If you think getting cut off while drinking at a bar is a humiliatingly public reminder of your very limited capacity for rational, healthy decision-making, try getting cut off from getting highlights at a hair salon. This happened to me when I was 20, sitting in the chair in front of a stylist who had never seemed to like me much, inside the salon in suburban Atlanta where all the popular girls in my hometown got their hair colored when we were in high school. I was visiting my parents, back from college at one of the blondest places in America, the University of Georgia, and I was at the salon to do what I did nearly every time I visited: become blonder than I was when I walked in. But this time, the stylist told me no. I didn’t have the skin tone to be the kind of blonde I was asking to be, she said, and she could not, in good conscience, increase the number of highlights she was foiling into my hair yet again. She’d do my roots, but nothing else. I would be, at most, bronde.
The can I speak to the manager? instinct of my affluent upbringing immediately kicked in, but because I was not quite yet a fully baked adult and, admittedly, kind of an idiot, all I could sputter was something along the lines of, “But… my mom is blonde.” Which was true, my mom was blonde, and she still is, as were both my grandmothers for all the years I knew them. So were Dolly Parton, Reese Witherspoon, seemingly everyone at my college, and every example of white female beauty in the South I could think of—except for Scarlett O’Hara, who I’m still surprised isn’t blonde. None of that mattered to my hair stylist, though, because she was trying to save me from my barely post-adolescent ideas of beauty, which was a task that I now understand to have been both incredibly benevolent and far above her pay grade. Now, at 32 years old, I no longer wonder why she never seemed to like me.
Fashion writer Cintra Wilson once called Southern belles—the women who subscribe to the strict, traditional, culturally infamous code of white female beauty in the Southeast, of which perfect blonde hair is often a component—“a super-elite task force of lethally disciplined femininity.” Wilson got a lot wrong in her writing about the South (writers from elsewhere who visit the region once and write about it like they went on safari always embarrass themselves spectacularly), but her observation of the seething passive-aggression baked into the region’s ideas about gender wasn’t incorrect, especially among the wealthy.
Proper Southern femininity is weaponized gentility, the maintenance of which requires the kind of time-consuming dedication that’s generally only possible on the backs of the marginalized. The Southern belle is the personification of the region’s problems with race, gender, and class all rolled into a single person and ideally topped with long, blonde, carefully curled hair. The superiority of blondes was so hard-coded into the region’s aesthetics that one of the best sororities at Georgia had an unspoken (but widely understood) rule about awarding bids to, at most, only a few token brunettes per year during rush. It’s probably obvious that this particular sorority also had only white members.
It would have sounded hideously outdated to most of us in college in the mid-2000s to use the term “Southern belle,” but there’s often discomfort in having any kind of personal aspiration described accurately. Nothing from the neck up demonstrates a woman’s dedication to personal aesthetic discipline better than a carefully maintained head of blonde hair, genetics be damned. Becoming blonde is a time-consuming and expensive process for anyone who undertakes it, and maintaining the look between appointments requires expensive, carefully selected products and tools—being successfully blonde is as much about class as gender or race. Some of UGA’s sororities were more open-minded about brunettes, but they all imposed fines on their sisters if they let their roots grow out too much—insufficient attention to the region’s detailed beauty standards reflected poorly on the group.
That I intended to become blonde seemed like the most obvious thing in the world to me, so much so that I’m not even sure it was a conscious choice—it just felt like something I would start doing when the time came. In the upper-middle class Southern town I grew up in, some of my classmates started becoming professionally blonder as early as middle school, and for those whose parents would not foot the bill for their tween to get highlights, Sun In or lemon juice applied to the hair in the basement bonus room of your most unsupervised friend’s house during summer break was the DIY option of choice in 1999. There was a lot of unfortunate orange hair in eighth grade, all in pursuit of an all-American ideal that presents itself most relentlessly in the South.
Thankfully, my mousy brown hair and I resisted the at-home options, mostly because I had been schooled by my mother on the cardinal rule of hair coloring: professionals get paid a lot of money to do it because it’s hard to do, and you should never try to do it yourself. I absorbed that lesson while accompanying my mom to dozens of hair appointments; even though she is the rare natural blonde, in the South, you can always be blonder. I tagged along because I enjoyed being adjacent to the process of hair coloring—my mom and her stylist joking and telling stories, the weird chemical smells and odd tools necessary for application, the slightly outdated fashion magazines, stacked high and available for me to read for the hours it takes for hair’s natural color to lift. In those hours, I learned what all women eventually learn: that if beauty isn’t a thing you already possess, then it’s a thing that can be acquired and constructed if you have the money to pay the professionals and the free time to let them render their services.
I started working my highlighted way toward the blonde I never quite achieved during the summer after high school graduation, when I finally had money to pay for it myself. But in the three years during which I strove toward an ultimately elusive level of blonde, my mom told me more than once to put my hair appointments on the emergency credit card she had issued to me when I left for college. It was supposed to be for car trouble or doctor visits, but in the South, hair-based class anxiety is indeed an occasional emergency. When she told me she couldn’t have her daughter running around with bad roots, it was a joke, but also, she couldn’t have her daughter running around with bad roots. She and my dad had not labored themselves from their working-class upbringings into affluence to send me, the living embodiment of their work, out into the world looking like I didn’t understand the rules.
Eventually, I snapped. Of course, I snapped. I don’t have the skin tone to be blonde! And I had known that the whole time—even when I went in to get my first set of highlights, I had no vision in my head of what a good outcome would look like. It was just a thing it was time to do, because I was the young woman I was. During my senior year of college, though, I started to consider my alternatives. It was the era when conspicuously blonde celebrities like Britney Spears and Nicole Richie were suddenly showing up with dark hair in front of the paparazzi, and one morning I saw an ad for a new salon in the student paper, skipped my next class, and scared my roommate when I walked back into our apartment that afternoon with a short, dark bob. With my new, almost-black hair, I felt more like myself immediately—as it turned out, not only did I not have the skin tone for the look, but I didn’t really have any other inclination toward it, either. The role of the thin, blonde, genteel Southern lady who graduates from college, marries well, and dresses her hopefully light-haired daughters in Lilly Pulitzer wasn’t what I wanted on any level. My mom may have raised me to aspire toward blondeness, but she hadn’t raised me to revere any of the other gendered traditions that often went along with it.
Of course, none of this was clear to me at the time—I was 21, and few things were clear to me. I knew giving up on being blonde in such an extreme way was a tad transgressive, but I didn’t realize just how particular the South’s dedication to bleach and toner had been until I moved to New York in my mid-20s and realized that everyone here has dark hair. I mean, not everyone, but the difference in hair demographics, even among white women, was so stark that I noticed it almost immediately. And the more my eyes were able to focus on the details of my new home, the more I noticed something else: even among the few blondes, I could pick out other displaced Southerners. There’s a particular look to the type of blonde preferred in the South—it’s light and aggressive, with little of the subtlety or faux-sunkissed look preferred in other regions of the country. Sitting at a bar in Brooklyn one night, I noticed the woman on the bar stool next to me had exactly that kind of hair, so I asked her where she was from—my impulse to chat with strangers is part of my Southern upbringing that will apparently never go away. She was from Georgia, she said, and I told her that I was, too, and that I thought she might have been. When she asked how I’d guessed, all I said was that her hair gave her away. She knew exactly what I meant.