What does it mean when East Asians go blonde?

by Olivia Kan-Sperling

Illustration by Dorothy Windham

published September 29, 2017

cw: racism, suicide

A couple of weeks ago, Kim Kardashian bleached her hair blonde—again. The first time was back in March of 2015, and it caused a much bigger sensation—as news outlets proclaimed at the time, she “broke the internet.” Since then, we’ve seen a slew of celebrities take peroxide to their hair. Most recently Katy Perry, but also both Jenner sisters, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lawrence, Kristen Stewart, Zayn Malik, and Justin Bieber. In fact, what used to be reserved for only the most adventurous of spiky-haired soccer players now adorns the heads of college kids, Tumblr users, and many others—as long as they can afford the many hours and dollars at the salon. Most of these platinum blonde celebrities are white. However, an article in W magazine from 2016 by Jane Lankworthy entitled “The New Platinum Hair Color Trend is Here” interviewed a colorist who cited a different source as the originator of the fad: famously blonde Korean model Soo Joo Park. Her story, and hair, provide an interesting lens through which to understand how East Asian-Americans must present themselves to succeed in the face of cultural and social marginalization. 


Marilyn and Madonna, Barbie and Barbarella, bombshell blondes and Hitchcock blondes and Blonde Ambition: blondeness is revered. Some might say that the special cultural status afforded to women with blonde hair is due to the color’s scarcity. This argument, however, obscures the ongoing impact of racism and eurocentrism not only on standards of beauty, but cultural production generally. While the color does occur naturally among certain populations native to North Africa, Asia, and Australia, it is found most commonly in northern Europe. The color’s association with whiteness explains why, while most white women may be brunette, blondes represent white femininity and desirability. No doubt because of this, there is a long history of artificial blondeness—usually in pursuit of a natural look. While many may still desire this effect, today, intentionally artificial-looking hair color has become a widespread phenomenon. This is easily observed in the case of everyone's favorite middle school pink and teal streaks, the ombré of a couple years ago, or the “I Tried GALAXY HAIR and This Is What Happened” stories served up by the Cosmopolitan Snapchat story. But the desire for a bleach blonde style is just as much a reach for the artificial.  

One inheritor of the latter trend is an aesthetic sported by many a fashion-forward art kid on college campuses today. Probably, no one is bleaching their locks with the intention of looking like Scarlett Johansson—the resulting color rarely looks little like anything that might grow “naturally.” Kim Kardashian didn’t bleach her brows, and neither do most people with this hair. It is a visually striking look precisely because naturalness is clearly not the desired effect. This complicates the racial dynamics of dyed blonde hair, but does not erase them. For lighter-skinned East Asian women that go blonde, the implications of this aesthetic choice are enmeshed with anti-East Asian racism. 

Most East Asians who bleach their hair are not trying to ‘look white,’ or are ‘ashamed of their identity,’ as women in online forums like Quora and GirlsAskGuys are accused of. Few would mistake a Korean with bleached hair for Caucasian; racial markers are more numerous than simply hair color. Writer and fashion designer Mari Santos, writing for Marie Claire, argues that her decision to go blonde had nothing to do with whiteness; she was inspired by East Asian models and K-Pop stars. While it is a mistake to ignore East Asia’s own pop culture industry, in an American context, the wealth of cultural signifiers around blondeness means that lightening your hair makes you not only blonde, but a blonde. Tellingly, most articles discussing even the least ‘natural’ of blondes incorporate stereotypes like ‘gentlemen prefer blondes,’ and invoke the trend’s debt to icons of blonde femininity like Marilyn Monroe. Thus, while bleaching hair can be done without the intention of looking white, it still plays into aesthetic sensibilities and cultural traditions that privilege white femininity.  


