctors. In response to an inquiry regarding the vending of contact lenses by color, the answer was a whopping 80 percent came from the sale of blue lenses alone. 9 A search of the internet similarly revealed a strong emphasis on the marketing of blue contact lenses. For example, at the Wesley Jessen Vision Care, Inc. webpage, the first line of it reads, "Don't it make your brown eyes blue?"10

The belief that being in possession of blue eyes and blond hair is a good thing is additionally indicated by one of the few studies specifically exploring feature preferences among Whites. In a 1994 article, Lora Jacobi and Thomas Cash reported that 91.3 percent of White women with blue eyes thought that blue eyes were ideal, with a whopping 87 percent of them believing that men thought so, too. Interestingly, in reality, only 37.9 percent of men claimed that their beauty ideal was a woman with blue eyes. Among non-blued eye women, only 15.2 percent rated blue eyes as ideal, but still an impressive 78.3 percent of them believed that men preferred their girlfriends to have blue eyes. A similar pattern emerged around hair color. Among those with blond hair, 92.9 percent rated blond hair as ideal, with half believing that men thought so, too. In reality, 34.8 percent of men said they preferred women with blond hair. Among brunettes, only 19.1 percent rated blond hair as ideal, but 45.8 percent nonetheless thought that men liked blond hair the best. In other words, while thankfully most of the White female respondents in the study appeared to be satisfied with the color of their own features, many of them nonetheless still assumed that men desired them to look specifically Nordic in appearance. Interestingly, a gender difference in preference beliefs also emerged in the data such that 84 percent of all the female participants, regardless of their own hair color, believed that men preferred blonde women, but only 49 percent of the male participants believed that women preferred blond men.11

Although the Jacobi and Cash study was conducted on a US college population, the preference for blond hair and blue eyes is hardly limited to Whites living in this country. For example, in Italy, despite the renown of such Sicilian beauties as Sophia Loren, it is the northern Italian women with their blond hair and blue eyes who are considered by many to be the most desirable. The same preference for fair featured women holds throughout many countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In particular, the darkness of Gypsies is deemed undesirable in this area of the world. It is also understood by many of those of the Jewish faith there that the comment, "She doesn't look Jewish," especially when referring to a woman with light colored hair and eyes, is nearly always meant as a compliment. Even in South America, where much of the indigenous population has brown skin and dark eyes, a disturbingly high percentage of its female pop culture stars (e.g. Brazil's Xuxa) and models look more like they originated from a Scandinavian nation than a Latino one.12

Actually many Scandinavian countries, too, have zealously pursued a Nordic ideal. Recent revelations from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway regarding the scope and intent of compulsory sterilization programs which began in the 1930s and ran as recently as the 1970s indicate that those with "gypsy" features were subjected to the operations far more than those with blond hair and blue eyes. The evidence suggests that as many as 60,000 Swedes, 2,000 Norwegians, and 6,000 Danes were rendered infertile in the quest for racial purity.13 Even today some geneticists remain obsessed with capturing the Aryan imprint. In 1998, a Swiss drug manufacturer announced it would pay $200 million to study the mostly blond, blue-eyed people of Iceland who descended from a small band of original Nordic settlers during the ninth
century. 14

Given that most of the world's population has relatively dark features, I wondered how blue eyes and blond hair became associated with those of Nordic stock. For that answer, I turned to anthropological literature, specifically theories regarding how White people came to look the way they do. The most widely accepted view is termed the Vitamin D Hypothesis. It starts with the premise that homo sapiens first evolved in the tropics and were naturally dark in color for a reason. Brown skin promoted survivability because it nicely protected the mostly unclothed natives from the high levels of ultraviolet light prevalent near the equator. However, when homo sapiens began to spread northward (about 120,00 years ago), dark-pigmentation became a detriment to their survival. In lands with short days and long winters, brown skin blocked the absorption of reduced levels of available ultraviolet light. Since ultraviolet light was the primary source of vitamin D, those who were relatively dark began to suffer more than those who were lighter from an imbalance in their calcium metabolism. The resulting shortage caused bone deformities, or what is now termed rickets. The health effects were particularly problematic for females whose pelves became so weakened by calcium deficiencies that they were rendered incapable of carrying a fetus to term.15

