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On Blondes, by Joanna Pitman

From dung to peroxide: all the fun of the fair

I've just returned from Tenerife, where almost every woman – Spanish or tourist – was sporting blond highlights. There were more hairdressers in Playas de las Americas than supermarkets. Looking at all the lovely locks, I couldn't but be envious, so I joined the queues in the salons and became a blonde myself.

All I had doused on my hair was a tube of peroxide. One of the fascinating facts to litter On Blondes is that women have been so desperate to achieve a golden hue that they have resorted to concoctions containing arsenic, urine and pigeon dung.

Only 0.001 per cent of adults are naturally blonde, but we'd all like to be. Why? Joanna Pitman says it's quite simple: sex and power. Women become more desirable and powerful when they fake their hair colour. Princess Diana transformed herself from mousy Sloane to model by spending £4,000 a year having her hair bleached. When Madonna turned blonde, sales soared; her first album as a non-brunette, True Blonde, sold 20 million copies.

Pitman skillfully navigates the complicated history of our addiction to fair hair, skipping through the centuries with an elegant touch. Starting with Aphrodite – "the first universal blonde" – she moves through the Middle Ages (when blonde wigs were burned as licentious) to Lucrezia Borgia and the blonding of Elizabeth I.

Blondes didn't always have most fun. In 1920s America, "dark, lustrous curls or smooth, glossy expanses of straight raven hair had been the ultimate expression of feminine beauty". Blonde hair was associated with "low-class promiscuity". One of Pitman's many eminently quotable anecdotes is how, at a Hollywood party in the early 1930s, Jean Harlow asked Margot Asquith how to pronounce her first name. She replied" "The 'T' is silent, as in Harlow."

Pitman argues that the colouring of our capillaries is an important part of political history. Roosevelt's New Deal went hand in hand with the increasing popularity of hair dye; in an age of optimism, the incorruptible blonde became a symbol of America's superiority. Shirley Temple, who wore her golden curls like a halo, tap-danced the public out of the Depression. Elsewhere, Stalin and Hitler endorsed blondeness as a means of expressing national hegemony. It came to symbolise health, heroism and racial purity.

A book on blondes has to lead to Marilyn Monroe. Punks may have tried to subvert the image, but Monroe's luminescent candyfloss hair endures as the archetype. She may have feigned silliness, and today's blondes have inherited the legacy in dumb-blonde jokes. Pitman treats us to a couple: why do blondes have "TGIF" on their shoes? Toes Go In First; what do you call a blonde with two brain cells? Pregnant. But there cannot be a woman who can honestly say she wouldn't want a little of what Monroe had.

I have to confess that being brunette was a bore. I feel happier, younger, sexier and pleasantly light-headed with my highlights. Being blonde is not just a look, it's a whole way of life. This lady, at least, prefers to be blonde. I'm thankful to Joanna Pitman for explaining why.