Blonde Ambition: On Dismantling The Southern Beauty Ideals Of My Upbringing


Georgians prefer blondes

In Places and Faces, writers explore the ways in which the aesthetic peculiarities of the places where they grew up defined their sense of beauty as they move throughout the world. Below, Georgia native Amanda Mull explores her relationship to being blonde.

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.

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue

"I am honored to share this bonding experience with my own daughter"

In a heart-warming Instagram photo, Serena Williams shares the history of hair braiding and the importance of the tradition. The tennis player shared a photo of herself braiding her daughter Olympia Ohanian's hair and spoke about how "honored" she was to be able to "add another generation" to the tradition of the practice.

The photo shows Williams attentively braiding her daughter's hair while Olympia smiles, obviously loving the experience. Williams noted that hair braiding was created by the Himba people in Namibia, Africa, and that "we have been braiding our hair for centuries." "In many African tribes braided hairstyles were a unique way to identify each tribe," she continued.

Williams pointed out that braiding is a bonding experience. "People would often take the time to socialize," she wrote. "It began with the elders braiding their children, then the children would watch and learn from them. The tradition of bonding was carried on for generations, and quickly made its way across the world."

Williams closed her post with a sweet message about her daughter, saying that she's "honored to share this bonding experience" with her.

See the post, below.

Courtesy of Adidas

The Stan Smiths are a must-have

Adidas just shared its capsule of sneakers paying tribute to Keith Haring, and TBH I can already feel my wallet emptying (and they're not even on sale yet). The new collection features three shoe silhouettes, all including the late artist's iconic imagery as embroidered designs.

The standout style of the collection is the Rivalry hi-top; with bright blue and orange stripes and piping along the edges, Haring's stars and cartoon bodies, in black thread, pop right off. If you're looking for something less over-the-top, the quirky white Nizza Hi RF sneakers show a snake wrapping around the back of the shoe and chasing one of Haring's cartoon bodies toward the toe. There's also a minimal embroidered design on the toe of a classic Stan Smith pair. Look a little more closely at the tongue though, and you'll notice the traditional image has been swapped with a caricature of Haring himself.

Peep the three silhouettes, below, and set your calendar for the official drop at the end of the month.

Adidas, Rivalry Hi Keith Haring Shoes, $120, available at Adidas starting at 10am EST on June 30.

Adidas, Nizza Hi RF Haring Shoes, $120, available at Adidas starting at 10am EST on June 30.

Adidas, Stan Smith Keith Haring Shoes, $120, available at Adidas starting at 10am EST on June 30.

NYLON uses affiliate links and may earn a commission if you purchase something through those links, but every product chosen is selected independently.

Photos by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images, Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Hopefully this one will be typo-free

In an Instagram Live on Thursday, Taylor Swift announced that she would be creating a collaboration with fashion designer Stella McCartney inspired by her upcoming Lover album. Although she kept it vague, we can only assume that the two are working on a collection of luxe merch.

Swift noted in the announcement that she has been friends with McCartney "for a really long time," and that the designer already heard the new album. "I respect what she creates, how she creates it," Swift continued. "There's so much whimsy and imagination and romance to the clothing that she designs." Swift has been wearing McCartney's designs "a lot recently," so maybe we should have seen the collab coming.

One eagle-eyed fan pointed out that Swift wore Stella McCartney rainbow-hued shoes during her Wango Tango set. If the collab is anything like these shoes, you can bet I'll be copping it as quick as I can.

Swift detailed in her Instagram Live that the album Lover would be all about romance, which makes McCartney and her feminine designs perfect for the collaboration. We just hope that this collection doesn't have any typos, like some of Swift's "ME!" merch did.

Asset 7
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

And spreads the message that "we all got crowns"

Late on Thursday, Taylor Swift dropped a new single, "You Need To Calm Down," and announced her forthcoming studio album, Lover, out this August. Following her lead single "ME!" Swift continues to spread her message of self-love and call out haters—particularly the homophobic ones—in this latest song.