Thus it came to be that natural selection in northern regions evolved to favor those individuals, especially females, with relatively less melanin -- the substance in our skin that gives it its color. Because melanin also plays a role in determining shades of eye color and hair color, the reduced amounts of melanin in the body additionally began turning originally brown eyes to blue, and originally dark hair to tresses that were blond. As an aside, according to anthropologists, hair which was originally tightly curled for purposes of cooling scalps in hotter regions of the world began to relax to better insulate scalps in colder regions. That is, hair that could lay flat on the head allowed less heat to escape than hair that was wavy. The end result of these evolutionary changes was that light skin, blue eyes and straight, blond hair came to be selected and ultimately identified with those living furthest away from the equator. 16

While interesting, the anthropological theories failed to fully explain why there remains to this day such a persistent preoccupation with blond hair and blue eyes. After all, there are currently many sources of vitamin D, and rickets is a disease found only in the poorest of poor countries. Something else had to be at work other than the slow forces of evolution. According to sociobiologists, that something else is sex, or more precisely sexual attraction.

Sociobiology is a field based on the premise that strategies for reproductive success shape much of human social behavior, especially courtship patterns. In particular, sociobiologists, or as they are sometime called evolutionary psychologists, posit that males select, at least for purposes of long-term mating as opposed to one night stands, females deemed most likely to bear them healthy children. Certain feminine features are used unconsciously by men to index a woman's reproductive health. As evidence, sociobiolgists point to studies indicating that males are acutely sensitive to the symmetry, shape, and size of a woman's facial features, buttocks, and breasts, as well as to the color and texture of her skin, in evaluations of her sexual desirability.17 Thus, from the perspective of evolutionary psychologists, it makes sense that tens of thousands of years ago males close to the equator would select females with relatively darker skin and curlier hair as potentially healthy breeders, while those in the north would be drawn to females whose skin and features were relatively lighter, and whose hair was straight.

It turns out, however, to not be that simple. Even among most brown-skinned people, males prefer relatively lighter skinned females. An anthropological listing of 312 different cultures reports that out of the 51 cultures that use skin color as a criterion of a woman's beauty, in all but 4 of these, lighter skin is preferred.18 Why would this be? The answer, again according to sociobiologists, is that light skin signals relative youth, in part because human skin darkens with age and increasing exposure to ultraviolet light. Even more interesting, an adult female's skin significantly darkens after her first pregnancy.19 This means that all other things being equal, a male is going to perceive a potential female mate with light skin as likely to be virginal and thus more reproductively viable than her darker-skinned sister. This then would help explain why relatively lighter skin would still have been deemed desirable among females in cultures not affected by White colonialism -- or at least before Whites arrived.

Of course, any observed preference for relatively lighter skinned females must be tempered by the fact that the perceived desirability of any feature depends on a particular place and time in history. In short, notions of beauty are largely socially constructed. Consider the current preoccupation on the part of many American White women in maintaining a "healthy looking" tan, despite repeated health warnings to the contrary. Such was not always the case. Up until the nineteenth century, pale creamy white skin was the preferred look, especially for a young White woman of a certain social standing. At that time, the majority of Whites lived in rural areas and most families, daughters included, were expected to help maintain the family farm. Only the wealthy had enough servants and/or slaves to spare female offspring from engaging in outdoor labor. Thus, the paleness of a young woman's skin had the power to effectively broadcast to others her social station in life. So coveted was the look of skin untouched by the sun that most White girls, even poor ones, did everything they could to avoid the stigmatizing effects of a tan, including wearing big bonnets and gloves whenever they went outside.20

Actually even among many brown-skinned people around the world, the appearance of relatively lighter skin, especially on a female, was commonly used as a general indicator of her social standing. Only daughters from the wealthiest families were allowed to stay indoors and be protected from the sun's tanning rays. In fact, in many parts of the world today, this is still the case. 21

This brings up the relationship between class and color. Although there are writings -- indeed much of the rest of this book -- that document the existence of a color caste hierarchy among persons of color around the world, far less attention has been paid to the class connotations and assumptions made by Whites regarding their skin, hair, and eye color. Certainly there are plenty of penniless White women with very pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, just as there are many wealthy brown-eyed brunettes, but the idealization of a Nordic appearance nonetheless would appear to create a preference away from women who are "too dark." I recall a recent conversation with a young Lebanese woman who said that her fair featured boyfriend's mother could never accept her son dating a woman as dark as she. I also can't help but wonder to what extent the enormous appeal of the late Princess Diana -- the hallmark of upper class beauty in Western society -- had to do with the lightness of her features. Had her hair and eyes been dark brown, and her skin tinged with an olive tone, would she have been as universally admired? I guess not, although I have no hard proof for such speculation. However, I am aware of studies indicating that economically disadvantaged women who are high in physical attractiveness are more likely to upwardly marry than those less attractive.22 It would be interesting to know if the attractiveness of the social climbing women specifically included them having higher rates of blond hair and blue eyes. Given that in some White families the daughter with blond hair and blue eyes is commonly referred to as the "golden child," it would not surprise me if she were also groomed a bit more for "marital success." At any rate, it's an interesting research question.

