Sunday, March 11, 2007

Latina Goes to Blond in Identity Experiment

Fade to Blonde
As an experiment in ethnic identity, a proud, political Latina reaches for the bleach

By Belén Aranda Alvarado
Sunday, March 11, 2007; W20

WHEN I THINK OF THE SPACE WHERE LATINAS AND BLONDNESS MEET, I always remember Iris, a Puerto Rican classmate from my days at Columbia University. Iris was one of those women whom men generally like and women generally don't. She was more comfortable with playful banter than serious exchanges, and it was rumored she liked flirting with other women's boyfriends. But to many of the other Latinas in our class -- at least those newly politicized and hyper ethnically aware, like me -- she was guilty of larger crimes. Iris once infamously represented the Puerto Rican student group by offering free salsa lessons while wearing a white ruffled peasant blouse, hoop earrings and bright red lipstick. She never disguised her love of traditional, totally un-PC frat parties, the kind where they played AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" to pack the dance floor. And she dyed her hair blond. An orange-y, brassy blond.

At the time, my biggest desire was to make my light-skinned Chilean self look as identifiably Latina as possible. Saddled with a hair texture that was, at best, ethnically ambiguous and, at worst, simply wavy, I coveted Iris's naturally tight, corkscrew curls. It was the kind of mane I would've described as "Jewish hair" when I was still going to high school in Rockville, but now it seemed to be Caribbean-beauty perfection. Iris's decision to color it was unfathomable, a sure sign of succumbing to mainstream "white is right; blond is better" beauty standards. It couldn't have puzzled me more if she'd slapped on some blue contact lenses and asked us to call her Madison. Didn't she love her brown self?

I solved my own hair dilemma by visiting the JC Penney salon while on a trip home and getting the chunky white girl behind the counter to give me a spiral perm. She botched it enough that I got my money returned, but, to my elation, people back at school let me know that they thought this -- my botched perm -- was my true hair. They assumed I'd been blowing it straight until then. Joy! My ethnic identity unmistakably announced.

After our 1995 graduation, more than 10 years would pass until I would see Iris again. It would be at a reception hosted by Columbia's Latino alumni group, and, in the weeks before, I would think of Iris frequently. She would show up brunette. But there would be another blonde in attendance -- me.

A FEW WEEKS BEFORE THE RECEPTION, I was asked to go blond for this article. The editor was looking for someone politically aware and proud of her Latina looks. I literally wrote the book on Latina beauty. (Really. It's on What's more, I just happened to have already marked on my calendar a perfect testing ground for this change-of-tresses: the reunion, where friends would be receiving awards for going on hunger strikes and taking over buildings to persuade the university to add a Latino studies major. Imagine the escandalo when I walked in blond.

My former classmates, I imagined, would think I'd done it for the usual reason: to snag a little of the love our society ladles on blondes. Consider a study cited in the Chronicle of Philanthropy last year: When the researchers sent a bunch of undergrads out collecting donations door-to-door, pretty girls unsurprisingly brought in the most money -- but blondes far out-raised equally fly-looking brunettes. Yet another study related that, given a choice of hair color, most men making more than $75,000 a year would pick blond partners. A scientific article by a McGill University anthropologist posited that the reason there are so many flaxen-haired Europeans may be that during the Ice Age, when successful male hunters were in short supply, women with eye-catching blond hair had a mating-game advantage over their darker peers.

Latinos come in all colors, but our standard mix of European, African and indigenous heritage means that naturally golden hair, while it does occur, is rare. So any bonus blondness brings is beyond pretty much the whole ethnic group -- which, on some level, feels unfair and infuriating. No wonder so many of us turn to chemicals: Across the board, Latinas buy more hair care products -- including dyes and the attendant deep-conditioning treatments -- than women in any other ethnic group. And no wonder the Latinas who equate going blond with changing your name from María to Mary disdain their frosting cap-, highlighting brush-wielding sisters.

I'm aware of all this. And I love being Latina: I'm convinced that, at some point or another, everyone who isn't part of our cool cultural hybrid secretly wishes they could be. But 10 years past college, I craved another sort of privilege: that of unburdened whimsy. If white women can change their hair color the way they change their lipstick -- with complete impunity and no worries over "correctly" representing their community -- why couldn't I? Even women's studies majors now march on Washington in tight pink baby-tees that scream, "This is what a feminist looks like!" So had enough time gone by that I could be a righteous, fierce, representin' Latina, and yet go blond?

