A few days ago, I accidentally got hair extensions. An accident in the sense that it was only mid-extension application that I learnt that I was to have semi-permanent long blonde hair with a two to three month life-span.
Let me explain.
I was in Sydney for a photoshoot and the photographer had informed me a few days earlier that a hair stylist would bring extensions to the shoot in order to serve the “swinging sixties” theme. As a short-haired blonde who can now only dream of long locks due to years of bleach, curling irons and subsequent breakage, my heart goes a little silly at the thought of long hair. Having worn hair wefts (detachable hair extensions that clip in and out) and lace-front wigs on various film and TV projects, I simply assumed that I would again be enthroned by long luscious hair for a magical day, and then, like Cinderella with her glistening glass slippers, as the clock struck midnight, I would return to my humble short-haired existence.
Not the case at all.
The latest hair extension craze, I’ve since learned, is tapes. I’d always resisted hair extensions because the idea of plugs sticking into my skull was not my idea of a good nights sleep. So while my hair stylist was taping the extensions to the roots of my hair, he casually asked, “Do you want to keep them in for a few months or take them out at the end of the day?”
“Keep them in??” I asked, almost in disbelief. “You mean, I can actually get to keep this hair?!”
The point of my story is not to detail the evolution of hair extensions, nor to express my deep fondness for long hair (a sentiment I know I share with most women), but to explain the subsequent impact long blonde hair has on a woman in society. Or should I say, the way in which society is impacted by her.
When I was still a teenager (and a naughty one at that), a good friend of mine who was a few years older and a hell of a lot ballsier began emerging from the bathroom or a random bedroom at whichever party we happened to be rocking it at that weekend wearing a wavy, long blonde wig. It’s important to note that my friend was a lesbian, and was at the time fashioning a sort of mohawk do. She was, however, incredibly beautiful, so when she’d emerge with long blonde hair, the response she would receive was hard to ignore. This began as a sort of high-on drugs party trick meets feminist social experiment, but soon became her alter-ego, Portia. Blonde Portia was sexed-up and booby and liked boys. And the really interesting thing for all of us at the time was just how much the boys liked her. My friend’s (fake) blonde hair would cast a spell on men wherever she would go, all heads would turn her way, and in her words, she could “have her pick”.
While crossing an intersection in Los Angeles recently with a male friend of mine, in response to noticing that a number of cars gave way for us, my friend remarked, “I guess you have no idea what life would be like if you weren’t pretty”. I didn’t give much thought to his comment. For the record, I wore glasses from age 7 until I was 15 years old when I got contact lenses. And so in the same way a blonde wig often fools people into thinking pretty thoughts, glasses can coerce people into thinking not pretty thoughts. At least that’s how it felt when I was young. I think growing up with glasses (I was so ashamed, I’d often hide them in my school blazer if I were talking to a boy I liked), has left me pretty humble.
But having just recently been bestowed with luscious long blonde locks, my friend’s existential words have began to ring in my ears. Granted, even I still get a fright when I catch a glimpse of the think woolly mass tussling off my head in the mirror. But everywhere I now go, and coincidently I have since been on three aeroplanes and moved around three major cities, men and women can’t keep their eyes off me. The degree of attention I feel I am attracting is both unsettling/shy-making and empowering; all at once I feel like Shakespeare’s gawky Helena from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the powerful Helen of Troy.
I write this not because I go about my life believing I’m pretty (in truth I’m a scruffy, homely girl who cares little for grooming and would rather walk about with chipped nails than waste time waiting for nail-polish to dry), nor do I feel that my looks have entitled me to certain advantages in life. It’s the impact of a woman’s looks and in particular a blonde woman’s looks, that is interesting to me. My blonde wig-wearing Portia friend would say, “It’s as if they don’t even see my face, or notice that my hair is in fact fake. All they see is blonde.”
A few days ago I called my friend in LA and said, “You’re right that a pretty girl must experience the world differently. But it doesn’t always work in her favor. For instance, while cars might stop for her when she’s crossing the street, and surely she will find it easy to attract the opposite sex, there are also a great many disadvantages.” My friend hadn’t considered any disadvantages to being pretty so pressed me to continue. “Well, you say I am one of those pretty girls?” He confirmed with “Yes.”
“It’s taken years for me to be taken seriously intellectually. At school I felt from my peers that I wasn’t allowed to be smart and pretty, and adding blonde into the mix is just a triple threat. I’ve also endured sexual harassment in too many workplaces as well as at university that if I were to list every instance you might not believe me,” I said.
In all fairness to my friend, he absorbed the conversation as if having just read a profound and insightful New York Times article.
While I am arguably Beyonce’s numero uno fan, I don’t really relate to her proposed notion that “Pretty Hurts”. I’m sure it does for some, but I certainly don’t equate prettiness to having a “soul that needed surgery”. I do think however, that the outside world will more readily like you in certain scenarios and dislike you in others depending on how you look. Being pretty may win you a boyfriend or a job, but may also leave you overlooked or ridiculed. Whichever the case, being marginalized is never much fun.