Fair features aren’t better than others. So why are blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids treated as special?
I have a blonde-haired daughter. Before she came along, I don’t recall noticing the little comments that people utter about fair features. They were probably around sometimes, but I guess I became more aware once I had both a brunette child and and blonde one to love.
Even so, I haven’t felt then need to make these comments public until now. But after reading a book by a well-educated, influential and non-racist author/journalist, I very strongly feel the need to shine a light on this. The main point I want to make is:
COMMENTS THAT HIGHLIGHT A PERSON’S BLONDE HAIR AND BLUE EYES FAVOURABLY,
WHEN IN THE SAME CIRCUMSTANCE
WOULD NOT HIGHLIGHT A PERSON’S BROWN/BLACK/RED HAIR
OR BROWN/GREEN/HAZEL/AMBER EYES,
ARE PRONOUNCING THAT BLONDE HAIR AND BLUE EYES ARE SUPERIOR AND MORE VALUABLE.
It might sound a bit crazy, but this is a very real bias in Western society.
To be clear, I’m not talking about conversations that occur in countries where blonde hair and blue eyes are very uncommon. We are well-travelled and understand that the rarity of fair features in many places can create a lot of attention for blonde-haired or blue-eyed people. Here I am talking about my home country Australia, which has been a multicultural nation for over 200 years.
- 1 The book that prompted this discussion
- 2 Incidents of bias towards fair-featured children
- 3 Is it because light features are less common?
- 4 The evolutionary theory + cultural influences
- 5 Implicit biases
- 6 How the biases are gendered
- 7 How the biases relate to children
- 8 Should we capitalise on being fair and beautiful?
- 9 Challenging the stereotypes for our kids
The book that prompted this discussion
It’s called Adventures in Caravanastan by Greg Bearup, published in 2009. Greg, his wife Lisa and their son take a year to travel around Australia in a caravan, which was very interesting to me as my family was about to do the same thing. The book for the most part is enjoyable, well-written and insightful. Greg and Lisa even put their journalistic backgrounds to good use to help a remote community (of mostly indigenous people) access better food, and to question why aboriginal history is so neglected in most parts of Australia.
But: this is the back of the book, which highlights their son’s colouring although it has no relevance to the story. It may be argued that it is to paint a picture in the reader’s eye, but I think that’s false. I do not think the child’s eye and hair colour would have been mentioned if they were any other colour. When was the last time you read “My brown-eyed, black-haired little girl did some wonderful thing”?
Greg himself probably didn’t write this blurb, but it was likely inspired from a sentence in his prologue which says:
“…my son in the back seat, all blue eyes and blond hair, like some kind of Nazi experiment gone right”.
I find this statement quite disturbing. It’s not just me is it? We could take it as a joke with a bit of literary license, but I think we need to look at it differently. This statement solidifies my objection to the back cover sentence, and together with many other seemingly-harmless things I have heard, demonstrates a modern-form of racism which needs to be understood and challenged.
Incidents of bias towards fair-featured children
My son Dante is our eldest child, and is a brunette with light brown eyes. My daughter Allegra has dark blue eyes and very blonde hair on top, with darker blonde to light brown underneath. Her hair is a bit unusual because it’s several colours, and it’s straight on top but curls into ringlets at the bottom. It’s very long too as she’s never had a haircut.
So I understand that it would draw some attention, and yes, she does receive a lot of comments about her hair and her looks in general. But the number of comments she gets and these more unusual ones below point to something deeper going on:
- “Allegra’s so lucky to have blonde hair!”
Why? Will it win us a million dollars? Will it ensure she has a long and happy life?
- Once when I walking in a shopping centre, holding my daughter’s hand:
Young man (working in the centre of the mall): “oh wow, a blondie! Is she yours?”
Me: “uh, yeah.”
Young man: “where did she get blonde hair from”?
Me (walking off as fast as possible): “The sun.”
- A friend of mine has a son with blonde hair and a younger daughter with dark hair. Someone once commented to her that it’s “such a shame that [her daughter] didn’t get his thick blond hair”.
Again, why? Is being blonde the ultimate goal of life?
- I overheard an expectant mother commenting how she would “love it so much to have a blue-eyed child”.
Well I can tell you from experience, it doesn’t make parenting any easier.
- Some friends worrying about their blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls walking alone outside, with the insinuation that they were more precious being fair-featured, and thus more likely to be hurt or kidnapped.
