Pitman, Joanna 1963–
Pitman, Joanna 1963–
PERSONAL: Born 1963. Education: Graduate of Cambridge University.
ADDRESSES: Home—London, England. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 38 Soho Square, London W1D 3HB, England.
CAREER: Journalist. Times, London, England, bureau chief in Tokyo, feature writer, photography critic, 2000–. Worked for SAIDIA (medical aid charity), in northern Kenya.
On Blondes, Bloomsbury (London, England), 2003.
SIDELIGHTS: British journalist Joanna Pitman's On Blondes is a history of yellow hair through the ages, beginning in 360 B.C. when, she speculates, Praxiteles used his mistress, Phryne, as a model for a statue of a blonde Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans). Audrey Snowden commented in Library Journal that the book "serves more as an intriguing cultural expose than a strict analysis."
Pitman experienced the power of being a blonde while working both in Kenya, where she was thought to have special powers of healing, and in Tokyo, where people reached out to touch her tresses. When she returned to London, her hair returned to its natural-light brown color. When she decided to write her history, she began by bleaching her hair blonde in order to determine if it would make a difference on the streets of London.
Alan Riding wrote in the New York Times that Pitman's "surprised husband remarked that she looked like Andy Warhol but, more significantly, when she stepped out into London, she felt different. 'I got wolfish looks from men and complicit smiles from blonde women, who seemed to acknowledge my beacon-like hair as if I was now a member of an elite club,' she writes, recalling that she was suddenly given preferential treatment at the market as well as at the London Library. Her new look also made her feel 'younger and, strangely, more positive.' And she muses: 'After awhile I wondered whether I could afford not to be blonde.'"
Pitman notes that among white American and northern European women, only one in twenty is a natural blonde and that in the urban West "one in three white adult female heads is dyed a shade of blond, be it honey, platinum, ash, 'dirty pillow slip' or any other color from our rich lexicon of blond shades." Pitman reveals that Queen Elizabeth I went from auburn to blonde as she aged. Princess Diana, who spent a considerable sum maintaining her look, grew blonder as she grew older, as did Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Karyn L. Barr noted in Entertainment Weekly that when Thatcher went lighter, she "gained respect from foreign statesmen who were attracted to her 'uncompromising blond helmet.'"
"Biblical blondes included the temptresses Eve and Mary Magdalene," commented Angie Schiavone in the Sydney Morning Herald Online. "The clerical opposition they incited faced complications when—prompted by the visions of St. Bridget—the Virgin Mary was perceived as having been blonde. This convergence between vice and virtue added another facet to the cultural meaning of blondness."
During the seventeenth century, dyes fell in price, making it possible for anyone to become a blonde. Consequently, the wealthy favored dark hair and increasingly complex and expensive wigs. During the reign of Louis XIV, artists such as Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Vermeer celebrated dark hair on canvas. Later, blondeness indicated purity and virginity, as depicted by the nineteenth-century folk tales of the brothers Grimm. Pitman covers the celebrities who were noted for their flaxen hair, from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna. She writes that 1930's screen siren Jean Harlow destroyed her own hair with a mixture of ammonia, soap flakes, and ammonia, and then had no choice but to wear a platinum-blonde wig.
A Publishers Weekly critic wrote that "the examples may sound a bit frivolous, but Pitman takes great care to treat the topic with a serious edge, particularly in the second half of the book." Pitman writes that in Nazi Germany, soldiers were ordered to establish relationships with blonde women so that the hair of Germany's population would become lighter. A Kirkus Reviews contributor felt that the study "raises some serious questions about ethnicity and status in the world today."
Andrew Motion wrote for the Guardian Unlimited that, on the serious side, Pitman's "passages on Elizabeth Forster-Nietzsche and Wagner, and on the Nazis in general and the Lebensborn project in particular, provide the political answer to the fashion questions she asks at the end of her book: 'Are those who blond themselves still subconsciously seeking to distinguish themselves from darker and less-powerful ethnic groups? Are dark-haired women, equally, still blonding themselves in order to "pass" as members of the white Anglo-Saxon power elite?'" Motion noted that, with the exception of the Aryan references, Pitman does not say much about blond men or whether their experiences are different from those of dark-haired men.
In a review for the New York Observer Online, Erica Jong explained that "the ancient Romans so prized blond hair that they sheared Germanic slaves to make blond wigs for their Mediterranean-looking noble ladies—emulating, of course, the very people who would eventually overrun the empire. The irony is appealing." Jong felt that Pitman's history "raises many interesting questions about fashions in beauty in a world where the races increasingly mix and intermarry. We have seen full lips replace rosebud lips as the standard of feminine beauty. Will other changes in the ideal come out of the mingling of races? Already, many of our goddesses of beauty are coffee-colored and yellow-haired. It is fascinating to speculate on the changes in store." Booklist contributor Patricia Monaghan felt that Pitman's "engaging style only highlights the appeal of this combination of history, folklore, and shrewd cultural commentary."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, February 15, 2003, Patricia Monaghan, review of On Blondes, p. 1023.
Economist, March 8, 2003, review of On Blondes.
Entertainment Weekly, March 7, 2003, Karyn L. Barr, review of On Blondes, p. 76.
Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2002, review of On Blondes, p. 1829.
Library Journal, February 15, 2003, Audrey Snowden, review of On Blondes, p. 159.
New York Times, March 8, 2003, Alan Riding, review of On Blondes, p. B9.
Publishers Weekly, February 3, 2003, review of On Blondes, p. 65.
Guardian Unlimited, http://education.guardian.co.uk/ (March 29, 2003), Andrew Motion, review of On Blondes.
Sydney Morning Herald Online, http://www.smh.com.au/ (May 30, 2003), Angie Schiavone, review of On Blondes.