THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL
“Who are these people?”
This was a question posed by one of my bridesmaids as we stood next to the dance floor at my wedding reception. I looked out and saw the usual assortment of gyrating bodies and small groups laughing, sipping cocktails.
“What do you mean? Who?”
“The Dutch guests”—she made a sweeping gesture with her arm that encompassed the entire room—“are all beautiful. It looks like you hired models.”
I laughed. “Actually, a couple of them are, or were, models,” I replied, pointing out a childhood friend of my husband and another man and woman, all Dutch. But as I looked around the rest of the room, I had to admit—taken as a whole and individually, the Dutch guests were amazingly attractive. Definitely above the American average.
Now that I live in Amsterdam, I can confirm that it wasn’t just my wedding reception (though I do think that my husband happens to have some friends who are “really really ridiculously good-looking,” to quote Zoolander). The Netherlands as a whole seems to have way more than its fair share of fair people. And I mean “fair” in every sense of the word—light in complexion, beautiful, and fair-minded. We’ll leave aside fair-mindedness for the time being, though, to focus on purely superficial qualities.
Besides a few tribes in Africa, The Dutch are the tallest people in the world. The average height for men is just shy of 6 feet, and the average height for women is just over 5’6”. Many Northern European nations are tall—the average heights in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway are all close behind the Netherlands. Tall Germanic ancestors and a high standard of living in all of these countries partially explains their great lengths, but scientists can’t explain why the Dutch seem to have kept on growing (though their heights finally appear to be tapering off).
Whatever the reason might be, it certainly makes for striking people, especially in combination with fair coloring. It’s like living in a city of Vikings who have traded in their traditional garb of horned hats and animal pelts for modern-day T-shirts and blue jeans… jeans with really long inseams.
The Dutch are not beautiful just because a lot of them have light hair and eyes, either—it’s that, dark or fair, many people here seem to have the symmetry of features that is widely considered beautiful, regardless of skin or hair tone. That said, I do see countless shades of blond on the streets of Amsterdam every day, from the rosy-cheeked platinum blond children to the women biking by, long legs pedaling, their thick, honeyed tresses cascading down their backs. Not fair, I think. Not fair to be so tall and slim, with what I now call “fairytale hair” and startlingly blue eyes. I echo my bridesmaid’s sentiment in my head often—who are these people? And why are these recessive traits (blond hair, blue eyes) so prevalent in the Netherlands and the rest of Northern Europe, and so rare in most of the rest of the world?
I did a little research, and learned that light hair, skin and eyes are all traits resulting from low amounts of melanin. In sun-scarce Northern European countries, pale skin may have evolved as a way to help people absorb enough sunlight to make vitamin D. (People with darker skin generally didn’t do well in places without lots of sun; they got rickets and died). And because the genes for hair, eyes, and skin appear to be somewhat related to one another, the hair and eyes got lighter as the skin did.
The second theory is that blond hair and blue eyes are the result of two separate genetic accidents that both occurred about 10,000 years ago, and then spread through the population via sexual selection. Originally, everyone had brown hair and brown eyes. Then, somewhere along the northwest coast of the Black Sea, one individual had a genetic mutation that resulted in blue eyes. This rogue gene did not “make” blue pigment in the iris; rather, it turned off the mechanism that produced brown melanin pigment. Blue is what you see when there’s no brown. Likewise, the mutation in the gene for hair color also turned down the signal for melanin production, resulting in lighter hair[i]—blond is what you see when there’s less pigment.
Incidentally, that’s how bleach works—hydrogen peroxide removes pigment from your hair. The more pigment is bleached away, the lighter your hair will be. As they do the world over, many women here, and even some men, highlight their hair. While many people in Holland are blond as children, their hair usually darkens at least a few shades by the time they reach adulthood. Still, though—I have peered at many a blond head on the street. Even if the hair is highlighted, the base color often isn’t much darker. Look at the hairline; examine the eyebrows. With or without salon assistance, a lot of these people are natural blonds.
My husband, to my surprise and endless delight, has his own highlighting story. (Blond as a child, his hair is now a light brown). When he was 16 years old, his school class took a trip to Rome. He and his friends had heard that the Italian girls were especially enamored of blond-haired guys, so he and some friends decided to highlight their hair before they went.
“You highlighted your hair? Yourself?” I asked, incredulous. I don’t know any guys that have highlighted their hair, at least not any that would admit to it. And I definitely didn’t realize I had married one. “With what?”
He shrugged. “Some kind of peroxide solution,” he said. “It was the day and age of the Backstreet Boys—Nick Carter,” he added, as though this explained everything. (Nick Carter, a singer, was the youngest member of the Backstreet Boys. He had a butt-cut—cheek-length hair with a center part—and his hair was highlighted in an extremely un-subtle way. He was, however, very cute).
I laughed. “So you guys wanted to look like Nick Carter?”
He snorted (a touch immodestly, I thought). “We already did look like Nick Carter. We’re Dutchies; we were already blond. But, we figured, the blonder, the better.” He winked.
“So did you pick up lots of girls?”
“We were 16—the point wasn’t necessarily to pick up girls; it was just to get the attention of girls.”
“Ok, well, did you?”
He grinned. “We did.”
Though I am generally drawn to darker coloring in others, the allure of blond hair is certainly not lost on me. Blond as a child, my hair darkened to a light brown by the time I was eight or nine. The summer I was thirteen, a neighbor friend—I’ll call her Jenny—and I tried to highlight our hair. She’d read an article in Seventeen magazine extolling the bleaching properties of lemon juice and salt, and after camp one afternoon we headed over to her house to test it out. Standing in her kitchen, we earnestly squeezed lemon halves and sprinkled salt over each other’s heads, as though we were dressing filet of sole. Then we lay in the sun next to her pool, hoping our matted, crispy tangles would turn golden. A few sweaty, sticky hours later, I headed home, washed the concoction out under the shower, blew my hair dry, and stood hopefully in front of the mirror. Nothing.