This was one of the first comments I noticed, and it really stuck with me. Was it true? Nothing in the internet research I have done shows that any type of features are more likely to incur harm or kidnapping than others.
And other friends have to put up with many comments about their fair-featured children too. One friend of mine has two very light-haired kids, and people constantly comment about how beautiful they are. Yes, in Australia, all the time. Wouldn’t it be nice if people commented about things that they were working diligently on instead? Or how kind they are? Hair colour may be noticeable but it says nothing about the soul of a person.
This isn’t a scientific study of course, but they are very real examples of the kinds of interactions blonde and blue-eyed children receive here. Dante doesn’t get half as much attention about his looks, and has never had a comment about his hair colour — only about its length when he grew it long as it made many people uncomfortable.
It is difficult as a parent to see that one of your children clearly receives more positive attention for how they look than your other child. It is also grossly unfair: no-one gets any say about what colour their head turns out to be. Just because many people seem to like how Allegra looks doesn’t mean she is better than her brother, or anyone else on the planet. Yet she is treated as special while her dark-featured counterparts are not commented upon. Why?
Is it because light features are less common?
Many theories about biases towards blondes suggest that it’s due to their rarity, and yes, that does play a part in the attention they receive. About five percent of the whole world’s adult population is naturally blonde: with of up to 16% of people in the US and up to 80% of people in some Scandinavian countries. I can’t find stats for Australia but I think they would be similar to the US, as we also have many migrants from Europe. Also, some aboriginal Australians are born with blonde hair, due to a gene mutation that is also seen in some people from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. It is not the same gene responsible for blonde hair in Europeans, but both reasons for blonde-haired children often do not last into adulthood.
That’s right: blonde hair is more common in children than adults, as many instances of blonde hair will darken with age. This is not the case with red-haired people, who are the least common of all: only one to two percent of the world’s population has red hair. Red-haired children also receive a lot of attention in Australia, (and pretty much everywhere I think) because they are so unusual. Redheads are also often preferred for TV advertisements because they are remembered best by viewers.
But the novelty of fair features doesn’t explain the positively-biased comments about blonde-haired and blue-eyed kids. Red-headed children receive attention too, but as most school kids will report, names like “ginger”, “carrot-top” or the awful term “ranga” (likening them to orangutans is common here) are hardly positive. Rarity does not equal favourability, only attention it seems, and I question that too actually.
Hazel and green eyes are less common than blue, which is the second most common eye colour. Eight to 17% of the world’s population (depending on your source) have a variation of blue eyes, while five to eight percent have hazel and only about two percent have green. Yet I don’t recall ever hearing anything positive about my hazel eyes, or my mum’s green ones. (One of my high school teachers once said my eyes reminded him of his dog’s though. That is neither a positive or negative statement I guess, but I wasn’t very impressed at the time!)
Green eyes are more commonly associated with jealousy than beauty, and I can’t think of any celebrity who is known for any other eye colour like Frank Sinatra’s “ol’ blue eyes” nickname. Can you? I do remember a teacher having the brightest blue eyes at school though, because people often commented behind her back that she must be wearing contacts, because “no-one has eyes that colour”. Jealousy indeed.
So fair features are less common than darker colours, but blonde hair isn’t all that rare in childhood especially, and blue eyes are not very rare either. Red hair and amber eyes are the least common colours, and yet they’re not blatantly favoured or considered so beautiful as blonde and blue. There must be another explanation for the biases I and many others have observed.
The evolutionary theory + cultural influences
Fair features were prized long before Hitler’s madness. It’s been suggested that as far back as the Stone Ages, fair features may have been the best indicators of youth and health. Light skin and blonde hair were easiest to read for signs of illness, speculates Professor of Psychology Brian Bates. Also as we’ve seen, fair hair is often a youthful characteristic, so blondes were pretty much guaranteed to be fertile and thus became the preferred partners for cave men.
Many scientists support this theory of our evolutionary history, and Brian thinks the dumb yet sexy blonde stereotype still exists today because it is embedded in our subconscious. Youth being associated with fair features meant health but also a lack of accumulated knowledge and experience. Naivety is a feature of youth that has become synonymous with blonde hair, despite many studies proving there is no difference in intelligence or capability between any hair colour (or skin or eye colour).