Swift "ended homophobic locals," as one fan put it on Twitter, with one particular lyric: "'Cause shade never made anybody less gay."

Along with the song, Swift shared a lyric video via YouTube which made her sentiments even clearer. With her lyric, "Why are you made?/ When you could be glad?" she spelled "glad" as "GLAAD," referencing the queer media advocacy organization.

Swift sings of homophobic protestors in the second verse: "Sunshine on the street at the parade/ But you would rather be in the dark ages/ Makin' that sign must've taken all night." In the pre-chorus, she adds, "You just need to take several seats and then try to restore the peace/ And control your urges to scream about all the people you hate."

Swift additionally comments on women being pitted against each other—"We see you over there on the internet comparing all the girls who are killin' it"—asserting that "we all got crowns." There's nothing trolls can do to rain on her parade anymore.

One fan pointed out the possible symbolism of the crown lyric. In "Call It What You Want," track 14 on Reputation, she sings "They took the crown but it's alright." Now on "You Need To Calm Down," track 14 of Lover, she sings that there's not just one crown—we all have them.

Some fans are pointing to the double meaning of the track title. If I had a dollar for every time someone said those words to me in a totally condescending way, I'd probably be richer than her! What woman hasn't been told to calm down about an entirely not-calm situation or while expressing their distaste?

During Swift's live stream for the release of the song, she also announced a fashion collaboration with designer Stella McCartney, a peek of which we got during the singer's WangoTango performance.

Lover is set for August 23 release.

Credit: Frederick Elmes/ Focus Features

"I was like, 'Did I sleep with this critic's girlfriend, or what?'"

The day I meet Jim Jarmusch, the sun hangs so bright and hot and yellow and solid in the sky that it's hard to believe that it will actually set at night. It's one of those New York June days that suggests we might be in permanent daylight; it's got a completely different feeling than the crepuscular atmosphere of Jarmusch's latest film, The Dead Don't Die, which takes place in a small town in what feels like one long twilight, maybe the last one.

But for today, Jarmusch and I are sitting at a table in a sun-filled restaurant, though we're in the shade. We're in a part of the city that used to be very punk rock, and is now very NYU, yet being there with Jarmusch, who looks so at home, like he's holding court in the booth (it helps that Larry Fessenden, an old friend of Jarmusch's and a writer/director/producer/actor, who appears in The Dead Don't Die, happens by the table to say hi), makes the area feel a little punk rock again, even with all the sun.

The Dead Don't Die is a very punk rock zombie movie, by which I mean: It's not very scary, but it is very cool, and even when it's sneering, it's a little bit tender. Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny as a trio of small-town cops who fight back against a nascent zombie apocalypse caused by fracking, the film is cast with a who's who of Jarmusch regulars, like Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, and Fessenden, to name a few; but it also features younger stars like Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, and Luka Sabbat—and there's a real earworm of a theme song, courtesy of Sturgill Simpson.

Below, I speak with Jarmusch about the movie, being a dilettante, and why he only reads his negative reviews—which is definitely one of the most punk rock things I've ever heard.

Photo by Gareth Cattermole/ Getty Images

This was filmed on a pretty condensed shooting schedule, right?
It was a very rough schedule. A very difficult one, actually.

We only had seven weeks to shoot, and we had to shoot Adam Driver out in three weeks because he had to be delivered to Star Wars, and the financing of the film was incredibly grueling and took a long time, so we were pushed so far that we had about one month of prep, and then three weeks with Adam. And then all these different actors coming in and out; I don't know how Carter and Josh, the two producers, organized it all. And then we'd shoot 15-hour days, and halfway through, I had walking pneumonia; I had two coats; it was 95 out; I was shaking. You know, just weird stuff like that. But it's all okay because we had such great people—our crew—everybody. And then, the visual effects were very taxing and complicated.