Among wealthy Whites, the emphasis on pale skin began to change with the expansion of the industrial revolution, and then later with the arrival of the jet age. As the masses moved from doing outdoor farm chores to indoor factory work, pale skin, especially during the summer, came to be linked to those who engaged in menial labor. Gradually it also came to be that having a tan, especially in winter, represented sophistication, along with having the money and available leisure time to vacation in warmer climes.23 Thus, negative feelings about being tan were replaced with more positive ones. While recently there has been a renewed emphasis on pale skin among health conscious celebrity women such as Madonna and Michelle Pfeiffer, most White women still seem to believe that they look better with a touch of color on their face. Whether that view changes in the future remains to be seen, but regardless of whether it does, the preference for an untanned versus tanned look is the result of socially constructed attitudes having to do with issues of class and perceived status.

I return to the role of the media as a factor that both maintains and mirrors the social constructions of attractiveness in today's global village. No where is this more evident than within the beauty industry where an Aryan bias serves to promote and reflect the preference for blond hair and blue eyes in the larger society. Evidence for the existence of such a bias include the findings of one study indicating that over one-third of all Miss America contestants are blond.24 Another study reports that the percentages of blonds appearing in three popular magazines over the last four decades are significantly higher than base rates in the larger population. Specifically, in Playboy, the percentage of blondes was found to be 41.2 percent, in Ladies Home Journal, it was 36.4 percent, and in Vogue, it was 35.7 percent.25 Analogous over representations of women with blue eyes are evident, as well. The president of Nexus Personal Management, Inc., a top modeling agency, claims that requests for blue-eyed models routinely exceed that for all others.26 In fact, just about any informal viewing of print and electronic ads for various fashion and beauty products confirms a heavy reliance on White female models with blond hair and blue eyes.

As I further ponder how the media has played a role in social constructions of beauty, a bothersome thought keeps bubbling into my consciousness. I try to push it away but finally I have to confess that I find -- and I believe many other Whites do, too -- blue eyes to be generally prettier than brown, and blond hair to be generally more appealilng than hair that is dark. Aesthetically, that's how I feel. Intellectually and morally, I get stuck on this point, especially since I'm not sure that such preferences don't also mean that I'm not a racist. Of course, I can think of many persons of color, both celebrities and non-celebrities alike, who are stunningly attractive with their beautiful brown eyes and dark hair. I also strongly believe that if the world's economic and socio-political power were equally divided across the races, that notions of beauty would likewise be distributed more evenly across the feature spectrum. Does it help that I completely bought author Jean Auel's thesis that Ayla, the title character of her best seller The Clan of the Cave Bear (and played by Darryl Hannah in the film version) was viewed as freakishly unattractive by the darker-skinned Clan people who had never before seen such a creature? And yet despite these more politically acceptable ruminations, I still think, all other things being equal, blue eyes are simply prettier than brown. Certainly I am willing to accept that I have been brainwashed to hold this aesthetic because of my complete and total immersion in a dominant White culture that has forced fed me since day one with biased images of beauty. And it is precisely that immersion and the nature of our current racist culture that will prevent me from ever knowing whether there might also exist something else that leads me to prefer the color of sky and the lightness of sunshine over the color of dirt and the darkness of night. But it's at least theoretically possible that my conditioning goes well beyond any immediate racist culture to some more primordial longings and fears.27

Of course, I'm still curious about how the existence of an Aryan standard of beauty functions within the larger discourse on White privilege and critical race theory. As Peggy McIntosh first noted in the eighties, Whites are privileged in a host of subtle and not so subtle ways by the mere appearance and possession of white skin. In constructing her list of various privileges, McIntosh did much to assist anti-racist Whites get beyond naive based notions of a mythical colorblind society. The invisible package of benefits accorded to those deemed White benefits both racists and anti-racists alike.28 At the same time, it turns out to be the case that some Whites benefit more from their "whiteness" than others. As a so-called racial grouping, Whites have the widest range of feature variation compared to any other racial grouping. Whites' hair can be black, brown, red, or blond, and still they can be White. Whites' eyes can be brown, hazel, green, or blue, and still they are White. Even their skin color can shade from very pale to brown, and still they can be White. Such is the case with some relatively dark-skinned Armenians, Turks, and Sicilians who, at least in a race obsessed United States, are legally defined as White. In contrast, among those individuals who racially identify themselves as being largely if not exclusively of African, Asian, Native, South Pacific, Latino, and/or Middle Eastern ancestry, it is generally the case that their hair, eyes, and skin color are all dark, albeit to varying degree. It is only through race mixing with Whites that significantly lighter features are introduced into these other cultures.