I told the editor I'd do it.

As soon as I got off the phone, I went out and bought the beauty bible for Latinas on the lightening path: Us Weekly, the supermarket rag that regularly features photo after photo of dyed and highlighted Latina celebs. Jessica Alba, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, Eva Mendes -- they're all there, having gotten lighter-haired as their stars rose. (Cameron Diaz is claiming she's going to stick to her new brown locks, but I suspect it's a post-breakup dye job -- meant to shock, not to stay.) In the issue I bought, practically the only Latina celeb missing was beautiful, intelligent, raven-tressed Salma Hayek. I love Salma. I bet she'd kill in a big-budget superhero flick (like Jessica) or as the girlfriend to corrupt cop Denzel Washington (like Eva). But instead she seems -- to me at least -- to be one of the most under-appreciated Latina actresses out there. Why don't we see her more? I wasn't even sure what new movie Jessica Alba was in, but there she was full-page in another tabloid, getting her nails done at a charity event. Maybe if Salma got highlights . . .

I called various salons in town and started getting an education in the economics of blondness. While the women's magazines I read as a teen promised easy blond streaks via lemon juice, the truth is that taking hair from jet black (that's me) to something approximating blond requires many chemicals, many salon hours and many dollars. The cheapie drugstore, do-it-yourself route isn't available, as the chemicals needed to strip dark hair of its pigment aren't legally sold to anyone without a beautician's license. (And with good reason. The smell alone is enough to cause tears.) Salons around town gave me preliminary estimates starting from $250 to $500 -- emphasizing that the bill was liable to grow once the stylists actually got a look at my hair. And that was without the expensive conditioning shampoos and weekly deep-conditioning treatments I'd need afterward, to prevent my ends from splitting, frizzing and breaking off completely.

I decided that I'd go to a Dominican-owned salon I'd seen close to my home in Wheaton. A Latina hairdresser, I reasoned, would have experience taking a client with chemically relaxed hair like mine from one end of the color spectrum to the other. And the salon would do it for the bargain-basement $250 -- all The Post was willing to spend.

It took not one, but two days of six-hour sessions to get to a passably blond hair color. At the end of the first, I left thinking I looked strawberry blond. At home, my neighbor set me straight: My hair was actually Irish-jig red. I could have auditioned for "The Lord of the Dance." After much on-the-phone complaining -- and then begging -- with my stylist ("You were happy with it when you left," she kept saying, impatiently, in Spanish), she took me in for another session, gratis, to add blond highlights. And that, she told me, was as blond as I was going to get. My hair certainly didn't look God-given, but at least it could reasonably be described as blond.

When I got home, my sister, her boyfriend, my neighbor and my boyfriend gathered around. The unanimous verdict: a thumbs-up. Only one person registered disapproval: my 5-year-old daughter, Natalia. "Mami, you painted your hair," she said, running her hands over my tresses. "Your hair is dark like mine."

I've always been the culturally conscious parent, making sure she had plenty of "Dora the Explorer" DVDs to offset the glossy, blond perfection of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Barbie and countless other mermaids and fairies. But in my rush to seize my blond moment, it hadn't occurred to me that my daughter might connect my change to her own stunning, raven hair. I'd be going back to my real hair color soon, I told myself.

IN HER BOOK BLONDE LIKE ME, author Natalia Ilyin describes the blond effect as "a gentle rise in the tidewaters of public friendliness." In her brightest moments, the blond Ilyin reports, she was the recipient of impulsive marriage proposals and the cause of minor traffic accidents; at times she felt like "power and sex personified" -- exactly as I'd always thought blond life would be.

My expectations for myself were more modest. A compliment -- or a drink? -- from a stranger. Salesclerks with suddenly improved attitudes. A heightened interest in what I had to say.

In the first few days, my new hair color definitely gave me a little buzz. At brunch, my family suggested that it flattered my skin tone, maybe even more than my natural color did. And my boyfriend's growled comment, "You look gooood," had me feelin' frisky. We were both getting a nice boost from my frosted tresses.

But there were unexpected bumps along the way. The day after my initial salon visit, my reflection caught me by surprise as I came out of a bathroom stall. What I saw in that unself-conscious moment: bland, blah, like-everybody-else-ness. I'm light-skinned, with what can be described as Caucasian features. To many people -- Latinos and Anglos alike -- I don't "look Latina." Until that moment, I'd had no idea that I wielded my black hair in the same way that I use the accent in my first name and my long, vowel-ending hyper-ethnic last name: as a banner, letting people know in no uncertain terms "Sí, soy Latina!" Without it, I felt erased.