One of the women Santos cites as an inspiration is Soo Joo Park. In an interview for The Cut titled “Soo Joo Park Doesn’t Want to Be Typecast as an Asian Model”, she says, “after I bleached my hair, more people understood that I have a personality and I’m more than just a face.” Park moved from Seoul to Anaheim, California when she was 10, and doesn’t remember much about Korea. Her parents initially discouraged her interest in modelling; they preferred that she focus on academics. She went to Berkeley and then worked for a San Francisco startup. Up until her discovery by a modelling agency, hers is a common narrative of East Asian immigrant ‘model minority’ success, and that with which America is most comfortable. 

Park’s backstory is familiar to me: it is my father’s, and uncle’s, and cousins’. I know Anaheim pretty well, too—it’s where that part of my family lives. In fact, in seventh grade, I, like Soo Joo Park, moved to Southern California. I’d grown up in a mostly white town; when my mom picked me up from school, she’d just look for the only black pigtails among the ashy blonde. At my new middle school, this was no longer possible. For the first time, I met other East Asian kids, in significant numbers—girls like my Orange County cousins, who, unlike me, went to Chinese Sunday School and church. I was lost at the frequent dinners with my relatives, in which I, with my rudimentary grasp of Mandarin and family politics, couldn't wholly participate. My mother is European and white, and, when people eyed my long black braids and asked where I was from, I enjoyed saying “Germany” and pretending not to understand their confusion. Now, suddenly seen as an ‘Asian kid,’ I felt a sharp disconnect between my newfound Chinese-American ‘identity’ and my self, or what I perceived of it. I used to love my black hair, but that year I decided I wanted to bleach it blonde.  


It is crucial to examine the ways in which anti-Asian racism operates in order to understand the implications of East Asians going blonde. Many Chinese, Japanese, and Korean immigrants enjoy economic success in America—according to Pew, Asian-Americans are the “highest-income, best-educated, and fastest-growing racial group in the United States.” Nevertheless, they are far from white people’s social equals. Racism relies on an imposition of homogeneity on the oppressed group, and this is especially relevant when applied to East Asians. First off, it is worth noting that the term “East Asian” itself can be misleading and homogenizing; differences in racialization based on skin color mean that sometimes a light-skinned Southeast Asian may be better described in this discussion than a darker-skinned Chinese person. Moreover, not only do we ‘all look the same,’ but conformity and anti-individualism are said to be key parts of ‘Asian culture.’ This undertone is evident in conversations ranging from those on communism in China to strong East Asian-American family structures to South Korean plastic surgery. In a 2015 essay in the New Yorker, “About Face,” writer Patricia Marx argues that in the West, nose jobs are about looking the best. In Korea, they’re about looking better for society as a whole. To be sure, there is a real tradition of collectivism in East and Southeast Asia. In the 1990s, for example, there was a movement advocating for the creation of a Pan-Asian identity based on Confucian values: filial piety, work ethic, and collective well-being over personal freedom. However, such traditions are often invoked less in the form of a nuanced investigation of another culture and more as an unspecific, essentializing stereotype. 

Such generalizations are especially troubling when applied to individuals. East Asian(-Americans) are seen as docile, and emotionand personality-less—as little more than the machines they are brought to Silicon Valley to invent or left in Taiwan to manufacture. These qualities are often used to explain East Asians’ ‘model minority’ status. This myth is a key tool used to justify anti-Blackness; Asian-Americans are held up as the perfect example of non-whites that have assimilated ‘easily’ in order to falsely depict Black Americans as ‘failing’ due to their own faults rather than the US’s structural inequalities. Moreover, this myth also plays on tropes that dehumanize Asian-Americans themselves by stressing attributes like ‘work ethic,’ and implicitly, ‘obedience,’ while denying Asian-Americans personality, imagination, sexuality, or any other quality that doesn’t directly contribute to being a productive member of the workforce. The press often described basketball player Jeremy Lin not as ‘talented,’ but as ‘hard-working’ and ‘humble’—the classic Chinese Harvard grad, praised by one nameless internet commenter for being “too respectful” to call out racism, respectfulness being a quality he valued in Asians. 