How did that all work together? Because there's more than one decapitated head.
Yeah, it's a mixture. First of all, we mixed prosthetics with makeup with masks for some of the zombie stuff, but all of those effects with the decapitations, we had to just imagine. So we had to choreograph everything and then only imagine kind of what it would be like, which was, for me, very abstract because I'm not very versed in visual effects. You know, you had to really kind of trust your instincts, because Adam Driver's chopping away with a machete with no blade.

It could've been a machete, it could've been a lightsaber, who knows? So, to what degree is this a sequel of Paterson with Adam Driver's character's last name being Peterson?
Well, I just do these things to amuse myself while writing, you know? Bill Murray in Broken Flowers was named Don Johnson, and in this, I gave him the name Cliff Robertson. Tilda Swinton's character is Zelda Winston. Rosie Perez is named Posie Juarez. You know, I'm just kind of amusing myself.

And Peterson, Paterson. While we were filming Paterson I was always teasing Adam that the next one, we would make was gonna be a sequel about a psychopathic murderous bus driver named Peterson. Tag line: "Get the fuck off my bus!" Or "Next Stop Hell!" You know, stuff like that. It's just to make them... I love trying to make Adam Driver laugh, because he has a very odd and wonderful sense of humor, but it's on the dry side, so I'm always joking around with him between work to try and see what makes him laugh.

But yeah, there's no sequel of any kind, and I don't think that way, and I don't plan, and I don't see my films from the past ever again. I just look toward the next thing.

Credit: Frederick Elmes/ Focus Features

What was the original concept for this? When did you start coalescing all of these different elements into knowing that you wanted it to be your next film?
Some years ago after Only Lovers Left Alive, Tilda kept teasing me, calling me, saying, "When do we do the zombies? When are we doing the zombies?" And in between I made Paterson and Gimme Danger, but then after those I started writing the zombie one, and my original conception was: I wanna make a film that's really funny and silly like Coffee and Cigarettes, where people talk about whatever nonsense I want them to, and I want to get actors I love, you know? So I thought, okay, if I make a zombie film, I can have a structure where different groups are cordoned off against the zombies, and the zombie attacks will be intermittent and not very long, so I'll have long lags where they're just stuck there, like in the house of The Night of the Living Dead, where they can talk about any kind of nonsense. So that was my first idea, and then when I started writing it, for some reason, I wanted to have a small town, Centerville, and I just followed my intuition, and it became this, I don't really know why beyond that.

What is it about small towns that make them the perfect setting for existential terror?
They're insular. They're kind of… everyone kind of knows each other. It's controllable by the characters. It's believable that everyone kind of know each other. I don't know. I'm not very good at analyzing that. And also, this is not a horror film because horror films use devices that are necessary to frighten people, like suspense, and then you get scared. We have no interest whatsoever in that. This is more of a metaphorical zombie film, but I would not call it a horror movie. It's a comedy with zombies with a kind of sad ending. Beyond that, I don't know what it is.

And horror nerds may not like it if they're expecting creepy, creepy, scary thing! They're not gonna get it. They're not gonna get that delivered to them.

What's interesting about it is seeing who fights back against this existential dread. Or, like, Chloë Sevigny's character, Mindy, doesn't fight, she is on her own separate trip, avoiding the end till she embraces it.
It's a character film. It's not even a plot film, really, although critics say that about all my films. But Chloë… it's a complicated thing, because when I first called Chloë, I told her... I wrote her a letter, and then she said, "Yeah, yeah I'd like to do this." And I said, obviously, this is not a feminist character. She's reactive. She's our sort of "Scream Queen." She screams like six times. But Chloë is the master of reaction, and I love watching her react.

She definitely feels like a stand-in for what a normal person would feel during these absurdist experiences, which is nice to have. It's not necessarily that you need a relatable character in a movie like this, but...
Yeah, but she's an empathetic human that's in a job with some authority, but in a small town where that means taking care of whatever, you know, as a police officer, pretty minimal [stuff]. There's not a lot of rampant crime or anything going on… or anything at all, really.