Entire books have been written about blondness. Ilyin's made the biggest impression, because there I found a perfect description of my motivations: I was what Ilyin calls an "ironic blond," someone making a statement with an overt appropriation of a style not originally intended for her. Think Madonna, Li'l Kim or RuPaul, who, when questioned about the politics of his wigs, said, "I'm not going to pass as white, and I'm not trying to . . . [but] I want to create outrageous sensation, and blond hair against brown skin is a gorgeous, outrageous combination."

Gorgeous outrageousness was also what I was after, especially as I prepared to attend the Latino alumni reception at my alma mater. Imagining gasps and looks of horror, I planned ahead, getting a spray tan and even considering (briefly) wearing the blue contact lenses that would create a perfect fake hair/fake eyes/fake tan triumvirate of wildly inappropriate personal grooming choices for a politically correct college-educated Latina. Oh, the whispers, the stares, the scandal!

But when I arrived at the dinner and met friends I hadn't seen in years, they embraced me and said . . . "Hi." I felt the need to explain my experiment, but if the women said anything about my hair, it was that they really liked it. That threw me off. They weren't supposed to actually like me as a blonde, much less tell me I looked better. I waited expectantly for the reaction from one friend in particular, Jenny. An architect of the hunger-strike-building-takeover-sparking-massive-national-media-attention endeavor, she was Puerto Rican, worked for a nonprofit and lived in a predominantly Latino section of town. In other words, homegirl was down. When she saw me she, said, "Oh, you changed your hair." I complimented her on her 'do, and I'm pretty sure that after that we went and got a drink from the open bar. Nothing else. Nada.

There was only one friend, a black woman, who told me she thought I looked "less Latina." On a black or darker-skinned Latina woman, she said, blond was okay; they'd never be mistaken for either being white or wanting to look as if they were. But on me, with my fair skin and straight hair, it was too close to "passing" for her comfort. The closest I can get to blond-on-brown outrageousness is to get a fake tan. But no one would think I was embarking on a subversive beauty experiment. They'd just assume I was trying to get a job at Hooters.

Iris was now a brunette working for the Cleveland port authority. She'd attended this Latino alumni event every year since its inception, she said, flying in from Ohio for the weekend. She seemed amused that I remembered her as a blonde.

"It was such a short time in my life," she told me later. She said there'd been a price to pay for the color change at the time. From Latinos of both genders, she said, "the reaction was, 'You're too whitewashed.'" But it had been worth it. The change had allowed her to step out of the stereotyped role of the submissive Latina. "It was like Mariah with Mimi, like Madonna with Dita," she said. "I felt like I was a different character, more free, more daring."

Who knew? Iris had been an ironic blonde, too.

According to Iris, Latino men had been particularly disapproving of her change. I'd had a different experience. About a week before, on a weekday afternoon, a guy probably 10 years younger than I had sidled up as I was waiting to cross a street and said: "Hey, ma, you look good! You got a man?" At the time, I was pushing my sleeping daughter in her stroller -- a scenario that, in my experience, deters most men. But not this guy. He even worked her into his whole approach: "She yours?" he asked. "Aw, she beautiful just like you." Either he was really, really hard up, I'd thought, or the blond hair really was working a mojo of some kind.

But the men at the Latino reunion -- the same Ivy Leaguers who had known Iris years before -- ignored my blondness completely. Forget any ramped-up flirtatiousness, it was hard getting them to talk to me at all. When I finally approached one and asked point-blank, "Do you notice anything different about me?" he got such a panicked look on his face that I thought maybe, by accident, I'd asked him if I looked fat. "You changed your hair. It's what women do," he practically wailed.

A few weeks later, Jenny and I had brunch, and I broached the topic of blondness again. "I only heard from someone else later that you were doing it for an article, and I have to say I was relieved," she told me. A-ha! Here it was: the "What were you thinking?" discussion, the outrage at a hegemonic white-dominant concept of beauty that left all non-blondes to feel marginalized. Heated debate! Emotional exchanges!

"I think it was the wrong tone of blond, and I think that is a mistake a lot of Latina women make," she explained. "I've been thinking about going blond, too, and I wanted to figure out how to get the right blond, instead of that orangy blond so many of us get that I just think looks so tacky."

