Blonde Vs Brunette Science: More #metoo for Blondes?

Blonde women are arguably the most sexually objectified and stereotyped women, but could this equate to more #metoo scenarios for blondes? Women often report experiencing increased attention and harassment from strangers ‘as a given’ when going blonde. With an increased level of sexual attention and harassment, do women with blonde hair (from the bottle or not) have a greater risk of sexual assault than brunettes?

My First Day as a First-Time Blonde…

Yesterday I was a brunette. Using the magical powers of bleach I am now a first-time “blonde” (#silverhairtrend). It’s only hair…right? I immediately learned my error the moment I exited the hairdressers!

The streets felt different: there was immediately more regular catcalling and leering, and it seemed like the creep/stalker factor definitely went up a very hefty notch. I mean, being a woman (#metoo), unwanted sexual attention is certainly not unusual, but at this frequency (#nonstop) and extra level of invasiveness…really?

I had no idea that blonde women have it this bad.

Why? Is it just me? Or do all blondes get harassed more on the street…and beyond? Should I be brushing up on my Krav Maga? Is it time to invest in my first pepper spray? If in doubt, research!

What Research Says…

Question 1: Are Blondes Stereotyped as Sex Objects? Sources say YES!

There are no statistics released regarding hair color and rates of harassment or sexual assault. One thing research has made clear is that blonde women are more sexually objectified than brunettes, i.e., reduced to a sexual object, rather than being seen as a full person. Similarly, research strongly demonstrates that the greater the sexual objectification the less deserving of respect a woman is considered to be.

Looking at the brain, research suggests that women that are more sexually objectified are considered less human in the male brain. In one study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience entitled “From agents to objects: sexist attitudes and neural responses to sexualized targets”, 21 heterosexual men viewed short 200 millisecond flashes of images showing sexualized and fully-clothed men and women while in an fMRI brain scanner. The higher the men scored in tests of hostile sexism, the less activity in brain regions associated with social cognition and mentalizing there were when passively viewing images of sexualized women as compared to looking at sexualized men or clothed women. Relatedly, studies have found the processing of sexually objectified women to resemble object processing in male viewers, where as women viewers process sexually objectified men more like other human beings.

As reported in both qualitative research and popular media, some women who have been on both sides of the peroxide bottle report more encounters with strangers (as a blonde) where they feel: more like an object, are presumed to be dumber, receive less respect, are taken less seriously, and receive aggression more readily than when they are brunettes.

Tired of being a sexual object in the workplace, accomplished CEO Eileen Carey says that she made the decision to dye her blonde hair darker to fend off unwanted sexual attention, to be taken more seriously, allowing her to be perceived as the strong business leader that she is.

She is not alone. This ‘going brunette to escape the blonde stereotype’ trend is echoed in a qualitative study of the challenges facing female undergraduate engineering students. One student refused to return to blonde hair from fear of negative treatment from her male peers:

I don’t want to go back to being a blonde because I feel like I’m getting enough grief as it is as a woman. I feel like honestly, a woman with blonde hair, they just take you like a stereotypical Barbie. I feel like the brunette gives me a little more power. They [male peers] seem to take me more serious.

Question 2: Are Blondes harassed more by strangers? Initial sources say YES!

Empirical research exists on what makes blondes more attractive. For example, one study found that men (on average) judge women with blonde hair to be ‘significantly’ younger- and healthier-looking. Findings from other studies include blonde women being perceived as more popular and less intelligent than brunettes (i.e., the dumb blonde stereotype), especially so for platinum blondes. But research asking if or why blonde women are sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted more is nearly nonexistent. At least for peer-reviewed research.

Although certainly not highly controlled experiments, some modern-day superwomen have come to science’s rescue with their own blonde Vs brunette experiments.

One such woman is Devin Lytle, a lifetime-long brunette, she dyed her hair platinum blonde to conduct her own set of social experiments. As generally echoed in more hardcore science, she was seen as more attractive, got more tinder swipes, and was viewed as sweeter and less uptight than her native brunette alter ego. Importantly, this seemed to come hand in hand with getting more catcalls on the street (three as a blonde and zero as a brunette, despite wearing the exact same outfit).

Hayley Quinn, another natural brunette, did three social experiments using a blonde wig (a chivalry test, a tinder test, and a street attractiveness test). She couldn’t even get started with street experiments without being approached as a blonde. Although there was no “catcalling experiment” per se, her personal experience was that:

I love being a brunette, it’s easier and nicer. But if you want to go blonde we can definitely say that blondes might not have more fun, but they definitely get noticed more, definitely get approached more, and definitely get judged more.

Some very early research from the 1980s supports our DIY scientists, concluding that objectified women—and by extension, blondes in particular—are subject to more sexual harassment, sexual coercion, and unwanted sexual attention in public spaces by strangers. Today, in research settings, the tendency towards female harassment has been shown to intensify simply by showing men videos that objectify women—which is not rare for blondes in popular media.

Question 3: Does the objectification and dehumanization of blondes increase risk of sexual assault? It does for objectified women generally, why not blondes!?

Although context is always king, its fair to say that the blonde woman stereotype is one of the most, if not THE most, sexually objectifying and therefore one of the most dehumanizing of all the hair color stereotypes. But is this dehumanization a prelude to violence and increased risk of sexual assault?

Research undoubtedly shows that dehumanization as a consequence of sexual objectification has dire consequences. This is pretty evident in research on rape perceptions, where sexual objectification increases victim blaming and diminishes rapist blame in cases of stranger rape. Just like a torturous death of an animal can be seen as less torturous if the animal is considered to be for food object, the sexual assault of a woman is seen as less of an assault if the woman is considered to be sex objects—like blondes—making them more vulnerable to violence.

In some studies, men with hostile or aggressive views toward women are more likely to objectify. In reverse, if a man tends to view women more like animals or objects they are more likely to be sexually aggressive towards women. The latest study showed that sexual objectification increases physical aggression toward women without provocation (i.e., even if there is no negative behaviour that could provoke aggression, if you’re seen as a sex object, aggression towards you is generally higher). It doesn’t look good for blondes.

Although currently there is no direct research exploring causal relationships between women’s hair color, associated stereotypes, and rates of harassment or assault, connecting the dots between the early evidence makes it clear we would be “very blonde” not to do so.


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Image via artursfoto/Pixabay.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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