While we may be free to make decisions about our hair, what does it mean if we ‘choose’ to pursue an ideal which Western society prizes?
“We all know that when an Asian girl bleaches her hair blonde, she’s starting her bad bitch era,” proclaims Laura (@laurajpeg), a Vietnamese content creator, in one of her TikTok videos. With over 300,000 likes, it’s clear the video struck a chord with many people, myself included – more often than not my hands are stained from slathering industrial-strength purple shampoo onto my bleached ends.
Manny, 21, certainly believes there’s a definite trend for balayage among Asian women. “Us Asian girls are all born with naturally dark hair, so sometimes we want a drastic change”, she tells Dazed. Colourists would agree that many Asian women are keen to lighten their hair: The New York Times recently reported that around 50 per cent of Asian customers at Sondar Hair Studio in New York City were looking to dye their hair lighter, while April Taylor, owner of London salon Somewhere in Queen’s Park, estimates that “at least 70 per cent” of her Asian clientele are going blonder. On social media, popular influencers like half-Bangladeshi Ambar Driscoll or Vietnamese Vivian Vo-Farmer have dabbled with going lighter, while on the small screen, most of Love Island’s Asian contestants – like Kaz Crossley, Sharon Gaffka, and Shannon Singh – enter the villa with glossy blonde highlights.
But why is this trend so ubiquitous? Obviously, as Asian women aren’t a homogenous mass, there’s no one-size-fits-all reason. Personally, I just like the way it looks. Manny says she dyed her hair because she wanted a change. Anita Bhagwandas, beauty expert and author of upcoming book Ugly, tells me that she has kept a blonde streak in her own hair as a nod to her earlier days as a goth. “Changing your hair colour is linked to everything from being part of a subculture, to rebellion, to identity and beauty is often how we express that,” she says.
@laurajpeg she’s leaving about the purple shampoo AND you #fyp #asian #foryoupage #foryou #viet ♬ blonde to black - laura
But Bhagwandas also points to other forces at play that could be subconsciously influencing our decisions. She stresses that “we do have to recognise when beauty trends are cloaked Eurocentric ideals” and explains that Asian culture has a tendency to regard Western features as especially desirable. “It’s so embedded in the culture, in practices like skin lightening or westernising cosmetic surgery, that it’s become the norm,” she says. “These beliefs then become expected customs and beauty standards and end up being passed down from generation to generation, often without being examined and disrupted. But in each country and in each culture, these customs are extremely nuanced and hard to break away from.”
It’s undoubtedly difficult to relinquish the idea that blonde is the ideal hair colour given its representation in popular culture – just think of Barbie or Marilyn Monroe – despite the fact that only two per cent of the world's population has naturally blonde hair. It’s equally difficult to acknowledge that wanting blonde hair may suggest an underlying desire to conform to Western beauty standards. Because while we may be free to make decisions about our hair, what does it mean if we ‘choose’ to pursue an ideal which Western society prizes? Are we still empowered in this choice?
Historically, fairer skin has almost always been regarded as desirable, as it was associated with upper-class women who didn’t have to labour under the hot sun. Queen Elizabeth I famously rubbed Venetian ceruse – a poisonous, lead-based skin-lightener – into her face to appear as pale as possible. This idea that whiteness was beautiful was exported to Africa and Asia with the advent of colonialism in the 15th and 16th centuries, as colonisers justified their cruelty and racism with white supremacist ideology. To this day, there remains a huge market in Asian countries for skin-lightening creams and many continue to face colourism within their own communities. Whomst among us brown girls has not been forced into the shade by an audacious auntie who is fretting about your skin getting ‘too dark’?
Bhagwandas points out that this prizing of ‘white’ features includes hair, not just skin. “European colonialism and slavery – which lasted centuries – created a power dynamic that meant that those that held the power had lighter skin, lighter eyes and lighter hair. So automatically we have the case where those in power look a certain way which sets up an image of what wealth and success look like, and it’s a European or Western face and image of beauty,” Bhagwandas explains. “There was a colonial precedent where those with a proximity to whiteness were given preferential treatment because of it,” she continues. “We’re still living in the legacy of this when we think about how recently colonisation ended – the legacy of white supremacy is absolutely still at play in beauty.”
Even now, ‘trends’ which evoke Asian features – like fox eye make-up or bushy brows – are only celebrated when they’re replicated on white women, when Asian women have so often been mocked or ridiculed for their natural appearance. Bhagwandas agrees. “Hair-oiling rituals have been a big social trend, and yet the originating cultures are rarely referenced,” she says. “That idea of taking without giving credit or pausing to think about who you’re taking it from is a deeply colonial attitude.”
“European colonialism created a power dynamic that meant that those that held the power had lighter skin, lighter eyes and lighter hair.” – Anita Bhagwandas
So what’s to be done? Everyone stick to their natural hair colour? That’s the implication in the aforementioned TikTok video: Laura calls Asian women reverting back to their natural dark hair after a brief dalliance with lighter locks “peak character development.” It’s true that it’s wholesome to see people embrace their natural appearance – especially when they’re accepting features that are linked to their ethnicity and cultural background.
But that said, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t do as you please when it comes to beauty, and experimenting with your hair can be fun. A dye job isn’t irreversible or dangerous, after all. Plus, given the prevalence and popularity of the style, at this point there’s arguably nothing more quintessentially Asian than a blonde balayage. As Amy Larocca puts it in The Cut, blonde hair on a woman of colour is a subversion that “undermine[s] the implied racial essentialism of blondness rather than co-opt[s] it.”