As the end of the year approaches, we Mexicans flock to beauty salons to make ourselves a little blonder and look “fixed” for the holidays. We ask for highlights that frame the face and illuminate the skin, to make us look thinner and clearer. Less tight, more blonde.
The obsession of Mexican women with lightening their hair is rooted in racism and classism, two closely related phenomena internalized in our culture. In Mexico, having blonde hair, fair skin, and light eyes is the epitome of desirable physical characteristics and is associated with the highest social status one can attain. It is synonymous with power, prestige and wealth —with the exception of some descendants of European migrants in rural towns such as Chipilo (Puebla), or San Rafael (State of Mexico), who are contemptuously called “ranch güeros”. Don’t get confused.
The obsession of Mexican women with lightening their hair is rooted in racism and classism, two closely related phenomena internalized in our culture.
Discrimination is expressed by a historical accumulation of disadvantages for indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples, which begins in colonial times. During the expansion of the Spanish empire, the indigenous populations were racialized, establishing a hierarchy with the purpose of ideologically justifying their total domination. The best social positions were reserved for Europeans and that meant that the differences in New Spain’s society were based on caste and not class.
In the 19th century, the imperialist boot of several of the countries that had colonized a large part of the world from the 15th century onward stomped on the already independent Latin American nations. This implied, among other things, that European models greatly influenced the collective imagination.
By the second half of the 19th century, almost all countries were faced with the dilemma of what to do in terms of the conformation of their respective ethnic nation, because two or more races coexisted within their national territory. So, the Mexican elites devised and managed to implement a solution: that the incarnation of the ideal characteristics of the nationality would be the mestizo population, the product of two bloods and cultures, the indigenous and the Spanish. This project hid the existence and persistence of racism for decades and made Afro-descendant populations invisible in particular.
In recent years, studies that relate skin tone to socioeconomic variables such as education, employment, income level, and social mobility have gained relevance. According to the most recent bibliography, the population with dark skin tones is exposed to higher rates of poverty and unemployment, as well as worse health and schooling conditions.
Those with lighter skin have a higher education and concentrate the highest economic income, according to the report life and skin color from El Colegio de México, which analyzes the four main surveys in the country to understand the role that skin color plays in the lives of Mexicans. Also, the results show that it is easier for people with lighter skin tones to climb socially than for those with dark complexions.
Racism is transmitted and reproduced culturally. In 2011, as part of the campaign Racism in Mexico, 11.11 Cambio Social carried out a research work replicating an experiment designed by Kenneth and Mammie Clark in the 1930s in the United States. In it, interviews were conducted with Mexican girls and boys about the qualities they attribute to two dolls, one white and one brown. In most responses, white is the pretty, good, trustworthy, and wanted-to-be-like guy, while brown is the opposite.
It is also, for example, in the representation of brown, indigenous and Afro-descendant people in cinema, television and advertising as violent, grotesque, clumsy, ignorant, barbaric or hypersexualized figures, in contrast to the protagonists and other wealthy characters, generally played by actors with Caucasian features.
Discrimination is even so internalized that we manifest it on a daily basis with the constant repetition of popular racialized stereotypes, such as that of “dark but pretty” babies, which anchors racist discourses in the subconscious from an early age and transforms them into a collective social aspiration. find strategies to “improve the breed”.
It is in this process of racialization that physical features become relevant as criteria for discrimination and social exclusion, turning them into determining factors of social inequalities. That is, personal characteristics, such as skin tone, become predictors of socioeconomic destinations. Poverty has a brown face, while the elite continue to look white. Thus, the brutal inequality of our society is natural to us and even inevitable: the poor must be because they are different from the rich, from their very physical appearance.
Personal characteristics, such as skin tone, become predictors of socioeconomic destinations. Poverty has a brown face, while the elite continue to look white.
We cannot change our skin color, but we can change our hair color. For centuries, we have turned to natural remedies to lighten hair, from rinsing with chamomile tea to sunbathing with beer or lemon. The dye market in our country is huge. Not for nothing, in 2018, the L’Oréal Group chose Villa de Reyes, Mexico, as a strategic point for the largest hair dye production plant in the world in terms of production capacity.
An indicator of the racist character of a part of Mexican society is the widespread use of blonde hair dyes, in a country where the vast majority of the population is brown and dark-haired. According to a 2005 L’Oréal study, only 3% of Mexican women are natural blondes. Instead, chestnut is the most common color. However, only 20% of the female population retains its original color.
In the absence of current studies in this regard, we conducted a small survey on our Instagram account (@allthingshairmex) in which 25% of women who dye their hair confess to doing it blonde. Judging by Google searches, the “balayage blond” and the “ash blonde” are the most popular technique and tone, respectively, with 40,500 monthly queries.
We Mexicans want to be blondes because we constantly aspire to our European past, but also —it must be said— to get closer to the gringo dream. In Mexico, so much American content is consumed that it is impossible not to look at yourself in the same mirror. But it’s mostly a question of status: When we asked readers why they chose blonde in our survey, a common response was “to see me clearer”. And we already know what that means: a taste of white privilege.
Of course, reflecting on why we do what we do is the first step in transforming racist discourse. The way that societal expectations drive our decision-making around our bodies, emotions, and appearance has a direct effect on how we present ourselves to the world. Who do we want to look like and why? There must be a conscious exercise to delimit what belongs to our individual values and what does not, in order to avoid an attempt to replicate an aesthetic that perhaps has nothing to do with one’s own. More than ever, beauty is political. And a güera from a ranch says it.