We called each other to discuss our results.
“I think it’s a little lighter,” she chirped, tentative but hopeful. “But… it’s kind of hard to tell.” Jenny was half of Italian descent, a beautiful, popular girl a year older than I was. She had brown eyes and brown hair that naturally streaked golden in the sun while her skin effortlessly tanned. She really didn’t need the lemon juice to begin with.
“Yeah,” I was leaning forward, inches from the mirror, examining my head with the obsessive fervor that only a teenage girl can muster. “It’s really hard to tell.” I was not popular, and I didn’t tan very well at all. I needed this to work.
Unsatisfied with the Seventeen method but ultimately undeterred, I went to CVS and bought a bottle of Sun-In. (For the unenlightened: Sun-In was a popular product in the mid-to-late nineties that was basically a mixture of water, hydrogen peroxide, and a flowery scent that only half-hid the pungent smell of the peroxide. It cost about seven bucks.) I carefully saturated a few pieces around my face; when they touched my cheeks, my skin started itching. The instructions said to “relax in the sun or blow dry.” I’d be damned if I was going to spend any more time sweltering in July humidity for nothing; I locked the bathroom door and put the hairdryer on its highest heat. At first, it was disastrous: the strands turned an unfortunate shade of orange. Panicked, I consulted the label again; it said to put in more “until the desired shade was achieved.” Too late to turn back now! I repeated the process, and it actually worked: I had my first blond highlights. I had a rash on my cheeks and a scorched scalp, but I had highlights. Looking back, I am amazed that my hair did not fall out of my head on the spot.
I used Sun-In, or something like it, every so often throughout high school to get the “sun-kissed” look promised on the packaging. I must have gotten pretty good at applying it, because in the photos from those years, my hair (miraculously) doesn’t look orange, and my skin and scalp appear to be unharmed. In college I started professionally highlighting it, which is of course what anyone should do if they want to change their hair color without looking like they lost a bet. Except for a brief stint in my mid-twenties when I was too broke to afford it, I’ve been highlighting it ever since.
“But your natural color is so pretty,” my mother would say. “Why don’t you just leave it be?”
“My natural color is boring!” I would reply. Since my hair wasn’t raven-dark, or otherwise remarkable in any way, I figured it might as well be blond. I clung to the fact that I was blond as a child as proof that I wasn’t totally faking it.
Once I moved to Amsterdam, the jig was up. Any illusions I harbored about my own “natural” blondness were shattered in the presence of so much actual natural blondness. In fact, being blond didn’t seem so special anymore. I dyed my hair brown and started to let my natural color grow in. I should add that I was also miserably pregnant, and I wanted a hair color that did not call to mind sunshine and happy days. I wanted it dark, to reflect my general first-trimester crankiness. Sure enough, though, I got tired of waiting for it to grow in, and after the baby was born I went back to highlighting it.
Regardless of what they look like and what color hair they have, one thing is clear: the Dutch don’t spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about, or fussing over, either their individual appearance or that of their countrymen. One of the key things you have to understand about the Dutch character is that it is frowned upon to think you are better than somebody else, for any reason. Did you happen to be born looking like Doutzen Kroes (a Dutch Victoria’s Secret supermodel)? Well, don’t get on your high horse.
By contrast, in the U.S., and especially in New York (birthplace of the metrosexual man), people are quite preoccupied with appearances—both their own, and other people’s. And we tend to fawn over those who are considered aesthetically blessed. Often, upon meeting a beautiful or handsome person, the first thing mentioned to others about the encounter later will be the fact that the person was beautiful or handsome. That’s not true in Holland. People naturally notice other people who are good looking, but they generally don’t comment unless the person is a real stunner—which would practically make them a god or goddess to an American. Moreover, the Dutch don’t focus on the way someone looks—even if the person could conceivably grace the cover of a magazine, so what? If your average Dutch person ran into Doutzen on the street, they would treat her exactly the way they would anyone else. They might even go out of their way to ignore her, just to drive home the point that she is not special just because she happens to be drop-dead gorgeous.
At first I thought people here might be oblivious to each other’s good looks because they all seemed above average to me—an “if everyone’s beautiful, then nobody is” situation. That could play a part, but I think it’s more that the Dutch are simply too practical to be easily seduced by something as fleeting, and randomly apportioned, as the pleasing arrangement of someone’s features or the luster of their (golden) hair. I, however, am not at all immune, and spent the first few months here swiveling my head to stare at men, women and children everywhere I went. If the objects of my admiration had known my thoughts, they probably would have been flattered, but also slightly bemused. Maybe they would even have responded with a thought stream of their own: You do know that looks don’t ultimately matter, right?
Well, everyone “knows” that. But intellectually understanding an overarching truth is different from understanding your everyday experience. And in my experience, looks matter more to your average American—and WAY more to your average New Yorker—than to your average Dutch person. So it’s refreshing, if baffling, to live somewhere where nobody really cares whether you look like Gisele or the hunchback of Notre Dame. Get in line. Beauty or beast, you’ll have to wait, just like everyone else.
[i] I am oversimplifying these explanations a little—there are obviously many different shades of every color of hair, as well as many different shades of blue, green, hazel, and brown eyes, and that has to do with multiple alleles, the presence and absence of specific types of melanin, and certain gene combinations.