At first glance, it might appear that because of Whites' privileged placement in the global racial caste hierarchy, that they might be free of the ugly politics of feature preference that plague so many others around the world. In reality, such is not the case. As film scholar Richard Dyer notes in his 1997 ground breaking book White, the huge feature diversity among Whites "also functions [sic] to show that some white people are demonstrably whiter than others." 29

As discussed earlier, two features in particular, blue eyes and blond hair, are uniquely associated with Caucasians, particularly those of Nordic ancestry. When these two features are combined with light skin color, they serve to mark those in possession as being if not genetically pure White (whatever that means), at least physically the furthest away possible from persons associated with all other racial groupings. Laws governing racial identity function in a similar way. For example, any pollution of Whiteness renders a person not White with the result that a biracial child may be referred to as a light-skinned Black, but never a dark-skinned White

person.30 Thus, the persistent preference for blue eyes and blond hair among many Whites may actually reflect an insidious form of White supremacy and racial superiority. That is, as long as Whites
place a premium on these two particular features, they will continue to reject on a physical and psychological level others who deemed genetically incapable of producing the desired features. Isn't that in fact what I implied when I told that young African American woman that my eyes couldn't be pretty, and presumably neither could hers, when I held blue eyes up as the gold star standard of attractiveness?

So where does all this reflection and research leave me? Ironically, as I finish up work on this chapter, I have to take a break to keep an appointment to get my hair highlighted. While my graying roots are replaced with bright streaks of blond, I find myself struggling to both accept and justify my behavior. It used to be such a non-political decision to do this to my hair and now it no longer seems so.

I think back to the many discussions my co-author and friend Kathy Russell I had about hair when we were finishing up our second book, Divided Sisters: Bridging The Gap Between Black Women and White Women. Kathy, who is African American, is also an author on The Color Complex, and in both books we wrote quite a bit about issues of hair. We especially focused on the politicalization of an African American woman's choice to either process their hair or to wear it in some natural style like a short Afro or dreadlocks. For Kathy, the subject was personal and challenging.

Since I've known Kathy, she has mostly worn her hair in a shoulder length style that requires regular processing, or straightening. However, for the past couple of years, Kathy has also opted to take a break from that look by getting multiple tiny braid extensions. This latter style, which she keeps in for a couple of months at a time, is arguably a more ethnic looking choice than how she normally wears her hair. When it came time to pose for our publicity and jacket cover photo for Divided Sisters, Kathy had to think long and hard about what the implications would be if her hair was in braids for an advance photograph, but was processed when she actually showed up to give a talk or appear on television. "Ah,"I recall thinking,"This is another example of White privilege because I can wear my hair however I want and no one is going to question me about being a 'sell out.'"

However, I now think a White woman's choice to lighten her hair color does have larger political implications, as does a decision to pop blue contact lens in eyes that are brown or hazel. With consciousness comes responsibility. That is, I may still choose to lighten my hair color because I think it looks better. Ultimately, I suppose that's a personal decision. But I also have to accept that in so doing, I'm contributing to a larger statistical trend of more White women lightening their hair than darkening it. White women like myself must ask ourselves, "Do we want to be part of a problem having to do with the preferencing of Aryan-like features, or do we want to work towards a possible solution of eliminating biases in perceptions of beauty?"

At the very least, we must stop embracing blond hair and blue eyes as the hallmark of high physical attractiveness, and instead come to view these two features as but one of many possible variations in eye and hair color that can occur and be beautiful. Changing one's aesthetics is never easy, and is made especially difficult when the media daily inundates us with such narrowly defined images of feminine beauty. But I remain convinced that there are little things that each of us can do every day to challenge ourselves and others in this area. For example, when a new parent exclaims, "Oh I hope my baby's eyes stay blue," we can gently ask him or her why that is so important?

As for me, the next time -- if there is a next time -- that someone compliments me on my "pretty eyes," I'm going to proudly reply, "Thanks, I like them, too." Now if I can just accept my graying hair, I'll be fine!
 
 


 Endnotes