Credit : Frederick Elmes / Focus Features

A lot of people are going to be projecting tons of different meanings onto this film, like with all your films. To what level do you participate in that or pay attention to that? Or, once you're done making a film, is it just out there, and you just let people project onto it whatever they will?
I've always felt that anyone's interpretation of a film that I write and direct is probably more valid than my own. Because it's a funny thing, the beauty of films is going into a world—or a book or whatever—but going into a world that you don't know, and you are entering a world, and it takes you. And if you wrote it, and you were there filming it, and you're in the editing room every day for six months, the mix, and all that... I can never possibly see it. I like hearing what friends or people I know... I like Q and As after screenings because they have no agenda except their interest. I like that a lot, and I value that. I don't really like to read a lot of reviews unless they're really negative. I love the negative ones.

You do?
Yeah, because they must be very far from me in their perception of the world, and that is interesting to me. But I try not to read a lot...

I think you're probably the first person who I've ever spoken to who says they like to read the negative reviews.
I really like them. The worst one I ever got in my life, I laminated and used to carry in my wallet. It was a brief thing from a right-wing French [paper], maybe Le Figaro or something, of a film called Dead Man that we made, and they said—this is the English translation—"The French intelligence celebrates Jarmusch in the way death and blind parents would celebrate their retarded child. Jarmusch is 33 years old, the same age as Christ when he was crucified. We can only hope the same for his film career." I was like, Whoa! That is harsh! I'm keeping that one!

It gets personal.
But that was vicious. I was like, Did I sleep with this critic's girlfriend, or what? What happened? It was really... the knife was sharpened, you know.

That speaks to a very specific kind of agenda for sure.
A friend of mine Amos Poe, he's sort of a mentor of mine, a punk filmmaker, whatever, and when we were young when he made, in the late-'70s, one of his films—The Foreigner or Unmade Beds—the New York Times called it "the cinematic equivalent of kindergarten scribbling," and he put that on his posters and put "New York Times" and we were like punks, we were like, "Yes! Amos! That's great!"

I mean, it genuinely is a pretty great pull quote, and I think also a little bit oblivious to the charms of a kindergartener's scribbles and what the value is in that anyway.
Yeah, it was kind of accurate in a positive way, and they intended it as very negative.

In this film, there are so many actors who are veteran actors, but there are also a lot of younger actors. What do you like about the combination of that dynamic?
I just like the variety of sort of world perceptions—indicated in a very minor way when Bill Murray's character says, "I've known Hermit Bob since we were in junior high," and Adam's character says, "Oh, wow! That must've been like 50 years ago!" And Bill says, "Yeah. It was." But just the kind of difference of perception of age I find as I get older really interesting. And I'm very interested in young people, especially teenagers, because I think they form our sense of style, of music, of so many things, and yet they're kind of pushed around and treated badly and constantly told, "You don't know how the world really works! You're just a teenager!" But they gave us poetry. They gave us Mary Shelley and Rimbaud and chess masters, and all the great music comes a lot from teenagers. So I tried to keep a pulse, that's why the three teenagers, I would not let them turn into zombies. There are only four people [who don't get turned by zombies]: those three that are delinquents, and the Tom Waits character, who's already removed himself from the social order long before.

When the zombies become zombies, they all have one inciting thing that they're still pursuing in the real world. Do you have one thing that you think you would pursue if you were a zombie?
You know, it's hard because I'm a self-proclaimed dilettante. I'm interested in so many things, I don't know if I would be breaking into a bookstore, or if I would be in the alley outside of a movie theater, or if I would be trying to get into a guitar shop. I'm not sure. I have a lot of interests.

I mean there's a way in which it's a really tender portrayal of the human impulse to just seek out these things that they love.
It's not totally a critique; it's their vestigial memory of some things that they were drawn toward, whether it was power tools or oxycontin.

The Dead Don't Die is in theaters now.

Credit: Frederick Elmes/ Focus Features