I was reading today about a case in the States, of a girl who has been battling with her school over how she wears her hair. Not because she’s dyed it skybluepink, but because her hair is a natural Afro. When I read the comments in the Guardian article this morning I spent a few minutes rolling my eyes, because they’re full of whiny bollocks about how there’s nothing racist in encouraging young black women to participate in expensive, time-consuming attempts to look more white. I’m well aware this is an issue of which, because I am white, I only experience the privileged side. I can’t imagine how this girl feels. But I know what stereotype of beauty she’s up against.
For centuries, in the West, there’s been a remarkably consistent idea of what kind of hair is beautiful on a woman. From Goldilocks and Rapunzel in folktales to Marilyn to Buffy on our screens, long, blonde, flowing locks are represented as the ideal.
When I started to trace the origins of this stereotype, I saw how conflicted its connotations were, how closely and threateningly it linked beauty with sexual immorality. In ordinary medieval life, a woman’s uncovered hair symbolised virginity. So, shaving the head was one of the punishments for prostitution, and also one of the ways in which nuns mortified their bodies. A thirteenth-century record condemned disreputable nuns who wore their hair long, curled into ringlets or covered with veils scented with saffron – the spice that was also used as a hair dye for its strong yellow colour.
In medieval romance, golden hair is on the tick-list of qualities a beautiful woman has to have, along with white skin – ‘white as whale’s bone,’ which is pretty revolting until you think we still use ‘ivory’ as a term for off-white – a slender figure, pretty breasts and eyes as ‘grey as glass’.
The classic female sinner-turned-saint, Mary Magdalene, was in medieval times thought to be a reformed prostitute and, of course, blonde. She was understood to be the same Mary who washed Christ’s feet and dried them with her hair. It’s amazing what takes on erotic connotations if you’re a celibate medieval priest, and the fifteenth-century preacher Bernardino da Siena worked himself up to a lather with this (entirely non-Biblical) story:
“her third sin was through her hair … she did everything she could, to make herself more blonde”
This little fabrication suited preachers’ taste for symmetry, for if Mary Magdalene’s hair was originally the symbol of her sexual sin, after her metamorphosis into saintly follower of Christ it became the means by which she preserved her bodily modesty. Legend told that, after Christ’s death, Mary wandered in the desert where her clothes fell to rags, and only her long blonde locks – like those of Lady Godiva in the folktale – covered her nakedness.
In becoming saintly, Mary becomes a parody of femininity, ‘hirsute’ in an almost masculine sense. Other stories of women saints make this suggestion even more explicit: the virgin Saint Uncumber, threatened with rape, prayed to become ugly and grew a prolific beard that repelled her suitor.
These stories sound – and are – funny to modern readers. But they reflect less funny truth. Essentially, these narratives suggest that the only way a beautiful woman can redeem herself is to become a parody of her own beauty before she becomes a victim of male violence.
Modern evolutionary psychology, which is not something I have much time for, argues that blonde hair in women is attractive because we associate it with youth, on the rather creepy and dubious grounds that children are quite often fair-haired when young and darken up later. Medieval romances show how the much-admired blonde hair is the target for extreme gendered violence, much in the same way that footbinding or corsetry eroticize the areas of the female body they mutilate. The medieval example comes from a romance called Florence of Rome, in which the virtuous heroine frustrates her would-be rapist by reciting prayers that make him temporarily impotent and he punishes her by hanging her from her long blonde hair.
These conflicted and disturbing cultural narratives are still audible today. We still grow up with stories that tell us that blonde hair is beautiful, that blonde women are the heroines, the protagonists, the ones we should all want to be like. And to judge by the comments on the Guardian article, some people even grow up unable to recognize the most basic racism when it is directed at women’s hair. Yet this female attribute we are taught to idealize has historically been interpreted as an incitement to violence, a sign that the patriarchy punishes women for failing to conform to narrow standards of beauty and then punishes them again if they do conform.