This theory may be the reason why many people have clear biases today, but it doesn’t explain why some people of non-European descent also show preferences towards fair features. These must be due to cultural influences which have pressured people for thousands of years, and now marketing influences in which only certain types of people are portrayed as beautiful.
Colonisation has undoubtedly influenced beauty standards across the world. European ideals have been forced upon so many countries, and the dominating groups more readily accept people who are similar to them than those who aren’t. This paper on eurocentric beauty ideals in women traces ideas about whiteness being ‘pure’ and colour being ‘impure’, as well as the white-washing that occurs in beauty magazines and advertising.
In ancient China and Japan, snow white skin was a sign of nobility and the ideal for beauty, and these ideas persist today. The quest for pale skin has become an obsession throughout much of Asia, with skin-lightening products now a multi-billion dollar industry. Some Middle Eastern and African countries have large demand for these products too: in Nigeria it is reported that 77% of of women use them.
Asian celebrities are usually very pale and some have become whiter as they have become more famous. They have a huge influence in China, Korea and Japan especially, but we also noticed their prominence along with a multitude of skin-lightening products in Thailand and Malaysia in 2017.
Rae Chen introduced me to the term Colorism: the tendency for society to assign people to particular categories based on the colour tone of their skin. She outlines the privileges she gets being a light-skinned Chinese woman, and she makes the distinction between colorism as it pertains to looking like you belong to a particular socio-economic group (which she receives in Asia), and colorism as it pertains to looking like you belong to a certain racial group (which she receives in Canada).
In Canada colorism is focussed on passing as being white or close to it. Rae writes:
My darker-skinned Chinese friends and family experience more microaggressions and racial profiling than I ever have, and it’s made schooling and looking for work harder for them. I have mixed-race cousins who have taken their Caucasian parent’s last name in order to pass as white in interviews, and POC friends with dark summer tans who have been stopped and checked by law enforcement officers in their own communities because they “looked out of place.”
These biases may be rooted in our ancient history, but they are definitely being reinforced by modern cultures all around the world. Let’s take a closer look at the biases today and see how they relate to treating fair-featured children better than others.
Studies of modern humans certainly demonstrate clear biases, yet participants often believe they are very neutral and unbiased. What they point to are implicit or unconscious biases, that most of us have without knowing why or how they got there. Consider the Starbucks incident in Philadelphia and the tendency for more unarmed African-American suspects to be shot than white suspects. Or the tendency to see blonde women as dumb yet more attractive.
Biases due to hair colour are quite apparent in many studies: blonde (caucasian) waitresses earn significantly more in tips and are reportedly paid more in other workplaces too. Also blonde women are approached more in social situations, yet blond males do not get any special treatment. Poor red-heads receive significantly less attention for both males and females.
It gets interesting when the researchers look at why this is occurring. The social studies above point to blondes being viewed as needier and thus less likely to reject male advancement, while brunettes are seen as more self-assured and even arrogant, and thus more likely to reject men’s approaches. Red-heads are viewed as the least attractive and most temperamental.
These views are supported by workplace research too. This study indicates that men view blonde female leaders as less independent and competent, even though blonde women are over-represented in US corporate leadership roles. Brunettes were viewed as better bosses yet harsher, while blondes were viewed as more warm and likeable, leading to the researcher’s quip that
Barbie can be CEO as long as she is young and/or docile”
There is considerably less research about men’s hair colour and its effects anywhere, unsurprisingly (sigh). And have you noticed that in most of the talk about hair colours, a huge portion of the population is missing? There’s no official word for black-haired people, as ‘brunette’ describes those of us with brown hair, not black as well. And grey and white-haired people also don’t have a convenient moniker.
It’s not surprising that older generations are ignored I guess; they are ignored in many ways by our youth-obsessed society. But why are black-haired people also ignored? They are the largest group of hair colour in the world! It is rare to see black hair discussed in an article about hair colour preferences or biases, and I don’t believe it’s because they are just lumped in with brunettes.
Black, grey and white hair colours belong to a huge group of people, and if those people do not have a category name and are systematically ignored — by popular Western culture at least — a message is being sent, and that message is not kind. It is symptomatic of a larger issue in which the elderly and people of colour are still not valued or treated equally in our society.
How the biases are gendered
Black has often been the colour of bad, while white is pure and good. The tendency of people to associate blonde features with youth feeds into this: sweet blonde children and fair golden maidens are juxtaposed with brunette bullies and dark, mysterious villains. Feminine and masculine identities are also assigned to fair and dark features, respectively, though there are exceptions.