Moreover, there are just so many of us! In the popular imaginary—from news media outlets to fetishistic shots of ‘teeming’ Tokyo in films—a major image of East Asians is of the hordes: China’s booming populations, endless streams of factory workers, robotic overachievers flooding your Ivy League schools, the streets of East Asian cities filled with always-moving business suits. One often hears jokes about East Asian tourists on vacation swarming out of their buses and following their guide’s umbrella in some sort of hive behavior. This trope of the ‘unending tide’ combines with that of quiet industriousness to render East Asians unseen faces in a sea of (uniformly black-haired) similarity. In an article on Asian-Americans in Hollywood, sociologist Nancy Wu is quoted as saying, “I feel we are invisible in society. We are nondescript and in a way dehumanized by not existing in scenes or even having speaking roles. We are just part of the backdrop.” The ‘yellow peril’ is one of identical multitude. 


Soo Joo Park, meanwhile, is now L’Oréal’s first Asian ambassador. She is neither invisible nor a ‘model minority,’ but a supermodel. When she opened for Just Cavalli’s FW ’13 “Asian Fusion” show (in which she and Ming Xi were the only non-white models), she was one of the designer’s inspirational photos. Park says she is often compared to Daul Kim, the ‘Korean Kate Moss,’ who, before committing suicide at age 20, also reached the height of her fame after dying her hair bleach blonde. Park’s story is a singular one. Although the number of East Asian models is slowly increasing, very few reach celebrity status (and still, her fame does not approach that of natural blondes like Cara Delevingne). She is an exception in a time when East Asians—not to speak of Asians in general—are drastically underrepresented across the entertainment and arts industries. In almost every profile of Park, her success is attributed to the color of her hair. In an interview with makeup brand Glossier, she admits, “I know that I get perceived as a different person. People think that I’m more eccentric, open, or adventurous, but it’s really just the hair.” 

In the face of oppression that forces East Asians into an existence of invisibility through sameness, hair dye is a potent option to distinguish themselves. It enables them not only to appear physically dissimilar from other East Asians—to stand out from those masses—but to flaunt an expectation of nondescript-ness in favor of a bold aesthetic. Dying one’s hair an ‘unnatural’ color—like getting piercings or tattoos––smacks of rebellion, and rebel is exactly what a model minority is not supposed to do. The choice of blonde is not accidental.

For me, at least, rainbow colors like blue, pink, or purple were out of the question. I didn't want to ‘look anime’—I’d had enough exotifying encounters with white lovers of Japanese culture even without cartoon-color hair. There are also hair trends more or less exclusively popular in East Asia I could have chosen to mimic, such as the reddish-brown color pioneered by trendsetting Japanese women in the late ’90s, and which today can be seen on many a K-Pop star. If I had been simply bored of my hair color and feeling like teen rebellion, I could have chosen such a color, but it would have tied me more strongly to East Asian culture—exactly what I was trying to escape. 


In the same interview for the Cut, Soo Joo Park says, “I don't see myself as an Asian model. I think part of the reason I bleached my hair was that I didn't want to be typecast as an Asian model, I wanted to be me.” I’m not chastising East Asians who bleach their hair; in the face of marginalization, people make choices in order to thrive (socially, and, in Park’s case, economically) and express themselves in a way that feels exciting and authentic. People have the right to do what they wish with their bodies. But I am wary of the brand of liberal politics that encourages consumption (of makeup, clothes, hair dye) without any consideration of the context in which so-called ‘self-expression’ takes place, and its consequences. It's an oversimplified understanding of ‘choice’ that appeals to the fashion industry and that should not be taken up uncritically. Especially when racialization encourages distinct modes of perception through appearance, aesthetic choices are not made in a vacuum. Of course, the totality and complexity of individual decisions can never be described by generalizations or a single factor. Still, in a racialized world, hair is never just hair, and blonde is never just a color. 

Olivia Kan-Sperling B’20 is dreaming less bleach blonde, more Blake Lively golden waves.