Afterward, I e-mailed around to see how many of the women I'd seen or talked to since changing my hair color shared Jenny's caveat. A number of them e-mailed back in the affirmative. Going blond was fine, but the wrong shade? Eeewww. So we can be upper-crusty Bergdorf blondes, but not drugstore blondes?

Apparently so.

There had been a time, in the early, giddy days of my blondness, when I'd considered keeping the new color, at least for a while. The Post had promised to take me back to my natural black, but maybe, I'd thought, it could be persuaded to pay for a touch-up instead? In the name of research? Now, despite tons of conditioner, my hair looked dried, frizzy and beat. I'd tried re-dyeing my eyebrows myself, to match my tresses, and that looked terrible, too. It's not that I didn't want the kind of hair my friends were saying was "the right kind" of blond. I just didn't have the money. And it wasn't worth it to spend any of my own funds on coloring.

IF THE EXPERIMENT HAD ENDED THERE, it might have left me with the impression that all you need for politically liberated, whimsy-inspired blondness is fistfuls of cash. But then came the wedding.

A Latina friend was getting married. The reception was held in a funky loft space, and I was full of the pleasure of attending -- until I found my table. There, accompanied by her preternaturally tan, distractingly handsome Latino boyfriend and sporting both a short aqua mini-dress and a head of perfect, white-gold hair, sat my doppelganger, another dyed Latina. She was talking -- no joke -- about vacationing in St. Barth's. Far from the only rubia at the party -- there's a saying that Latinas don't go gray, we go blond, and the older generation at this shindig bore that out -- she was the only one who rankled me.

With astonishing quickness, I made a series of decisions about who she was. I decided that if I settled down next to her and asked her how she kept her double-processed ends from splitting or what conditioner she used, she'd probably whip out a much-handled photo of a blond baby, swear it was her and insist that she was "simply going back to nature." She probably tries to live her life as a real blonde, I thought. And gets away with it, too. Because she probably has the money and time that can give anyone a swinging, shiny Pantene ad head of hair. She wasn't an ironic blonde like me.

I ended up leaving the wedding early. On the way home, though, a thought struck me. About a week before, I'd been on the phone with one of my Latino friends from business school, and told him I'd gone blond. "Then you can get a job at Sin City," he joked, referring to a local strip club frequented by young, working-class Latinos. We had both laughed. Being compared to a stripper hadn't bothered me -- there's something so unapologetic and edgy about the stereotypical stripper look. But the idea of being confused with a blonde who might be trying to pass was horrifying. The problematic blonde, for me, was the woman at my table, who, despite my own complicated feelings about being blond, I immediately assumed was trying to hide her ethnicity. But then, where did that leave the bleached-blond Latina? If your hair is "not the right tone," then you're tacky, cheap, orange. And irony, as Iris's experience showed, is no protection. But if your privilege -- both of skin color and of wallet -- allows you to execute the transformation too well, you're trying to pass?

Damned if you do; damned if you don't.

AFTER THE WEDDING INCIDENT, it was all work and no fun, as my poor locks strained under too many chemical processes. I wasn't sure I'd really gotten to the bottom of the blond conundrum, but I knew I'd had enough. A second wedding gave me just the push I needed to go back to brunette. My roots had long been showing, as my boyfriend himself had pointed out. The blond hair had to go.

I did what many a Latina has done in moments like this: I called my cousin. As a real-life hairdresser, she's subjected herself to various hair color incarnations. When she came to save me with a color rinse and shag haircut, she herself was sporting a tongue-in-cheek platinum mullet with deep purple on the sides. "You'd better really be ready to go back to being brunette," she scolded me. She said she'd had too many clients come in claiming to want some change, only to end up crying in her stylist's chair. "These women," she sighed, shaking her head. "In the end, they just can't handle it."

And there it was. I, in fact, do have a deep connection with her customers, Latina and non-Latina alike. I didn't like this change. The change in status from being more Obviously Hispanic to Ethnically Ambiguous, at best. The misinterpreted intentions. It was all too stressful.

I'll stay brown and proud, muchas gracias.

Though I'd still love to try those blue contact lenses . . .

Belén Aranda-Alvarado is a brunette marketing manager in New York City, where she lives with her daughter, Natalia -- also a brunette. Her e-mail is

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