Being blond is not advantageous to adult males in many cases, yet it is for females. Blond men do not get approached or accepted more often by women; they’re more likely to be “perceived as low-commitment and unreliable“. This irresponsible surfer-dude stereotype is a youthful characteristic, and as you might expect far less blond men than women are found in corporate leadership roles.
So being blonde is a positive for women, but being dark is a positive for men. Dark features are associated with competency, life experience, independence and reliability, which are traditional characteristics for an ideal husband. They are also seen as better in leadership roles requiring more masculine characteristics, hence the perception that brunette women are more competent bosses. Dark features = masculine.
Blondes are associated with being beautiful, youthful and playful (fun and bubbly), but docile and naive. These are traditional characteristics for a trophy wife and ideal children, yet we see a disproportionate amount of blonde women in leadership roles. How can that be? Because they can get away with more assertive and aggressive behaviour when their persona is more feminine and childlike. Blonde features = feminine.
But the feminine warmth associated with blonde hair disappears in some cases, with the ice-queen persona taking over instead. Lack of colour in light blue eyes, pale skin and white or very blonde hair, is often associated with coldness. People with blue eyes are regularly the baddies in movies and TV shows, creating an image of an ‘icy’ villain. Even Hannibal Lecter’s “maroon eyes of the devil” in Thomas Harris’s books were transformed into steely blue in their movie adaptations.
The unpredictable and untrustworthy connotations given to blond men may be a part of this stereotype too. Fewer men remain blond into adulthood and they are not perceived so likably as blonde women, plus a myth persists that most real serial killers are white. I even have an image in my mind of male villains being pasty-skinned blonde men with very light blue eyes. It has been perpetuated in the media and popular culture, like Silas in the Da Vinci Code, the stalker in The Bodyguard, and recently Perry in Big Little Lies was a blue-eyed, fair-haired bad guy.
Also Game of Thrones has some notable examples of fair features being positive for women and negative for men: Daenerys Targaryen is a warm, heroic queen, but her brother Viserys was a cold-hearted monster; and young king Joffrey Baratheon is a blond psychopath, while his younger siblings are sweet and innocent (that youthful blonde purity again). Their mother Cercei may also be blonde and ruthless but she has some redeeming features that the audience can relate to; Joffrey, however, was so monstrous that viewers cheered when he was murdered.
These entwined colour and gender stereotypes are continually reinforced in the workplace, in our social lives and in the media. Children are not born biased, but do pick up on our implicit biases and the comments they hear or don’t hear. When the colour black is ignored, is associated with impurity or has other negative connotations, or when blonde hair is constantly commented upon and treated as special, they receive the messages.
How the biases relate to children
The stereotypical personalities associated with hair colours fit with how children are viewed and treated, in Australia at least:
- Blondes are pretty and fun but naive and docile (attractive in childhood, gains attention)
- Red-heads are firey and unpredictable (unattractive but gains attention in childhood)
- Brunettes are mousy and dependable (attractive in childhood but does not gain much attention)
- Black-haired people are invisible or not well-understood (unattractive and may not gain attention, or may gain negative attention)
The comments I and my friends have noticed about our children fit these stereotypes perfectly. Red-haired kids are noticed but not gushed upon like blondes, and brunettes are rarely commented upon. I am sure black-haired people are not misunderstood or invisible in many circumstances, but when they are the minority within a group of people from European descent, they will often gain negative attention or be ignored.
I have only learned the what the term ‘nappy’ hair means this year. I looked it up after watching the Netflix movie Nappily Ever After, as it is an unfamiliar term here (nappy is what diapers are called in Australia). I had no idea that there has been such a push for people of African descent to straighten or control their hair, and I’m glad to see the tides are turning in the UK and the US now, with celebrities like Michelle Obama and Lupita Nyong’o leading the way, and Maria Borges being the first ever Victoria’s Secret model to wear natural black hair.
Hlonipha Mokoena discusses the myths about black hair including why it has been considered to be dirty and unmanageable. It has been misunderstood over the centuries, and of course not considered beautiful when it is compared to sleek and light coloured hair. But even when it is ‘managed’ here in Australia, conservative institutions may not find it acceptable. In my home town Mildura in 2017, a young student was expelled from his Catholic high school for refusing to take out his braids. His father is Nigerian and he preferred to wear his hair in braids, so he’s ended up at a public school which didn’t have such uptight uniform policies.
