how hair dye shaped feminism
Hey guys! So a bit of background around this post- in my English class last week, we were given a list of "public intellectuals." Our assignment was to choose one of these people, write a brief biography on who they were, and then write an analysis about one of their pieces of writing. I chose the article "True Colors" by Malcolm Gladwell to write about, which outlines the history of hair dye and how it relates to feminism. I found the idea to be interesting, and thought some of you guys might enjoy it too- so below is the paper I wrote last week for English. I know this post is slightly different, so tell me what you think! If you want to read Malcolm Gladwell's original article, you can find it here. Enjoy! :)
In his article “True Colors,” Malcolm Gladwell tells the stories of two very different women who unknowingly shaped women’s rights by advertising hair dye, a seemingly insignificant beauty product. These women, Shirley Polykoff and Ilon Specht, lifted the stigma surrounding coloring your hair in a generation where women were mothers, housewives, and were so busy caring for their family that they had no time to make choices for themselves. If they wanted anything for their sake, such as coloring their hair, they were faced with judgement from society. But if no one could tell that they colored their hair, there was no judgement to be faced. This was the basis of Shirley Polykoff’s ad campaign for Miss Clairol, America’s first at-home hair color bath. “Does she... or doesn’t she?” wrote Polykoff, who herself believed that she was too flamboyant of a person to continue with her naturally brunette hair. Her feeling was that women should be whatever they wanted to be, including being blonde, and they “ought to be able to exercise that right with discretion.” Gladwell asks in his article, “In writing the history of women in the postwar era, did we forget something important? Did we leave out hair?” And the answer is, as trivial as hair might seem: yes, we did.
The hair color industry was not intended to be a center for feminism. In fact, Polykoff always modeled her advertisements to fit the ideals of the elegantly understated blonde girl-next-door stereotype that she had groomed herself to look like. She was naturally a dominating career woman, but she wanted to look the part of a perfect, feminine housewife, and that was an idea that particular resonated with American women of the 1950s. It was a time of conformity, and if you looked a little odd, you were treated a little oddly, so the questions of “Does she or doesn’t she?” not only referred to a person’s hair, but also who a person really was. “Is she or isn’t she?” was the way Gladwell phrased it. Is she or isn’t she a housewife? Is she or isn’t she a feminist? And when they dyed their hair, no one knew. No one could profile anyone else. There was a freedom in assimilation for women. But, by making themselves look like everyone else, they ran the risk of losing their individualism and forgetting who they really were. Twenty years later, copywriter Ilon Specht was able to use this weakness in Clairol’s campaign to assist French company L’Oreal in asserting their name as a forward-thinking beauty business.
Ilon Specht was assigned to the L’Oreal account and given four weeks to come up with a brand new campaign for Preference, L’Oreal’s hair dye. The creative team she worked with came up with dry, overdone ideas that depicted women as glamorous objects. The older men that outnumbered her in the office kept a traditional perspective of women that shone all too clearly in their commercials. Specht’s feelings were “I’m not writing an ad about looking good for men,” which is what all her colleagues seemed to be pursuing. This angered her, and from her anger grew a passion to develop an ad that would highlight the power of a strong, independent woman. In five minutes, she wrote a bold ad ending in “Because I’m worth it,” a line that was empowering and exuded confidence. It was personal, written in the model’s point of view, and it told women to be proud of who they were rather than be concerned about what society was thinking, which is what Polykoff’s commercials did. Feminism had evolved by Specht’s era in the 1970s, and somehow her campaigns were able to personify the intense blend of spirit and vulnerability of women at that time. Specht was tired of being overshadowed by men, receiving one too many edits back where the word “woman” was crossed out and replaced with “girl.” She had a vision to represent women in a way that didn’t involve male approval, and it was because women were worth it.
Happy Hair Coloring!
thanks for reading & leave a comment!
6/3/2018 06:33:27 pm
This was so interesting! It seems so silly now that a woman would have been judged by her peers for colouring her hair. Sounds like a really cool thing to study at school too! x
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