This is not unusual in Australia: many other kids have had to change or be booted out too. Wouldn’t it be so much better to have some real conversations about appearance and cultural values, leading to more tolerance and understanding? No wonder children don’t understand black hair if the adults around them are always trying to change it or get rid of people with it.
Should we capitalise on being fair and beautiful?
Both of my kids are gorgeous. I am of course biased, but many other people seem to think so too: once a woman we passed in the street even went out of her way to tell Ant and me that we “had the most beautiful children she’d ever seen”. It was a bit surreal but they have that effect on some people.
I will support them to do whatever they want to in life, but I won’t exploit them for this blog, nor will I encourage them to be child models. I ask for their approval before uploading any photo of them online, and I reserve the most special photos for our memories only.
They won’t ever be tall (sorry kids, you lost out on those genes) but we could still enter them in a children’s modelling agency. What’s so bad about that? They might earn lots of easy money and it’s all harmless, right?
Wrong actually. It’s feels to me like pimping our kids out to an industry that praises their superficial beauty while ignoring millions of other kids who work for slave labour. Many of the products being sold are made unethically and take advantage of other children around the world — you know, the ones that don’t look like them. The unfairness in the industry as a whole is enormous. Have the right look and you can sell things to the people who don’t, and you can make a profit from being pretty while the rest feel bad about themselves, or work to create the product you’re selling.
Also, my children being models would perpetuate the myth that their kind of beauty is the type that matters. This is a great post discussing the many ways beauty industry tells us that to be beautiful is to be European, and I don’t want my family to be a part of that either. It’s easy to be ethnocentric in Australia despite our multiculturalism, and modelling would exacerbate it in our life.
Cameron Russell also discusses in her popular TED Talk about people of colour being hugely under-represented in modelling, and it’s easy to see why when Eurocentric beauty ideals are the norm. Even within my own very multicultural town, people originating from European countries are more readily accepted than people from African, Asian or Middle Eastern ones, or even our own indigenous people.
Other reasons for not capitalising on their looks come to mind too. What if Allegra got picked to model and Dante didn’t? Then what would they learn: that being fairer is more attractive? That her look is the right one and she should make money from it? I can only imagine the impact on her life from constant reinforcement that her superficial layer is valuable, but her brain and heart aren’t really.
And then what happens when she didn’t get booked for jobs, or her juvenile blonde hair darkened to common old brown: how would her self-esteem go? Would she be bleaching her hair at seven, or worse, develop an eating disorder? No thank you.
I am doing my best to transfer to my kids great body image and self-esteem, by accepting myself and trying to show them that being healthy and happy is what really matters. I don’t obsess about my own looks, we practice positive affirmations, and we watch shows and read stories about all sorts of people.
They have friends with backgrounds from many different places, and one of my hopes for our travels with them is that they make friends all over the world; seeing for themselves that people can look and live differently, but no-one is better than anyone else. They played easily with children in South East Asia, (like at the cafe pictured below during our time volunteering to help sea turtles on Tioman Island) even when they couldn’t speak to each other, so I think that plan is working.
Once they’re older and have a great grounding in which they know who they are and what their non-superficial qualities and strengths are, then whatever they want to pursue will be their choice. But being a child model is not going to happen, no matter how much money they could earn.
Challenging the stereotypes for our kids
It is woven into many cultures that being fair is better, but we can challenge that in our daily interactions with others.
Please be aware of comments that elevate the status of fair-featured children, by showing positive biases towards them or negative biases towards others. ALL kids amazing and none get any say in how they look. They all benefit from us recognising and talking about their inner qualities rather than their looks anyway.
The things that make my daughter incredible are not her eyes, skin or hair colour: it’s because she’s pure love, she’s a firecracker of a kid, she’s brave and fun and smart and thoughtful and amazing. She’s also loud, cheeky and crass, and has been dropping the f-bomb perfectly since she was two! She’s a total package of awesome, as is my son in his own unique ways. And every other child in the world is too.
At the end of the day, Allegra is a young female person who happens to have fair features right now, and the only thing that really means is her hair is yellowish and her eyes are bluish. Anything else attached to those colours is a fabrication; it has no meaning at all unless we say it does.
Have you experienced positive or negative biases? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below. And please share this post if you found it helpful.
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